Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Followup questions for Pat Butler

Friday update: a couple more questions.

Followup to our email interview with new Union editor Pat Butler. You should read the full interview first; only the parts that elicited further commentary are reprinted here.

Formatting for this post: our question in italics, the excerpts from PB's answers in blockquote, our followup in normal text. It's still clunky; we'd like to include the whole of PB's text here too, but do it in a way that works without drowning out the followups, and we haven't figured that out yet.

Start of questions:
  • As a newcomer with nominally great power, do you feel that you owe the community a look into your head (by answering questions such as these), or do you believe it's OK to expect us to just wait and judge by your future actions?

    (While we prefer answers with less PR content, his having devoted the time to respond answers the question itself.) on the issues of the day in a fair and balanced manner.
    "Accurate" is good too. (presumably the obvious was merely overlooked, but a little belaboring never hurts.)
    The challenge, of course, is to prioritize those issues when you have a staff that includes just six reporters
    (Just an FYI, we hear there used to be eight; not sure how long ago this was.)
    What could you do better with two more reporters?
    'Great power' suggests that I make decisions in a vacuum
    Our concern is the one reflected in the aphorism "Don't piss off people who buy ink by the barrel"; you do have great power, if your publisher gives you free rein, although you're right that the wielding of it is constrained by journalistic ethics.

  • What code of ethics do your syndicated columnists adhere to? (have they provided written assurances that they're not on the take?)
    As a newspaper executive, you have the clout to extract the information that your readers need. It would be nice to know whether any of The Union's syndicated columnists are receiving undisclosed outside money, goods or services from those whose policies they write about; blanket "nothing to see now, move along, everyone's fine now" assurances from the syndicate are not convincing. What is the text of the affidavit that each columnist has signed? Armstrong Williams indicated there were plenty of others on the take; which of them appear within the pages of The Union?
    (This isn't likely to be your highest priority task, but it'd be nice to know whether you considered it worth addressing.)

  • Do you believe that telling both sides of a story is sufficient for good journalism?
    [miscellaneous characteristics]...making the story as balanced as possible...
    What is meant here by "balanced" - equality of standards, or equality of outcomes? (What's called "balance" is often really "false equivalence".)

  • On the "Chinese wall" between news and advertising/business interests...
    What will you do if attempts are made to breach the wall?

    To use an example: what would you do if, for example, the publisher were to put pressure on you to go easy on an advertiser?
    An alternative question - have you received assurances that there will be no such pressure?

  • If you learned of information that would be important to readers but costly to advertisers, what factors would you weigh, in deciding what to publish?
    Is it newsworthy or not is always the main question.
    You're saying that if it was newsworthy, but costly to advertisers, you would still publish it?

  • Traditional newspaper policy seems to be to avoid mentioning (and thereby alerting your readers to) other news outlets. Will this be your policy as well?
    I don't think there is such a thing as a traditional news policy on this matter, but if you can cite some specific examples I'd like to see them.
    You may well be right; this impression came from a newspaper person's offhand statement, but it wasn't made in a serious context.
    Perhaps it's a function of news reporting norms, which differ greatly from weblogs in this regard: searching The Union for news articles containing "Sacramento Bee" or Yubanet doesn't bring up much.
    And maybe it's because you actually do original reporting, unlike some of us...

  • Can you come up with any circumstances which would warrant a small town newspaper bringing in an ombudsman?
    Only a few of the largest newspapers in America have ombudsmen. If we add another full-time employee...

    A full-time ombudsman for a small paper would certainly be overkill. But if that paper were part of a 30-newspaper chain, or the ombudsman was a moonlighting journalism professor hired on a piecework basis...might there then be cases where it would be appropriate?
    -40- *

  • what do you see as the role, if any, of objectivity in journalism?
    Objectivity is central to what we try to do each day.
    Apologies for the poorly worded question. What do you mean by the word "objectivity"?
    (Actually, feel free to skip this question; Rhetorica's "Objectivity is not a stance; it's a process" is what we were aiming for. )

  • What do you see as the purpose(s) of journalism?
    (if more than one, could you roughly prioritize them?)
    Priorities include informing, educating, entertaining and responding to our readers' questions and concerns.
    So "informing" is top priority? (not in every single article, of course, but overall?)

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