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Jan 22, 2009

How does The Age publish a column 'in error'? Here's how

Part of the lesson of the Backman controversy is about the continuing importance of sound sub-editorial judgement, writes Margaret Simons.

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Picture The Age newsroom at the end of silly season. To be clear, picture it on the afternoon and evening of Friday 16 January, the day on which the column by Michael Backman made its way in to print resulting, as I reported yesterday, in horror, embarrassment and apology.

Today more details of how the column made its way to print have come to light. The account below has been stitched together from half a dozen sources observing the action, although several of those who know most are not talking.

It’s not putting it too strongly to say they are devastated by the events of the last week.

This is, as newsroom stories so often are, a story of cock-up and not conspiracy.

Here is the scene. Key people are on holiday, including the business editor, Michael Short, who has extended his leave by another week, leaving a hole to be filled. The editor of the paper, Paul Ramadge, is also on holiday.

The staff are in any case depleted and demoralised — hoping for the best for the newspaper, yet reading daily about the demise of the business model that has throughout their careers subsidised their journalism. Just two days before, this report had predicted more dramatic falls in classified advertising. There have been redundancies. More are expected.

In the quest for greater efficiencies, sub editors have been reorganised so that most are subbing across the paper — not only in their areas of speciality. On the business desk, a few senior specialist subs remain acting as a check, but most copy is sent to a common pool.

On Friday there was not time to think about the grim prospects for newspapers, or even to winge, because for the silly season it was a big news day and everyone was flat out. An aeroplane had made a crash landing on the Hudson River in New York.

The one day international cricket match between Australia and South Africa was on at the MCG, and the pressure was on to get the latest possible results in to each edition of the paper.

On the business desk, the big story of the day was the continued unravelling of the Storm financial group — a complicated and sensitive yarn that was taking up the bulk of editorial energy.

Nobody in particular was thinking about the time bomb waiting in the copy queue — the regular column by Michael Backman. He had been controversial in the past, but in this case the sub-editors thought the column was a bit strong, but okay to run.

The evening wore on. It was a big paper. The Backman column was read by senior staff, but did not get close attention.

It was only after some of them had left the pressures of the newsroom that key phrases came back to them, and alarm bells rang.

Very late — after the first edition had hit the streets and moments before the deadline for the second — the Saturday editor of the paper, Michael Gordon, was alerted to the fact that the Backman column might be a problem. In the first edition, already out, it was made worse by an inflammatory headline.

If it had been pulled at that stage there would have been a hole in the paper. There was little that could be done in the time available. The headline was rewritten, and the column marked clearly as opinion.

The edition hit the streets and the almost immediately the brown stuff hit the fan. Ramadge returned from holiday to find the Jewish lobby filling his inbox, his message queue and by Monday afternoon, his office. On Tuesday the paper published its apology.

What can be learned from all this? Evenings like last Friday occur in newsrooms all the time. There is a reason one of the leading textbooks on journalism practice has the title The Daily Miracle – as in it’s a miracle there aren’t more stuff ups.

There are meant to be checks and balances in place to make sure that bad stuff doesn’t get in to print.

One of the crucial checks and balances is the sub editors. This is what non-journalists in management so often fail to understand. In a scenario like this, it is the sub-editors you rely on to save you from embarrassment and worse.

In this case, I hear that the subs on the business desk at The Age are still arguing that the Backman column was all right and the Age had no reason to apologise for running it. As anyone who has read the comments on my blog after yesterday’s post can see, they are not alone in this view.

Yet part of the lesson of the Backman controversy is about the continuing importance of sound sub-editorial judgement. The column should surely have been flagged as needing careful treatment.

Another lesson might be how to choose your columnists. This, apparently, was not the first Backman column that needed firm sub-editorial treatment to make sure it could not be seen as racist.

Finally, the column ran on the business pages, yet this was really a piece of commentary on international politics. It had nothing to do with business.

On the normal op-ed pages of the Age, articles dealing with sensitive issues like what is happening in Gaza are subjected to rigorous scrutiny and discussion. The bar is lower in Business.

So these are the events that the Age tried to sum up by saying the column was published “in error”.

You could say nobody was to blame.

You could say everyone was to blame.

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