Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Regular Columns By Highest Editors Not A Good Idea; E-mail Access Should Be Limited

This is the second of six blogs on the recommendations of a New York Times panel for steps that would purportedly increase the paper's credibility. As stated yesterday, I favor three of the recommendations, support partially four others and am opposed to three. This blog discusses the first two recommendations as listed in the NYT.

I do not favor the recommendation that the executive editor and the two managing editors ought to write a regular column dealing with matters concerning the newspaper. And, in only a limited way, would I support making reporters and editors more easily accessible through e-mail.

There is, very rarely, a reason for the top editor to write a column. John Carroll has done this twice, to my knowledge, at the L.A. Times. For instance, he defended the paper's decision to publish an article exposing Arnold Schwarzenegger's passes at women five days before the Recall election. Later, he spoke critically about Fox News, and that speech was published in the Times in what amounted to a column.

In extraordinary circumstances, such columns have their place. As a regular feature, however, they take up a lot of the editor's time, they become just another column in a paper filled with columns, and, unless they are extraordinarily well-written, they threaten to become mundane. In other instances, they could stifle other views, since some columnists and reporters are inclined to give too much deference to what they perceive as the top editor's opinions.

They also can become embarrassing. For many years, the Hearsts wrote personal columns in the Hearst papers, usually on Page 1. Some, such as William Randolph Hearst's account of his 1934 meeting with Adolf Hitler do not read well today. Meeting with Hitler a few months after the Blood Purge, in which Hitler ordered the execution of some of his closest associates, Hearst wrote that Hitler had assured him he was moderating his anti-Semitic policies, and he also remarked on Hitler's popularity among the German people, even former Communists, who, he said, viewed HItler as a Moses.

Neither John Carroll at the L.A. Times, nor Bill Keller at the N.Y. Times would ever, we can feel confident, write such a column. Keller, in particular, wrote some outstanding longer columns for the New York Times before he became executive editor. Still, I do not think a regular column by the top editor is justified. Even the famed Scotty Reston, when he was an editor in New York, tried to continue his Washington column, but saw it deteriorate in quality.

Columns by the top editors should be relegated to extraordinary circumstances, at which time they will get the reader attention they deserve.

As to the suggestion by the New York Times panel that reporters and editors be made more easily available to e-mail, I think, with columnists, and at the end of a few specific articles when a mass response is wanted, this is justified, but not as a regular practice.

E-mail tends to grow in quantity as one goes on in life, and, barring a change in your e-mail address, it can in the end become stifling. In this blog, I am open to free comments, and receive some. But I do not readily make my own e-mail address available except to friends.

Even so, an extraordinary amount of my personal time in retirement is devoted to answering e-mails. And, as I remarked yesterday, at times, when I wrote a consumer column for the L.A. Times, I received 200 e-mails in a single day.

A few of these e-mails were insulting. But by and large, most of the e-mails I received were constructive, and a few even contained ideas for columns that I later decided to write. Still, they became very time-consuming.

At papers like the New York Times, with a national circulation easily exceeding a million, the danger is that too much of the editors' or reporters' time would be allotted to reading and answering such communications. In some instances, even, they could result in undue pressure being exerted on people who should be free to do their work.

Reporters, often, it must be said, are quite defensive about what they write. It would not be long, if all were made freely accessible to e-mails, that there would be e-mail writing campaigns generated against them. I think the opportunities for such skulduggery should not be made too great.

Even now, just recently, an L.A. Times reporter told me of being subject to hate e-mails. This is the dark side of the Internet, and it must be limited. Some reporters and editors even now change their e-mails to addresses not too obvious, so that the ordinary reader can't readily reach them.

In short, I think this recommendation of the NYT panel was made without sufficient consideration of the downsides.

Tomorrow: Should transcripts of interviews be placed on the Web? And should papers like the New York Times establish their own blogs?


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