January 7, 2009 10:46 AM
Response to media critic Jason Salzman
Rocky Mountain News contributor Jason Salzman has posted on his own blog a media criticism column we rejected, saying "I didn't think the column I submitted Thursday was so bad that it would be rejected."
His claim is surprising. As Jason knows, we regularly discuss his topics early in the week and have told him on many occasions that they're not developed enough or that he's missing an angle or that they don't fit the job description of what he's supposed to do. And we have vetoed proposed items several times. That's part of editing a newspaper. I have killed one of my own columns after concerns were raised by another editor. I took them into account and decided he was right. I have killed the columns of other Rocky writers for a variety of reasons. And we, of course, hold columns if we think they need more work before publication.
Last Wednesday, Jason was told by the editor who handles his page that his proposed column was not acceptable and he should try a different topic. Jason kept pushing and the issue came to my desk because the editorial page editor was on vacation. I told Jason in no uncertain terms that I supported the thinking of his editor.
Jason then revised the column and submitted it to me, with the following note: "Hi -
I've written another draft of my column below. It's toned down, focusing on what has not been reported. I emphasized that a decision to close the Rocky has not been made. I think readers deserve to know what the Justice Department could conceivably do, if a premature decision to close the Rocky is made. I think this is a reasonable topic the media column. Jason"
Just to be clear: I don't think this is a reasonable topic. And even if it were, I don't think you've done a good enough job with it to merit publication. You haven't done enough homework nor are you well informed enough. But that's not the key thing. Go back and look at your job description. This is just you, with little information or research, giving us your point of view. That's an opinion column. We can get plenty of those. This isn't what we're paying you for. We're actually looking for analysis of media coverage. That would involve looking at how news organizations cover events and providing some perspective on it. This doesn't do that.
Either try again on a new topic or take the week off.
Jason then replied:
Hi John -
One of the ways I am allowed to critique news coverage is to point out omissions and add new facts that haven't been reported. I've written here about a major omission on a huge story, no?
And I responded again:
Your basic premise of a major omission is false. From the first day both papers have made it clear that the justice dept has a role in the drama that is playing out.
However you have done so little homework that you don't test one of the basic assertions Scripps made on the day of the announcement. That was that they could have been there to close the paper that day. If you had spoken to lawyers who had actually worked with the justice dept on such matters you would have learned that the owner could have acted first and notified later. You would also have learned that an owner has many more options than the black and white close or keep running. I could go on and on about the problems with the column but don't think that would be worthwhile.
Jason, in my view you have struggled to understand your role from the get go. But in this case you're way off base. I will not run this column. It does not meet our journalistic standards.
Jason's premise is outlined in the second paragraph of the column he submitted:
"...in the case of the Rocky Mountain News, which is up for sale and facing possible closure, we've seen no (emphasis added) reporting about what the government could do to help the daily."
In the Rocky the day after the announcement, a separate story covered that very issue, outlining the role of the Justice Department and the Newspaper Preservation Act. The headline was "1970 newspaper preservation law has shown mixed results, 16 of 27 joint biz agreements have failed over the years."
Here's a link to that story.
The Post published its own story on the same topic on the same day, with the headline: "Breaking up can be hard to do for papers."
Here's a key section of that story.
Should Scripps fail to find a buyer that MediaNews can live with, the two companies will most likely negotiate an exit strategy with The Post as the surviving newspaper, experts predict.
In past years that might have raised the ire of the Justice Department, but (Media competition expert Stephen) Lacy said the government will probably stay on the sidelines given the tough economic climate. "The reality is that the Rocky is losing money. You can't force somebody to keep a paper open and lose money," Lacy said.
Jason in his proposed column quotes the same expert and acknowledges that he's correct, but concludes:
"Still, readers deserve to know what can be done if a premature decision to close the paper is made."
The concept of a "premature decision" is pure opinion. It has nothing to do with the actual coverage by the local media. I don't believe that readers of either paper are confused about the matter. The experts say an owner can close a paper. What can be done afterward is cold comfort.
Jason has the right to post his writing in any way he sees fit. But the Rocky has journalistic standards and didn't believe his column on this topic met them. We never give up the right to edit any submission to the Rocky or any article by a staff member.