And if you err now, we'll throw in a free 2-week vacation...
You've probably figured out by now that I am not jockeying for a position at The New York Times. But I must admit that the newspaper's innovative new discipline program for errant reporters is tempting me to lower my standards and reconsider: reporter Rick Bragg, who, unlike me, actually won the Pulitzer Prize, is now being punished with a two-week paid suspension after it was discovered that an intern who contributed to one of his articles last year was not credited. No word on what prize, if any, the intern has been awarded as compensation. Though I wouldn't object to being paid for two weeks of not working, I don't think I'd qualify because I'd have to make an exception to my policy of attributing and crediting my sources. Now if they'd throw in airline tickets to a warm, beachfront place, and a nice hotel to go along with it....
The more traditional newspaper penal system, however, focuses not on paid leave but memos. For decades, at least, most newspaper transgressions have been punishable by memo: sometimes memos that the errant reporter or editor is required to write, or even more often, memos that the entire staff is required to read. And despite the Times's new punishment plan for some, it appears that memo discipline continues to thrive there. Media watchdog Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute is collecting those memos so that we all can participate vicariously in the Times staff's punishment.
Even though the memos weren't sent to me, per se, I'm taking the liberty of answering some of the questions in them, in hopes that I, too, might win one of those two-week paid vacations myself.
In a May 22 memo published by Romenesko, Allan M. Siegal, who heads "The Siegal Committee," formed to "conduct a comprehensive review..." in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, asks:
How widely has responsibility been shared until now? How widely has information been shared among newsroom managers about prospective hires? What is our screening and interviewing process? How widely has information been shared among managers about rejections, and the reasons? How should these things change?>>
I don't know about how you share responsibility or information, but I do have a couple of suggestions about your screening process for new hires.
a) Instead of choosing somebodies-who-know-somebodies, or the best young graduates of the best schools, consider reporters whose mommies and daddies might not have had the wherewithal to send their children to those schools, whose mommies and daddies might not even know anyone at the Times, and who might not even know anyone there themselves. Consider those not only of different skin tones, but of diverse backgrounds, backgrounds that may not include even a single college class. Consider applicants of all ages as well. Open your doors to actual diversity, not just a color-coordinated palette of the affluent well-connected all trained to think and act alike.
b) Drop the physical examination required for employment. It obviously missed whatever problems Mr. Blair had, so why continue wasting the money you're spending invading potential employees' privacy like that? If physical prowess or specific abilities are necessary for the job, then please continue those exams, but if not, let the physical go the way of the old Knight-Ridder Newspapers' job application question, "Do you climb stairs two steps at a time?" Focus your scrutiny and resources instead on all the other aspects of the applicant's fitness for the job.
Next question, please:
<<ASSIGNMENTS AND CAREER TRACKING
How widely do we communicate present and foreseeable needs? How do we communicate the availability of assignments? Do those (supervisors and managers) with knowledge get a chance to advise on a potential assignment?
How do we track the aspirations of current staff members? How do we counsel them on realistic expectations and on what they can do to qualify? Is this effort interdepartmental? Who in the newsroom can authoritatively speak for management about the realism of an ambition?
Is the system transparent? Does Staffer A know that Staffer B is preparing for a foreign assignment? Does Staffer A understand why Staffer B was chosen?
What's our procedure for making spontaneous temporary assignments out of town or abroad? Does that process systematically consider staff members' ambitions? When time permits, are our needs made widely known? Could they be? Are the lending and borrowing desks systematically informed of the staffer's performance record? When the assignment is complete, do we write an evaluation?>>
Without answering all those questions specifically (I don't know about yours, but my readers do have other things to do today), I can tell you that every news organization I've ever worked for has had a Golden-Boy system, and from what I've heard, yours does, too. The Golden Boys are usually marked from the moment they arrive for priority handling throughout their careers, either because somebody who knows somebody recommended them, or more often because they are themselves somebodies who know somebody. You can easily spot the Golden Boys: they're the ones who go to lunch with the editors and/or publishers. While it is possible for a newsroom nobody to become a Golden Boy, not by going to lunch but usually by happening onto a story much bigger than any that would normally be assigned to a non-Golden non-Boy, that sort of alchemy doesn't happen often. One easy way to increase the non-Golden staffers' chances would be to require editors to choose their lunch companions at random from a pool that includes the whole staff, not just the usual suspects.
<<APPRENTICESHIP AND INTERMEDIATE PROGRAMS
How do we recruit and hire for them? How do we promote out of them? Is the process more or less rigorous than for regular hiring? How do we decide on terminations during the program? Is the process transparent to our staff? Are the results transparent to our staff? Is the scorecard known to the staff?
