Copy Editor? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Copy Editor
A case of Original Irregular-itis: The sentence below came not from the oddly written weekly paper in Kingfield, but from the indifferently edited daily paper in Waterville. In an Aug. 11 Morning Sentinel story by Larry Grard, readers were informed that: “The Rangeley incident was not an isolated one, nor do law-enforcement officials believe one such event can be linked to another.”
Which leaves us with what other options?
A case of misplaced malice: I can understand why Lewiston Sun Journal executive editor Rex Rhoades is frustrated. Advertising revenues are down. Costs are up. The news hole keeps shrinking. And all around him, there are proclamations of the death of the print media.
But, in an Aug. 8 column, Rhoades chose a strange target for venting his anger.
He lashed out at the state’s public radio system.
“Maine Public Broadcasting repeats news from around Maine, but, 99 percent of the time, it doesn’t cover it,” he wrote. “Maine Public Broadcasting says it covers stories in depth in its numerous appeals for money … I gag every time I hear that.”
Rhoades makes the argument that virtually all the real reporting that goes on in the state is done by daily and weekly newspapers. All the lazy radio and TV stations do is wait for the Associated Press to send those stories over its wire service and regurgitate them.
He’s more or less correct. Most radio news is a rehash of what was in this morning’s papers. A lot of what makes it on TV news is a video version of what’s already been in print. Rarely does anyone in broadcasting add anything new and important to what’s already been covered by the newspapers.
Rhoades has a right to gripe.
But public radio is still a poor target. Its morning and evening news shows feature significant amounts of original reporting, sometimes on stories Maine papers haven’t covered, and other times on aspects of the news that were missed by the print media. Unlike the Sun Journal (and the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News and every other paper in the state), Maine Public Radio has a full-time reporter at the State House. Unlike the Sun Journal (and etc., etc.), that reporter is experienced in state politics and the legislative process, not somebody sent in for the day to try to sort out what’s going on.
While it’s true that public radio uses the AP wire for some of its news, Rhoades conveniently ignores the fact that the Sun Journal does, too. Its pages are filled with rewrites of stories that ran in the previous day’s Portland and Bangor papers. Like public broadcasting, the Sun Journal pays for this service because it’s impossible to be everywhere.
Rhoades has one more valid point: “If newspapers ever stop covering local news in Maine, it won’t get covered. Period. Not by [public radio] or anyone else.”
It’s true that a statewide radio network isn’t going to report on routine selectmen’s meetings in tiny towns across Maine. That’s not its job. It’s supposed to deal with issues and events that affect people all over the state. Local newspapers are supposed to handle the local news.
On those rare occasions when such coverage results in a story of importance, the Sun Journal shouldn’t begrudge its fellow subscribers to the AP wire if they want to spread that information to a wider audience. And it shouldn’t rip the only radio outlet with a substantial news staff because it’s not wasting its time hanging around places where nothing of statewide consequence is happening.
(Full disclosure: I worked for public radio for three years, departing in 1991 as a result of budget cuts.)
A case of oops: Speaking of news recycling, the Sun Journal did some of its own on its Web site on Aug, 10. No fewer than three stories that appeared on its home page were listed twice. What, nothing new to report? Maybe you should listen to the radio. (Props to “mediadog” on the As Maine Goes Web site for being the first to notice the repetition.)
A case of sorry: On Aug. 9, the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal ran an extensive correction of a story they originally published in March.
The article, which carried no byline, did a decent job of detailing what the paper did wrong – it reported a Winslow youth had pleaded guilty to a sex crime, when in reality the charges against him had been dropped – and how the mistake happened – the reporter (who’s not named) relied on a telephone call from the alleged victim’s mother that the youth had agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge. The reporter contacted the district attorney, but got no comment, because the defendant was 17, and juvenile proceedings are confidential by law. The paper made no attempt to reach the accused or his lawyer.
Executive editor Eric Conrad is quoted promising to better train journalists to prevent such errors in the future.
While Conrad is at it, he should add a couple of items to the agenda for that educational session. Here they are:
When running a correction, the readers deserve the whole story. This article doesn’t explain why the correction ran five months after the error was made. We might assume it had something to do with delicate negotiations over a possible libel suit, but we don’t know. Even if the paper agreed to keep those discussions secret, it should at least tell the public it had done so.
When correcting a grievous error, the paper should explain what consequences it suffered. Did it pay the wronged party a monetary settlement? Did it agree to let the wronged party’s lawyer review the correction story before it was published? Did that lawyer have the right to demand changes? Did it offer any other compensation, such as a guarantee to run an op-ed piece or feature story?
If this correction was the whole deal, it would be helpful to the readers to know that.
A case of a kinda, sorta explanation: In her Aug. 10 column in the Maine Sunday Telegram, editor Jeannine Guttman did something unusual. She actually tried to answer a question a lot of her readers, including me, had raised.
How could her struggling newspaper afford to send a sports reporter to cover the Olympics in Beijing when it was simultaneously laying off staff and cutting pages at home?
Here’s Guttman’s reply, which you’ll have to read here, because she doesn’t put her columns online, for reasons that escape me.
“This assignment was set in motion two years ago when we applied for credentials to these Summer Games,” she wrote. “As a part of that process, we paid substantial sums of money, up front, for hotel accommodations and other expenses. Given all the resources that we had sunk into this assignment and the powerful reader impact we knew this news coverage would have in Maine, we decided to go forward, sending sportswriter Mike Lowe to China.”
If “powerful reader impact” is created through original and insightful reporting, I have my doubts it’s going to happen. To date, Lowe has produced nothing that hasn’t been readily available elsewhere, with the exception of his personal musings on the weather, the proximity of his room to the events he’s scheduled to cover and his need for more sleep.
Sending this guy half-way around the world while claiming the Telegram/Press Herald can’t afford to staff a bureau in Augusta on a regular basis strains credibility past the breaking point.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.