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Observer: Readers’ editor defends paper’s use of private investigator

Earlier this month, Journalism.co.uk reported that the Observer would be seeking to distinguish between the case of ‘Operation Motorman’ and the phone-hacking scandal, after ‘confusion in the media’.

Operation Motorman was an investigation launched by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2003 into the use of private investigators to obtain personal information, claiming that evidence documented “literally thousands of section 55 offences” (Data Protection Act) with more than 300 journalists identified.

At the time the Observer released a statement to say that yes, the Observer has used the services of an outside agency in the past, “and while there were strong public interest defences for most of those cases, it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criteria”. As a result editor Roger Alton said action was taken to ensure “no inquiries will be made through outside agencies unless I believe that there is a compelling public interest to do so”.

However, following recent events in the separate phone-hacking investigation and speculation surrounding this, the Observer this weekend published a piece from its readers’ editor Stephen Pritchard, reinforcing its position that there “has never been any suggestion, let alone evidence, that the Observer has undertaken, commissioned or in any way been involved,” in phone hacking.

In relation to the issues surrounding Operation Motorman, current editor John Mulholland is said to have confirmed that Alton’s previous instruction “stands today”. Pritchard also outlines the sorts of stories journalists were using the services in relation to:

Former reporters told me they were working to uncover illegal arms deals, drugs trafficking, Islamic terrorism and political intrigue; stories they believed to be in the public interest that went on to appear in the paper. They said that the names that turn up in [Steve] Whittamore‘s register were people who would be, in the main, hard to find; individuals who would not make themselves available for interview. They felt it was right that they should attempt to find those people and put allegations to them. Sometimes, they would be up against tight deadlines and would use Whittamore because he was quicker at finding phone numbers or converting numbers into subscriber addresses.

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#IWD: Why do men dominate newspaper letter pages?

It has always fascinated me why male names dominate the readers’ letter pages in newspapers, the original home for crowdsourced comment. What’s more, it’s a trend that plays out online too: men are already significantly noisier on Google Buzz, for example, and dominate online comment in subjects like politics and media.

I was pleased to discover around this time last year that the unequal gender split bothered one @patroclus too (aka writer Fiona Campbell-Howes) who actually set about documenting the trend in 2008 with the blog Guardianletters.blogspot.com/.

She never got any real answers from the newspapers she studied and eventually she let the blog run dry. But the old posts are still there to see, with some revealing graphs, too. The chart below, for example, shows the percentage split between men, women and indiscriminate for April-May 2008 at the Guardian and Observer.

Most recently, the theme was picked up by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in January 2010.

“Why is the letters page, of whichever newspaper you care to choose, invariably dominated by men?” the programme asked. The Observer has actually called for more women to write in.

Jenni Murray talked to Stephen Pritchard, readers’ editor at the Observer, and Sarah Sands, deputy editor of the London Evening Standard. Pritchard and Sands seemed to agree that time was a crucial factor – maybe women had less of it. Sands also identified a reluctance on the part of women to declare their opinion publicly.

But does the lack of time and innate modesty theory really hold true, when we look at the amount of female time spent, and number of views shared, on MumsNet, or fashion and food blogs and forums?

I’d be interested to see some more research in this area. It’s a theme that journalist Gaby Hinsliff picks up on in her introductory post for today’s International Women’s Day themed LabourList. Of political blogging, she says “there are too many women waiting to be invited to blog, where men just pile in”.

Like Hinsliff, I’m reluctant to see female-only gimmicks used to remedy the situation, but simultaneously intrigued by the louder male voice, a phenomenon that may be key in understanding why men dominate executive boards across so many industries. Yes, we have a lot of female journalists in the newsroom, but only a handful of women make it to the top levels of the media industry – and even fewer become CEO or editor.

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How did readers react to the Observer relaunch?

February 22nd, 2010 | 3 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Newspapers

It was goodbye to the horoscopes and hello to the New Review, but did the Observer readers like the newly relaunched and redesigned Sunday paper? You can see around 200 comments (at the time of writing) under editor John Mulholland’s introductory piece here. Guardian.co.uk editor Janine Gibson thanks users for feedback and assures them that all comments will be read. Stephen Pritchard, the readers’ editor also jumped straight in with some responses.

