As the leader of a newsroom, I strive to be as transparent as possible. Indeed, there are likely times when my team may even tire of hearing so much about what I am thinking, planning and doing.
I do it because I want to hear their ideas, and selfishly, I rely on them to be a safety net. The writers, editors and others who make up our newsroom are not shy about warning me off potential embarrassment should I start heading down a foolhardy path.
But as I err on the side of oversharing with my team, I am less communicative with a crucial component of the publications I oversee: Our readers.
I realized this last month as I sat among a group of California news publishers and editors at a conference in Sacramento. The speaker was presenting another disheartening report about how little readers trust those of us who have chosen newsgathering as a profession, if not a calling. Here’s a few of the findings of Knight Foundation’s “Americans Views: Trust, Media and Democracy.”
More Americans have a negative (43 percent) than a positive (33 percent) view of the news media, while 23 percent are neutral.
Today, 66 percent of Americans say most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. In 1984, 42 percent held this view.
Less than half of Americans, 44 percent, say they can think of a news source that reports the news objectively.
There are complex reasons for this shaky confidence in the press, not the least of which is having a president of the United States who encourages — and benefits from — media-bashing, but I think another explanation is that it may be our own fault for not adequately communicating how we do what we do.
A glaring example came in another recent survey which found that 60 percent of respondents to a 2019 Columbia Journalism Review survey think reporters pay their sources for information, something we would never consider. The only money we pay is the cost of paying for documents, or having online access to court records (which is often too high, by the way).
Whether out of arrogance or ignorance, we wrongly assume that readers understand how we do our jobs. The conference speaker, in urging media companies to be less opaque, gave this example: Most journalists think that their audience knows that if a photograph of the writer appears with an article online or in print, then, of course it is an opinion columnist. They should know this even if the word “opinion” is nary to be found.
At that moment, the concept for this column was born. Having recently returned to journalism after working as the editorial director at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for five years, I have had the advantage of being on the outside looking in solely as a reader. This gave me a different perspective and distance, as well as my share of shouting back at a biased radio report, or firing off an email to the editor of my local paper.
Yet having been a journalist most of my career, I am certain there are things that should be explained that I view as obvious, even instinctual How do we decide what news is? Do editors assign articles or do reporters go out and find them? What does “off the record” mean?
These are just some of the questions you may have.
And why wouldn’t you have questions. As one of my reporters recently pointed out, newspapers have traditions that for decades, readers understood. Now we deliver most of our news via email newsletters, our website, and social media. Yet, we are still operating in a way that may be foreign to non-newspaper readers.
That is why I am opening up this conversation. I want to know what our readers are curious about regarding our profession. What baffles you? What frustrates you? What suggestions do you have for ways we could do our jobs differently?
We will choose some questions to answer in an occasional column written by myself or the editors of our publications. We will select the questions based on relevance, and the frequency it is asked. We will answer them as transparently as possible with the understanding that some business information is confidential and we will not be able to share it.
In return, I ask that you hold up your end of the dialogue by sending constructive suggestions and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “ask the editor” in the subject column, and note which publication you are referring to.
I look forward to the conversation, and who knows, you may just help me buttress my safety net.
Deborah Petersen is the editor- in-chief of San Francisco Media Company which publishes The Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen.