Friday, March 26, 2004

Response from the management

Long, detailed post, which will be exceedingly boring to anyone who is not local (and to most who are), with possible exception of the final section. When/if I figure out how to do nested boxed text, will clean up the rest of the layout.

Added Nevada City Free Press response below.

more misc. minor editing, added response from Yubanet, quoted more fully from S.'s email including disputed assertions, appended resonant links and quotes. Have tried to mark more recently added original content with italics.

Editor Richard Somerville of The Union responds to recent post (March 22) which complained of insufficiently communicative small-town newspaper with egregious pre-election editorial; here I print his responses, and have the last word.

(Some of his response is quoted out of order. Links present in the March 22 post are (mostly) not replicated here. Apologies for the repeated text - wanted to provide too much info rather than too little. And if the tone sounds snippy on my part, it's not deliberate. Also, the "make it clearer, make it clearer" refrain below may just be exposing my ignorance; I haven't actually _looked_ to see if the info is there. Although if it is, nobody seems to realize it.)

Executive summary:
First section: great progress can be made on improving communication between newspaper and would-be contributor. Apparently likewise for within-newspaper communication.
Second section: reflections on editorials, facts, logic, dialog, trust, the future...

A general comment: it is good to have clarification of The Union's policies, but this clarification should go to all readers; unfortunately, publishing it on this weblog is not going to reach very many of them.

> I normally don't engage in extended email dialogue, since I get hundreds
> of emails a day and thus would be doing nothing but typing. However...

Overworked editor is deluged with reader responses, so rarely can make the time to respond in depth. But why does it work this way? Is it the most efficient use of editor's time, to make and read very similar comments over and over again? Is it the most efficient use of reader#98's time, to compose an email making a point that readers #35 through 70 already made? Wouldn't it be better if, for example, there was an online forum, where readers could see other readers' questions and editor's responses?

Because there is no transparency, it's inefficient for everyone.

For example of how transparency might work, see PressThink posts' comments. Bloggers - even journalist bloggers - bravely open up to their community in this way. (Although it's true that in Nevada County there would need to be a civility/rationality filter. It's a pity so many are on well water, there's no efficient way to medicate it...)

> > [A:]
> > Upon reading (on Feb. 12) that Grass Valley had approved a request to cut
> > down the city's historic Giant Sequoia, Mahlon and Bobbi Wilkes submitted
> > (on Feb. 17) an Other Voices column opposing this decision, extolling the
> > history and significance of the tree ("...the sequoia on Neal Street appears
> > to be surpassed in size by only one other planted sequoia in the world, one
> > growing near Madrid..."). Unfortunately, however, "The Union held [the
> > article] for two and a half weeks after we submitted it -- until the tree
> > was cut down (March 2) -- before deigning to publish it." (March 5) and "No,
> > we heard nothing [from The Union, after sending them the article] until it
> > was published".

> [S:]
> I'm always amazed at people who send in a letter or Other Voices and
> expect it to be published instantaneously, as if there weren't 50 other
> letters and a dozen other Other Voices ahead of them in line. These people
> sent their Other Voices to us at the height of the pre-primary period when
> we were having to run a lot of election-related material.

It's not clear that they had any choice as to the timing.

> They heard something from us after sending the article - we asked for
> their photos, and they declined.

Bobbi Wilkes (PhD biomedical consultant) responds:
This is not true at all. We submitted our photos with the original submission. In fact, we added a paragraph to the letter the next day and sent in a new version, to which we also attached our photos. There was never any request for photos from the Union. There was never any contact at any time.
There is a problem here. I emailed Somerville back noting this discrepancy and the one below; he responded:
If somebody has a complaint about their letter or article, they can contact me personally.

"> I'm always amazed ..."
- To translate this attitude/response from the media to a more typical business:
Our customers are foolish or obstinate... Why can't they make use of our product in the way that's intuitively obvious to us, instead of complaining that there's a problem with it when in fact they're just using it wrong?
The best response to this attitude I've seen was (roughly):
Are these users part of your intended customer base? if so, the fact that many of them are making the same mistake indicates that there's a problem in how we communicate to them how the product works and what it can and cannot do.
Suggestion: communicate with people up front as to what they can expect, and (if it's election season) make it clear that the wait will be longer.

> [S:]
> Sorry the column didn't get in till after the tree
> went down; perhaps they feel they could have stopped it. I don't, but

I expect the authors assumed that the time-sensitive nature of this article was obvious. Agreed, sometimes what's obvious to us is obscure to others.

> ..that's my opinion. Lesson: if you HAVE to have the column in by a certain
> day, let us know so we can either say we can do that or sorry we can't
> (they didn't).

How about a "So you're thinking of writing an "Other Voices" column..." section that makes all of this clear? Reduce the surprises...

