You won’t see The Sydney Morning Herald second-guessing itself on its op-ed page any more. The paper has ditched its readers’ editor position after a little over a year.
Readers’ editors were all the rage among Australian newspaper bosses not long ago. Herald Sun editor-in-chief Phil Gardner said an ombudsman was on the way for his paper in 2010; staffers at The Age were told the same thing in May 2011.
Neither paper ever got around to doing it. And the one paper that took the exercise relatively seriously, The Sydney Morning Herald, has now ditched the readers’ editor position and will no longer run a regular column critiquing the paper’s coverage.
The appointment of veteran Herald staffer Judy Prisk as the nation’s first readers’ editor last August was hailed by Fairfax as “a milestone in Australian newspaper publishing” that would boost transparency at the paper. As well as liaising with readers, Prisk wrote a weekly column for the Herald opinion page addressing concerns about story selection, style and the boundaries between editorial and commercial content. She left the paper in September after taking a redundancy.
The role has been rebadged as a “community editor” and is focused on direct engagement with readers — not publicly holding the blowtorch to the paper’s belly.
“There is no reader’s editor appointed,” community editor Kathryn Wicks, formerly of the Herald’s sports desk, told Crikey by email this morning. “My job is overseeing reader engagement across all platforms, so leaders and opinion (where we set the agenda) and letters, smh.com.au comments and social media (where our readers respond) … But the only column I am doing is our ‘Last Word’ column, which is a compilation of our readers’ best comments/letters/posts each week.
“I worked with and for Judy for more than a decade and can assure you her ideals and standards are firmly planted in the minds of those who remain at Fairfax.”
The Age has appointed former state political roundsman Paul Austin as its community editor.
The West Australian, which is not a member of the Press Council, appointed a readers’ editor earlier this year to handle complaints.
Although Prisk’s appointment was welcomed by media transparency advocates, Fairfax was criticised from the start for appointing a former Herald chief subeditor to the role rather than a truly independent observer. Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes slammed Prisk in April for going too easy on the paper.
It’s altogether different in the UK and the US, where readers’ editors — also known as news ombudsman or public editors — routinely subject their publication to forensic analysis within the paper itself or on a blog.
The New York Times public editor role, created in 2003, is seen as best practice: all the paper’s public editors have been high-profile external appointments serving fixed terms and operating outside the paper’s normal reporting and editing structures. The Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent, vigorously criticised his paper’s Iraq War coverage, admonished reporters’ reliance on anonymous quotes, and took on columnist Paul Krugman for “shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes”.
SMH editor-in-chief Sean Aylmer did not respond to Crikey’s requests for comment while the Herald Sun’s Gardner said his ombudsman plans haven’t changed.