Friday, November 24, 2006

Why sorry is still the hardest word

The lovingly crafted front page blurb – Rescuers find plane wreckage – directed readers to page 3 to find out the latest on a mysterious crash into the Caribbean Sea off St Vincent.
Sadly, as many smart-arse readers pointed out, the story wasn’t on page 3, in fact it wasn’t anywhere in the paper at all. While newsroom battles were being lost and won and the hurly-burly done, it just got left out. Simple as that. No excuses. Lots of people should and could have seen it was missing (including me) and no-one did.
Our newsroom inquest didn’t last long and it was time to own up. Trouble is, we don’t have a regular spot where apologies, clarifications and corrections can live, so it ended up tacked on the end of the follow-up story.

A question of redress
Our paper is huge, often up to 200 pages a day, so the opportunity for errors goes up in proportion. We have all the usual mistakes – factual errors, misquoting, bits left out etc etc - but currently nowhere in the paper to redress any of this.
It has prompted me to think seriously about starting somewhere in the paper where readers can point out errors, and indeed staff own up.
So I asked the granddaddy of corrections, Ian Mayes, Readers Editor at The Guardian in London for his advice. Specifically, I asked: What is the answer to internal critics who say that a column like this is just pointing out our own deficiencies and giving the opposition fuel for mockery?
Mayes replied: “There has been very little mockery of the Guardian's column
(not to confuse mockery with merriment at some of the funnier corrections).
I suspect that the main reason is that every journalist knows that mistakes are endemic. We all make them. As someone might have said, to err is human, to correct is, well if not divine, a very good thing.

Enhanced reputations
“Its acceptance by journalists at the Guardian is indicated by the number who now email or call into my office to say there's a mistake in my piece today etc. The
Guardian's experience is that trust is enhanced by carrying corrections columns. So
overall therefore is the reputation of the journalists.”
Mayes writes Open Door, a weekly column The Guardian, and is also president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen. His daily columns are so celebrated they’ve been compiled into books.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the dizzy heights of ombudsman or book author, but I’m prepared to devise a column for saying sorry when we need to. Seems only fair.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The subs now leaving from...

As the proud owner of a number of mock-up leaving pages – including, ironically, one from the South China Morning Post – I read this story, Subs sacked over leaving page, in the MediaGuardian with both horror and fascination.
Maybe to have c**t not once, but twice, on the page wasn’t the brightest idea the two subs ever had but for the editor-in-chief to not only fire them but also send out a pompous email may also count as an, er, misjudgment.
As a fully paid-up member of the editor-in-chief club I always reckon its best to save your public bollockings, sorry b*********s, for something that really matters, aka something that affects readers.
To witter on about “there are basic standards of decency that need to be respected in any modern company, standards that are enshrined in our code of ethics” won’t do much for the good folk of Wan Chai or Chai Wan.
I for one hope the company sees fit to reinstate Messrs Ruffini and Willison; I’m sure their creativity can be put to good use in the pages of the SCMP.
PS: I had a miserable time there in the mid-80s; doesn’t seem like anything’s changed much.
PPS: Here is my latest leaving page (thanks again, Patrick), a lovingly produced one and only edition of The Geerdian. I love it and I’m sure the outgoing Sunday Post editor loves his too, c**ts and all.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When did you stop beating your wife?

No, it’s not a spoof, just one in a series of public information ads running in our paper.
Ironically, only last week at our training I introduced the famous ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ question in a session about how to handle difficult interviewees.
Perhaps I’m cleverer than I thought. Then again…

Friday, November 03, 2006

Front, left and centre

Every editor loves doing the front page. It’s got nothing to do with budgets, staffing issues or defending editorial’s corner in a management meeting (however, as you probably know, I don’t do meetings, so let’s scrub that one). It’s just journalism; what we all came into this game to do.
Some days Page One sort of does itself. There’s an outstanding picture that’s going to leap out of the newsstands and a story that will have everyone chattering in the morning.
Some days – and I confess to probably liking these more – it’s more problematic. The things we’ve been planning all day simply haven’t come off; that great picture I’d drawn on the back of the morning news list just wasn’t there and even those staples that you squint at on a dry day (political bickering, sporting excellence) just don’t cut it.
We had one of those days yesterday.
As I left the office for a couple of hours to do a session with some students at the University of the West Indies we had a tip that an 11-year-old boy had killed himself by drinking poison after being told off at school. Even in this lawless land, where life is cheap, that’s a story. The students asked me what would be on Page One tomorrow and when I related this tale there was a gasp in the room; ok, I thought, that’ll do me.
But come our afternoon news meeting nothing was clear. We had a pick-up picture of the boy and a picture of his grieving mum, but no story and no real idea of the strength of it. Other contenders were a talk with a mother pleading for her son not to be beaten up in prison (see yesterday’s post) and the West Indies getting to the final of the ICC Champions Trophy (that’s cricket, for you Americans out there). I’d been banking on a cricket pic, but they won so easily that it didn’t grab the nation like I’d hoped and picture editor Della pointed out that last time we went with cricket it didn’t go down very well. “I saw papers left on the stand,” she reported. For a paper that sells out every day that’s not good. We decided to hold off for an hour.
So, an hour closer to deadline we’re back having the same discussion, this time with the half a story that the reporter has so far written. Yes, he did drink poison and yes he is dead, as you are when you drink weedkiller lanate. However, he had a row with his brother over wearing a wristwatch and the school angle has faded away. But the reporter is anxious that we don’t go overboard on the suicide angle as it might give other youngsters the idea. News editor Curtis doesn’t think that’s much of an issue and design editor Barry is just itching to get going on the page, so we settle for

but the bottom line is too long (yes, I know, it’s easy to see now) so we end up with what you see.
Back home I’m still not very happy about leading with a suicide. People jump under trains (not here, though, because there aren’t any) and fumigate themselves in cars every day and we carefully swerve past their private grief until they turn up at an inquest, where their lives are forensically examined for all to judge.
Carol, sensible as ever, adds more dimensions. Did he really mean to kill himself, or just frighten his family? Did he actually kill himself or was someone else involved? Did he know enough about what lanate can do to you?
3pm next day
A restless night later and now at mid-afternoon I’m feeling a bit better about it. My slap-in-the-face public barometer, our Trinidad Express website, has 50 comments and none of them criticizing our decision to publish. I’ve had no calls from outraged readers. My other man-in-the-street representative, editor-at-large Keith Smith, simply says: “It was never a lead story, happens all the time.”
Ho, hum…today’s another day.
PS: As if to add insult to injury the page didn't print properly either and we ended up with a yucky, low resolution, wobbly page. Aaaggghhh

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Words & Pictures

Use everything you have to tell the story. Think about the words and experiment with the best crop on the pictures.
I am determined to keep this story at the front of public consciousness. This boy must not die in vain.