Here is some other Observer reaction as seen on Twitter:

“New observer is amazing – fashion, recipes, Chat articles, what polly vernon bought + a news section” (Robin Ince, comedian)

“It nearly achieved the impossible. selling a smaller product for same price. but very crowded esp review and the mag a mess..” (John Mair, Journalism lecturer)

“@nickcohen2 there’s no room for me! what’ll go in the pages that were full of AR this week btw? is it ≈ long columns by you?” (former Observer political editor, Gaby Hinsliff)

“The Observer have lost me as a reader, I have been buying this paper for as long as I can remember, but what they did yesterday was shameless” (LindaMarric, Labour supporter, student – and former reader)

“It’s interesting how the Observer‘s Brown story is snowballing when the relaunch seems designed to pave way for The New Review viewspaper” (Laura Slattery, journalist)

“The new Observer seemed to be almost entirely back to front. What were they thinking? Desperate Times indeed.” (Richard Cree, editor of Director Magazine)

I liked the new Observer – can they keep up the content though? (Andrew Howell)

First thing they teach you in editing school: mess with the horoscope at your peril. Do The Observer know something we don’t? (David Hepworth)

What did you think? Please leave your own thoughts below, or tweet to @journalismnews.
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Editor&Publisher: Bill Keller says future of NYTimes’ public editor still ‘much debated’

August 5th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Newspapers

Bill Keller has responded to the New York Times’ public editor’s unflinching critique of errors made in a piece about Walter Cronkite by Alessandra Stanley, as part of a Q&A with James Rainey from the LA Times, published in full on Editor & Publisher.

Keller suggests that the public editor’s position is still ‘much debated’:

[James Rainey]

Q: Has the public editor helped build the Times’ reputation, or done more to knock the paper’s reputation down? It may help to address this question both as it pertains to this particular episode and, more generally, over the brief history of public editorship.

[Bill Keller]

A: On balance, I think the fact that we offer a paycheck and a platform to an independent critic to second-guess our journalistic judgments is good for, pardon the expression, the brand. I don’t always agree with our public editor, but I think he is fair-minded, his reporting is meticulous, and his targets – as in this case – are usually fair game. He doesn’t just blow raspberries. He tries to explain how bad things happen, and he reports what we are trying to do to avoid future mistakes. Whether a public editor should be a permanent, or at least continuing, fixture at The Times is a question much debated within our walls. I’ve kicked it down the road until we near the end of Clark’s term next year.

UK-related:

Journalism.co.uk is aware of full-time newspaper ombudsmen at the Guardian [Siobhain Butterworth] and the Observer [Stephen Pritchard] and yesterday learned that Sally Baker is feedback editor for the Times. Does anyone know of any other UK titles with full-time and independent readers’ editors? And do those without one need one?

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The Observer: ‘Painful decisions’ about what it can print as advertising revenue and circulation fall

Readers of the Observer might have noticed that the paper no longer prints a full television guide each week. Many have written to the paper to complain. One said that a full guide would be ‘infinitely preferable to part two of a Spanish or Italian CD, which is both incomplete and of absolutely no use to me.’

Yesterday Stephen Pritchard, the readers’ editor for the Observer, part of Guardian News&Media, explained:

“The figures are stark. With advertising revenue set to plummet 26 per cent this year and circulation down 6.9 per cent on last year, the Observer, like other newspapers, is having to make painful decisions about what it can afford to print. Loyal readers have displayed remarkable forbearance recently as the news, business and sport sections have gradually slimmed down but they could contain themselves no longer when the TV guide disappeared.”

(…) “This is not a decision we took lightly and it is a source of real regret to us,” wrote the editor, John Mulholland, in reply to complainants. “This was just one of the host of difficult decisions we have had to make in recent weeks. Newspapers and media groups are facing the most difficult trading conditions imaginable. Not only are we suffering from the catastrophic fallout from the credit crunch in terms of severely reduced advertising revenues but, additionally, our industry is undergoing structural change which is causing enormous disruption.”

Full story at this link…

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