Critic in the Newsroom

By Joyce Hoffmann

Journalists are a notoriously cynical and suspicious lot. They are also inclined to be thin-skinned in the face of criticism. I certainly harbored those shortcomings during my 20 years writing for daily newspapers. So when I was invited to sign on as the first truly independent public editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in 2008, I understood the wisdom in the publisher’s words of caution. “Your success,” he told me when I agreed to take the job, “will depend on the good will of the newsroom.”

While individual reporters certainly respect individual professors and often turn to them as expert sources, in most newsrooms, academics are generally viewed with skepticism at best. And journalism professors occasionally are the object of special scorn. We are perceived as too ready to criticize, too facile about talking-the-talk without ever having to walk-the-walk. When, after all, do we ever meet a daily deadline? And all that scholarly drivel we write, with all those footnotes. Who reads the stuff? To be sure, undercurrents of anti-intellectualism shape those judgments.

Academics, of course, also harbor a few less than flattering sentiments about journalists: they are mistake-prone sensation mongers who too often get the facts wrong. Besides, reporters practice a mere trade; all they really care about is selling newspapers. Lapses in grammar, spelling and word usage are especially egregious to my colleagues in the English Department. To be sure, undercurrents of snobbery underlie that attitude.

Having left the newsroom and entered the classroom two decades ago, I find great fulfillment in the latter, but at times still miss the former. That made the invitation to become public editor irresistible, in part because it would put me back in – or at least near – a newsroom for the first time since the mid-1980s. Moreover, I had long esteemed my local newspaper for its commitment to self-examination.

The Virginian-Pilot named its first public editor in the mid-1970s; it was one of the handful of American newspapers to do so at a time when one-newspaper towns were becoming commonplace. As part of the family-owned Landmark Communications empire, the paper took seriously its responsibility to readers. In national journalism circles, having a public editor was a mark of distinction. It stood for a willingness to be held accountable at a time when journalists were widely perceived as excessively smug and unwilling to answer for their mistakes. Certainly the press critic Ben Bagdikian had it right when he wrote in a postmortem of his work as ombudsman at The Washington Post, “The idea is slightly crazy – an institution paying someone to criticize it in public.”

That’s what The Pilot began doing in 1974, first with a succession of full-time employees and then, in 2008, when the job was handed to me, with an outsider, someone independent of the news staff and the owners. I would, in my coming year of service, as the then-editorial page editor promised when he introduced me to readers, “monitor how capably and responsibly The Pilot news staff serves its public mission.”

I found newsroom staffers to be on heightened alert right from the start. Unexpectedly, however, my debut column bought me good will. Just two days into my tenure, unfathomable news broke and it worked to my advantage. The multi-billion dollar Landmark conglomerate was being put up for sale. The news was seismic, akin to the Sulzberger family announcing the sale of The New York Times. After more than 100 years and three generations of family ownership, the Batten family was selling.

That news of the decision, hatched just one floor above the newsroom, broke first in The New York Times was especially galling to Pilot staffers. Daunted though I was at the prospect of taking on CEO Frank Batten Jr. in my first column, the issue was unavoidable. In his public statements, Batten had seemed to me to be more concerned with the interests of his stockholders than with his public responsibility to readers or the concerns of his employees. Because Landmark was a privately held corporation, Batten had no legal obligation to disclose any information, I wrote. However, in an apparent effort to thwart his own reporters, Batten certainly failed to apply the standards of transparency to his own business that his newspaper routinely brought to its scrutiny of others.

Many Virginian-Pilot readers were astonished that such self-criticism was allowed to appear in print. And because my observations echoed sentiments harbored by newsroom staffers, my stock seemed to soar with almost all news employees. At least one staffer, I learned, was avoiding me for fear of being labeled a snitch. It marked my first, but by no means my last, moments of disbelief and hand-wringing.

My policy was to distribute my column prior to publication to anyone whose name it contained. (Well, almost anyone. It never occurred to me to show that first column to the CEO.) If my work was destined to make someone ripping mad on Sunday morning, there was little to be lost by having that happen on Friday. It was a gesture that connoted respect for my subjects and put other sets of eyes to work in the search for errors. It also led to a few uncomfortable Friday afternoons.

Having to defend my characterization in a later column of the then-publisher as “prissy” was especially excruciating. He called me at home to express his displeasure. “This is what we hired you to do, but I don’t like it when your criticism is directed at me,” he declared in a voice devoid of humor. From my perspective, however, that was the way to characterize his decision to overrule judges hired for the annual Landmark-sponsored student art show. The publisher declined to sanction the judge’s first prize selection – a nude self-portrait painted by a 17-year-old. A second judge’s first prize choice – the only other nude in the show – also was rejected. The ensuing brouhaha left eyes rolling all over the region. In the end, I changed “prissy” to “prim.”
My columns certainly displeased reporters on occasion but beyond some awkward moments, those whose work I criticized never stopped talking to me. The closest I came to that was with the top editor whose wrath I provoked in a column in which I questioned whether news content was being sacrificed for graphic design and suggested that space was best filled with words rather than art.

Those prickly responses, however, were dwarfed by the vitriolic feedback from online readers. While I had, on occasion, been skewered by letters to the editor a quarter of a century ago, cyberspace is the wicked West. One reader asserted that the very definition of university professor made me a liberal, a word hurled forth as invective. Angry readers on both sides of the last presidential contest fulminated about how the newspaper had “allowed rabid conservatives” to denounce Obama or expressed disgust with its “one-sided cheerleading for the Democratic party.” One reader insisted that anyone who accepted my post-election defense of our coverage had to be a dimwit.

As my year wound down, I beseeched the front office to stick with the plan for a yearly rotation of public editors. Now more than ever, with the future of newspapers appearing to be so tenuous, readers needed this touchstone, I argued. But, unfortunately, this was not to be. Initial assurances melted away as the calendar paged toward December. Still more newsroom cuts had been ordered and economics dictated that the job be cut.

Sadly, it was left to me to announce in my final column that in the face of diminished advertising revenues and a shrinking news hole, the public editor would become yet another victim of the transformation besetting newspapers in the infancy of the digital age. In the newsroom, the announcement may have been greeted with a sense of relief.

Joyce Hoffmann is associate professor of journalism in the ODU Department of English. She is the author of “On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam” (Da Capo Press, 2008).

Quest Winter 2010 • Volume 12 Issue 2