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Editors ought to keep their readers in the loop

By MARK PRENDERGAST | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: August 10, 2009

Readers who turned to the Op-Ed page the past few Mondays expecting to find the longstanding feature pairing columnists Arianna Huffington and Ann Coulter found something else in its stead, like this column.

What’s up?, a number have asked. My response is this column. Those who have written directly to Stars and Stripes have received the following from the senior managing editor, Howard Witt:

Thanks for your inquiry regarding the discontinuation of the regular left/right columnist feature pitting Ann Coulter against Arianna Huffington. I decided to cancel this arrangement because I felt both columnists had become stale, predictable, utterly tiresome caricatures of what thoughtful political commentators should be. In their place, we are endeavoring to publish a broad selection of smarter, richer, deeper commentaries by columnists — from both the left and the right — who are more interested in making cogent arguments than throwing provocative ad hominem bombs intended to further their own book sales, Web sites and public media personas.

Coulter dismisses Witt’s rationale as “a stale, predictable, utterly tiresome caricature of what all left-wingers say about the most popular conservative columnist in America” — a reference to herself — but that “he’s right about Arianna’s columns — they are stale and predictable.”

She also challenged Stripes to conduct an online poll to see how readers feel. [See my stripes.com blog for more of her comments.] Huffington did not respond to a similar e-mailed query from me.

It’s not my place to say which columnists Stars and Stripes should or should not publish, but I do lament Huffington-Coulter’s passing in one important respect: The feature gave two women prominence on Stripes’ Op-Ed page, a place at most newspapers where women have long and notably been underrepresented. I hope the paper will keep that in mind when choosing their replacements.

Many newspapers try to erect a wall between their news pages, whose purpose is to tell people what they should know, and their opinion pages, whose purpose is to tell them what they should think.

That wall by necessity may not be as formidable as I would like it to be at Stripes, given its relatively small and dispersed staff. But senior executives ought to try to make it as high and as strong as they can. Stripes, after all, is owned by the government, a cause for special concern and constant vigilance, especially in the realm of bias and opinion and news getting tangled up with agendas.

To try to avoid conflicts, the editorials, columns and cartoons published by Stripes are all gathered from outside sources and are supposed to provide an overseas audience with a representative range of views prevalent back home.

Stripes writes no editorials of its own and has only one Op-Ed columnist on staff — the ombudsman, whose duty by law is to monitor Stripes for journalistic independence, balance, integrity and professionalism and to sound the alarm if any appear jeopardized.

For months now, Stripes’ staff has been undergoing a reorganization. That process has included creation of a new post, senior managing editor, which Witt came to Stars and Stripes to fill around June 1. It is a powerful position, No. 2 in the newsroom, that concentrates authority over and hands-on management of all news-editorial operations.

I find it troubling that its mandate extends to the opinions that Stars and Stripes publishes on its Op-Ed pages, even if they are those of outside journalists.

I emphasize that I am not questioning Witt’s integrity, just the wisdom of investing any one person with the power to decide both what is news and which opinions on the news are expressed.

Perhaps Stripes’ top management should reconsider the breadth of that portfolio, lest the door be opened to critics who would use it to challenge the objectivity of Stripes’ reporting or the neutrality of its choices in opinion pieces.

Op-Ed columns are among a newspaper’s most scrutinized features because their very premise is argument — making one, or inspiring one. It is said that a columnist’s job is neither to be loved nor loathed but to be read, and there is some truth in that.

Columnists, whose pictures often accompany their work, also have a much greater personal connection with readers than do reporters, whose bylines are largely skimmed over unless a particular story moves someone.

Adding or dropping columnists can be a big deal for readers, whether they love them, hate them, or just love to hate them. Although editors have every right to decide what and whom to publish (or not), reader sentiments should be part of the equation. Especially these days, when newspapers are shedding readers. Especially with prominent columnists with followings. Especially when they are part of a regular, longstanding feature like Huffington-Coulter, which drew dozens of letters to the editor over the years.

Stripes readers should have at least gotten a heads-up.

On June 3, I wrote about changes to the weather page that had sparked reader complaints — and the absence of any published explanation. The editor responsible allowed that he had meant to publish a note but that it had slipped off his to-do list among myriad other tasks. I thought that Stripes would be more forthcoming with its readers after that.

Witt, however, sees such notes as problematic. “We add and drop columnists and other features all the time and I did not want to create a precedent by which we have to explain every such decision,” Witt told me via e-mail about his Huffington-Coulter decision, adding that he does not want to feel “compelled … to explain what are, in essence, subjective editorial decisions.”

I disagree. Our readers are the only reason Stars and Stripes exists. We are here to serve them, and one important way to do that is to show them the courtesy of explaining significant changes that may puzzle or irk them, like the dropping of a longtime, high-profile feature.

It was especially baffling to me that Stars and Stripes published a letter July 31 (Aug. 3 in Pacific editions) asking why Huffington-Coulter was not in the previous two Monday papers — and didn’t provide an answer. I don’t know whether the letter writer got a personal reply, but once a paper publishes such a question, it ought to publish an answer as well, for the benefit of all.

Journalists who came of age before the 21st century are not accustomed to explaining themselves to anyone, let alone faceless, anonymous readers. That was journalism’s “voice of God” era, when audiences were defined (and confined) by geography and news organizations simply dispensed news and views to people with few alternatives.

Well, that era is over. Journalism is moving from monologue to dialogue as audiences become empowered by their newfound digital reach. Savvy news organizations, scrambling to survive a host of cultural, generational, technological and economic challenges, are coming to understand the need to be more responsive. Hence, they are becoming more transparent and in touch.

Journalists, advertisers and readers can track what stories and features are most popular online. Editors and reporters now regularly discuss their work with readers via chats and blogs on their organizations’ Web sites or interact with them via e-mail, on-site forums or off-site venues like Twitter.

Yes, there is a danger of going too far and applying entertainment values to journalism — “pandering to the mob,” it’s called — but Stars and Stripes is a long way from that.

And if this episode is any indication of Stripes’ new direction, it also has a long way to go in reaching out to its readers to let them know that it cares about what they think and what they expect when they do us the honor of picking up a copy of Stars and Stripes.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an e-mail to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0945 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to Mark Prendergast’s Right to Know blog. It can be found here.