> > [A:]
> > One person submitted a letter which got published without incident.
> [S: as are most]

I spoke too soon: after receiving S.'s reply, I asked this submitter if he'd received any acknowledgement from The Union. His response (emphasis mine):
As I recall, I was surprised that I didn't get the usual acknowledgment before my letter appeared in the paper.
> > Another person sent a letter, via The Union's "letters submission" webpage,
> > before the announced deadline for pre-election letters, but his letter was
> > neither acknowledged nor published. From subsequent correspondence:
> > [Submitter asks what happened:]
> > I thought your policy was to run all the letters. Anyway, is there some
> > particular reason mine didn't run?
> >
> > [The Union's representative responds:]
> > We always call to verify the letters before we put them into the paper. If
> > not, we might not have received it...
> >
> > [Submitter persists:]
> > Is there anyway to tell if the letter got there? Or, if one shouldn't submit
> > over the internet? I'd be a [lot] more comfortable if I knew someone didn't
> > zap the letter because they disagreed.
> >
> > [as of six days later, no reply from newspaper representative]

> [S:]
> All letters are acknowledged and verified upon receipt.

Apparently not always; see other submitters' experiences above.

> If the writer
> does not hear from us, then we did not get the letter (this most often
> happens online, and may be because of the sender using a bad email
> address).

So if they don't hear anything (via email or phone) within [?time period?], they should call to check?
Is this made clear on the submission form (and wherever else the "letters" email address is printed)? If not, it's another usability defect (easy to repair, which generates trust and goodwill...)

Also, the questions/concerns raised here
("Is there anyway to tell if the letter got there? Or, if one shouldn't submit over the internet? I'd be a [lot] more comfortable if I knew someone didn't zap the letter because they disagreed.")
- are valid, and were not addressed either by newspaper representative or by Editor. Surely the rep. should have been able to check that the letter was received? And the webmaster and/or IT department could (also) implement an Autoreply feature so that the sender _knows_ that their submission was received? Again, an unsurprised correspondent is a satisfied correspondent.

> [S:]
>...I try to respond to all email...

This is honorable and appreciated, but not clear ahead of time to the reader. And standards apparently differ: The Union's publisher does not always make the same effort, but AFAIK there's no way for someone to know this either. It's a black box, transparency is lacking.

> > [A:]
> > ...I sent a total of four emails over two weeks,
> > from two separate email accounts, to Union publisher Jeff Ackerman asking
> > for progressively less and less explanation (final one: "Please acknowledge
> > that you have received this and the previous emails - for ex. by replying
> > with just an ACK in the subject line, if you don't want to engage in
> > that I can know that you have received them."); Mr. Ackerman did
> > not acknowledge any of these emails. (Editor Richard Somerville did reply to
> > the email I sent him, but did not answer any of my questions.)
> >
> > (For background on the editorial....

> [S:]
> ...The key message of the election editorial relating to Ms. Diaz is that her
> late anti-Beason mailing - which certainly was her right to do - reflected
> a flawed campaign strategy. That's The Union's opinion.

I agree that the mailer's last-minute _timing_ was "a flawed campaign strategy", but I read the editorial's "key message" as being an objection to the mailer's providing excerpts of prior inflammatory and hostile writings by Diaz's opponent (he was responding to these two columns) that were difficult to reconcile with his calm, inoffensive, "nonpartisan" campaign demeanor. From the editorial: the campaign winds down, we have been disappointed that two candidates have been tempted to stray from focusing on issues. District 1 supervisor candidate Olivia Diaz's recent mailer misuses partial quotes by her opponent...
the crucial question in evaluating this judgement is, is it a "misuse" if the impression it leaves with the reader is the same impression that the reader would get from reading the full column?

> [S:]
> We offer letters
> to the editor and Other Voices columns to those who want to voice an
> alternative view, which is more than any other news medium in Nevada
> County does.

Can this assertion be backed up with examples of thoughtful, civil, well reasoned "opposing views" that _were_ rejected by Yubanet and/or the Nevada City Free Press?

I emailed Yubanet and the Nevada City Free Press in an attempt to verify it - response from Yubanet follows:
Of course we would publish a letter that disagrees with our "opinion" as long as it complies with the editorial policy described here.

The same goes for the local radio stations who both have call-in shows. It's my understanding that no call screening takes place at either KVMR or KNCO.

