Fairfax has hailed its appointment of a Sydney Morning Herald readers’ editor as a “milestone in Australian newspaper publishing”, but media experts fear it will be little more than window dressing.

Michael Gawenda, former editor of The Age, says he is disappointed that the Herald has appointed a Fairfax insider – former subeditor and training editor Judy Prisk – to the role.

“Appointing a readers’ editor that is a member of staff won’t work,” he told The Power Index. “If they can’t be seen to be independent of the paper then that’s a real problem.

“They should not be a member of staff and they should not be reporting to the editor.”

He adds that the readers’ editor should investigate reader complaints and conduct their own investigations rather than act as a “glorified letters editor”.

Gawenda, now director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism, congratulates the Herald for establishing the position and says other newspapers should follow its lead. But he says the paper should have modelled the role on the New York Times’ public editor position, which it introduced in 2003.

The four Times public editors have all been high-profile external appointments serving fixed two-year terms and operating outside the paper’s normal reporting and editing structure.

UTS journalism professor Wendy Bacon says that while Prisk is a highly-respected subeditor, she would have preferred to see an outsider appointed to the “consumer advocate” post.

“Anything that brings the reader closer to the paper and gives them more input is overall a good thing, but I wonder if this is the most effective way of doing it,” she says. “It’s odd that it’s someone from inside the company.”

Read the rest at The Power Index here.

Peter Fray

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