Just what is the connection - and/or the separation - between intermediate programs and diversity programs? Are the standards for admission, graduation and termination the same for all races/ethnicities/genders, and does our staff understand that? How can we safeguard both diversity and fairness as these programs go forward?
How can we keep our staff aware that "intermediate" does not equate with minority or diversity and vice versa?...>>
I won't pretend to know how your internal machinery works, nor will I attempt to reconstruct it the way Times media writer Jacques Steinberg reconstructed the big staff meeting he wasn't allowed to attend. (What, no two-week paid vacation for that?) And I admit I have no idea what you mean here by "intermediate." But if you're using that word as a euphemism for "fair-to-middling" on the assumption that the only way to achieve diversity is to admit and even advance the more mediocre members of any minority group, then you need to go back to the dictionary, look up the word "diversity," and write us another memo on that specific topic. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, please.
How do we routinely prevent errors? How do we respond to them when we learn about them? Are our desks uniform in their policies and procedures?
Is accuracy considered adequately in our personnel actions - performance evaluations, raises, discipline? Are we uniform among departments? Does the staff understand our standard?
Is our threshold for printing corrections too high or too low? With small errors inevitable, are we sending a bad message when we let corrections accumulate even on the records of high-performing staff members? What alternatives are there? What are others' best practices?>>
OK, first you find the guy who said this on national television a few weeks ago:
"This system is not set up to catch someone who sets out to lie and to use every means at his or her disposal to put false information into the paper."
His name is Howell Raines, and he needs more than a two-week vacation. He needs to spend at least two weeks doing nothing but opening the mountains of press releases, media kits and 8-by-10 glossies that come into your news organization every day, and then he needs to spend another two weeks going to press conferences, and two weeks after that listening to and reading nothing but statements from politicians, and then he needs to spend two more weeks writing a memo explaining what he's learned about how much of the business and political world's resources are devoted to putting false or misleading information into the paper. After that, another two weeks for the memo detailing a new system for catching "someone who sets out to lie and to use every means at his or her disposal to put false information into the paper."
Now to your specific questions: No answer to the first three, no to the fourth ("is accuracy considered adequately in our personnel actions...?"), and a big "NO" to the fifth, "Are we uniform among departments?" and sixth "Does the staff understand our standard"" -- that is unless everyone is entitled to the aforementioned two-week paid vacation punishment.
I can't say whether your threshold for printing corrections is too high or too low -- sometimes you print the ones I send in, sometimes you ignore them, and that seems to have little to do with whether you actually erred or not, like the time when you credited Knicks basketball great Earl "The Pearl" Monroe with the 5-string accomplishments of banjo-picking pioneer Earl Scruggs. Are you sending a bad message by letting corrections accumulate even on the records of high-performing staff members? If they've got a bunch of corrections accumulated, then just how high-performing are they? What alternatives are there? I'd suggest redefining "high-performing." What are others' best practices? Most organizations traditionally punish by memo.
How open are we to tips from the staff? And from the public? Is there a system for following up? How do we prevent a tip or suspicion from being ignored? How do we respect the rights of our staff while being conscientious about following up suspicions of inaccuracy or deceptiveness?
How do we treat our phone callers? How will we treat them a month or a year from now, after turnover in our clerical staff? Do we have enough people assigned to this work? Is it the first function to go when we tighten staff size?
Should we do a periodic or continuing random telephone check of story accuracy? Can we afford the staffing cost of this?
How do other papers handle this? How should we?
Some newspapers mail an accuracy questionnaire randomly to a sampling of people who figure in their stories. Would we?>>
How do you treat your phone callers? Try this experiment: Gather up a random group of volunteers who do not work at the Times or know anyone there. Give them the Times's main number and see how many, if any, of them can figure out how to get through to a human by calling it. Hire all those, if any, who succeed: they'll make excellent investigative reporters. Should you do random telephone checks of story accuracy? Can you afford that? If you can't afford not just random but regular fact-checking, you really ought to stop calling yourself "the newspaper of record," but then you ought to do that in any case, especially since you've been expunging the record of all freelance contributions ever since you lost the Tasini case in the United States Supreme Court, just because the freelancers you had stolen from wouldn't give you all the rights to their work for nothing so that you could charge them and everybody else to read it.
Some of the recent Times memos seem to answer each other -- one asks "Should we have an ombudsman?" while another announces the appointment of the new ombudsman, so at this point we'll back out and let the memos duke it out amongst themselves for awhile.
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @10:21 AM