Received email March 30 from the Nevada City Free Press:
...we offer those with a different viewpoint an opportunity to
publish in the Nevada City Free Press just like The Union. Unfortunately, not that many folks take us up on the offer....
> As I tried to explain to you...(apparently unsuccessfully), The
> Union's editorials are the product of the newspaper's Editorial Board, not
> of any one individual. Mr. Ackerman or myself do not speak for the entire
> Editorial Board, although we can offer our personal opinion if we wish. I
> do not choose to discuss my personal political opinions because I am in
> charge of the news columns of The Union, and people often jump to the
> (inaccurate) conclusion that if I have a personal opinion, I arrange to
> slant the newspaper in that direction. Mr. Ackerman, in accord with the
> practices of publishers throughout the newspaper business, separates
> himself from the news production of the paper and thus is more free to
> offer his opinion. However, in the case you mention, I believe he
> forwarded your query to me for response and did not feel he needed to
> repeat.

nor acknowledge receipt

> But it is not policy, nor is it possible, for the Editorial Board to
> engage in an email debate with readers over editorials. Editorials are
> crafted very deliberately to say what we want them to say, and no more.

Perhaps someone could articulate why this explanation feels so unsatisfying...

> > [A:]
> > I'd really like to get responses from The Union's editorial board as to what
> > they think the ground rules for a fair campaign should be - particularly on
> > this:
> > When a candidate does grossly misrepresent himself in an attempt to fool the
> > voters, who has the responsibility to bring this to light, and how? Or is it
> > always wrong to, in Olivia Diaz's words, "let people know what the other guy
> > is doing"?

> > Anybody have ideas as to how we could get answers? If they were interested in
> > fostering a constructive community dialog, wouldn't "what's ethical and fair
> > in campaigning for and holding public office" be an extraordinarily valuable
> > topic for discussion?

I'll answer my own question: "yes"

> > [A:]
> > The Union is owned by Swift Newspapers. From the Swift Newspapers website:
> > With commitment to integrity
> > We bring light to truth
> > Excellence to endeavor
> > And strength to community

> > How do we get our newspaper to be like that? ...

> [S:]
> In my personal opinion, The Union is [as fine an] exemplar of these
> qualities as any newspaper in the country. *

Agreed on the news side, though not for the editorial pages (although they are much improved from the cesspits of yesteryear, before R.S. arrived and cleaned them up. (old style samples of letters to editor)).

But note the interesting dynamic here. Paper is criticized, examples are given. Paper is defended vociferously [warning, SLANTED HYPERBOLE ahead]:
  • We don't do those things you said we did
  • Those people should have more reasonable expectations
  • They should know what our processes are, without our having to tell them
  • We're excellent
  • Our editorials are NOT open for discussion, they (and our thought processes) are FINISHED - you can respond if you want (via email, letter to editor, longer column) but WE don't feel any obligation to address any of the points you make (because we don't want to)

i.e. the reaction seems maybe a little bit defensive and not very open to feedback or reason.

In large part this is probably a reaction to airing the issues in public - if you're used to _being_ the public forum, and thereby being in control of the community cacophany, and reserving the biggest megaphone for your own use, it presumably feels uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unjust to be deprived of that position.

But suppose you were a paragon of rationality, above all petty human emotions, with commitment to integrity, and you wanted to bring light to truth, excellence to endeavor, and strength to community - while you might respond to criticism by saying "I'm mighty fine" (it being largely correct), you wouldn't limit it to that - you'd take a look at where and how you could do better.

And two such areas are better communication (as covered above) and (yes, this is a stretch) a whole different focus to the editorial pages. What if it _was_ a discussion instead of a cacophany of serial monologues? What if writers were encouraged to back up their assertions with references? What if publishing on those pages committed you to responding to feedback? Wouldn't that "bring light to truth and excellence to endeavor"? It would certainly make for a stronger community.

Like it or not, the editorial pages are part of the paper, and the quality of discourse found there affects people's impression of the paper as a whole. As long as the editorials are poorly reasoned, suspiciously motivated tracts lobbed down from the castle parapets, the townsfolk will rightly view the paper with mistrust. A paper that fostered constructive, interactive give-and-take in a county as divided as this one still is - and that could both dish it out _and_ take it - would be the embodiment of commitment to integrity.

and flocks of prodigal subscribers would return.


Relevant links and quotes:

Cypherpunk quoted by Rosen:
I think the truth is obvious...journalism is about power, [so] it is unsurprising that input from the public is unwelcome. People are there to be molded and influenced, not to complain and argue. At best, public input is useful feedback to determine how well the journalists are exercising their influence...
Rosen on Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty:
...when customers are dissatisfied...they have three basic options: exit, voice and loyalty. Exit is when you stop...Voice is when you speak up...loyalty..."holds exit at bay and activates voice." A loyal reader of the Oregonian might well get angry at her newspaper. But loyalty means she will stick with the paper, despite that. It also means she will choose voice-- speak up, write a letter, make a call to the public editor. "To resort to voice, rather than exit, is for the customer or member to make an attempt at changing the practices, policies and outputs..."

> * [S:]
> I know this must be true [Bzzzt! faulty logic]
> because we see mirror responses similar to yours from the true believers
> on the other end of the political spectrum.

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