It’s been a worrying start for new Canberra Times editor Mark Baker. More than six quick weeks into the job, he’s had to publish a string of remarkable corrections
in the ailing broadsheet during that time.

Last week (9 August) saw a page two correction of the most factually basic
type: the word “not” had been omitted from a report the day before about the
National Gallery of Victoria’s confirmed fake Rembrandt self-portrait from 1660. The omission had suggested that the
painting was authentic.

A week earlier (1 August), the paper had eaten big chunks of humble pie over
the biggest local story of the year in the ACT – the planned closure of 39
public schools by the Stanhope government. The Crimes, in its lengthy
correction, said it had reported that Deputy Chief Minister Katy Gallagher
“would have considered” voting against her Left faction (which opposes the
closures) at the local party conference that weekend. The report should have
read “would not have considered” voting against her faction. That pesky word not again.

Also, the paper admitted, a detailed graphic it had published the day
before had incorrectly reversed the outcome of voting on the school closures at
the ACT Labor Party conference so that it had incorrectly suggested the
closures were to be delayed.

Insiders at the Crimes say
Baker, with a distinguished reporting and editorial management record at The Age, warned staff in his first
fortnight in the capital about the errors in the paper, including a masthead
date that was a month old. But within a week of that warning, Crimes news editor Bruce Jones had to
issue the following wide-ranging email, which has not previously been published
outside the paper’s Fyshwick building:

From: Bruce Jones
[mailto:[email protected]
Sent: Friday, 21 July 2006
2:02 PM
To: [email protected];
Subject: careless
errors

More silly mistakes
are creeping into the paper. Today we had Ariel instead of Aerial cabs in a
heading, and the wrong people identified in a page 4 caption. On Wednesday we
had Kovko instead of Kovco in the page four lead heading, and calls to quizz
(quiz) the US ambassador downpage. This is
getting embarrassing.

Embarrassing indeed, especially as on that same
day Baker was talking the paper up in a detailed interview with ABC Television’s Stateline program in the
ACT. In the interview, Baker minimised the impact of
the departure of many senior or long-serving people during the troubled era of
former editor Michael Stevens, who left the Rural Press flagship suddenly in
April after four years of falling circulation, a serious credibility problem
among previously loyal readers in the capital and forced redundancies on the
editorial floor:

BAKER: I read a lot of things before
I arrived here about the place had been cleaned out and we’d lost all these
wonderful people and there’s nothing left. Well that’s just not true because
we’ve got some great people at this paper and I want to maximise the use of
their talents too.

But insiders insist the departure of
skilled sub-editing and reporting staff under the cost-cutting regime of Stevens
is exactly the problem for which the paper is now paying. The proof of that is in
the rash of corrections for basic mistakes which should not occur, and
certainly should not be repeated.

And it looks like worse is to come. Last week’s readership figures
showed another dramatic slump, the worst in the nation …
and upcoming paid circulation figures will show a further decline that
many in Canberra believe is terminal. Many here believe we are seeing the first
death of a newspaper in the new age of competition from online.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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