Assistant Managing Editor Dave Greiling's Saturday column reports this morning on three winners of excellence awards at the Standard Examiner. The prizes are given by the paper's editors to "to recognize top performers in the newsroom for 2006."
The three award winners were copy editor Laura Withers, police beat reporter Jordan Muhlestein, and [the award probably of most interest to WCF readers], City Hall reporter Scott Schwebke. While praising Mr. Schwebke as a "tenacious" reporter, Editor Greiling added this:
Early in my reporting career, I covered an embattled school district and took criticism from both sides. An editor told me that since I was getting shot at by both sides, I was probably in the middle — right where a reporter should be. Scott has experienced some of that this year, in covering city hall....Leaving aside for the moment Mr. Greiling's debatable characterization of Mr. Schwebke as "tenacious," I'd like to focus on the claim that if a reporter is catching hell from both sides of a public issue, he must be doing his job well. It's a common claim by newspaper people, particularly editors and reporters. I've heard it now from two editors at the SE and from the usually perceptive columnist Charles Trentelman. And as I recall it is repeated endlessly by J-school faculty.
Is it true? Or is it just one of those self-satisfying bromides news people like to tell themselves by way of patting themselves on the back when they get complaints?
I suspect it's the latter. Let's look at the possibilities. If a reporter is catching hell "from both sides" covering a controversial issue there are at least three possibilities: (a) he is covering the matter well, but extremists on both sides of the issue are angry that the reporter is not siding with them, slanting his stories their way. (b) he is doing such a bad job of reporting the story that both sides are critical of the shoddy work (c) his work is slanted in one direction, so that reasonable people on the other side complain about the poor work, while zealots and extremists on the other side are still unhappy that it's not slanted enough in their direction.
I can understand why people in the news business like Assistant Managing Editor Greiling, and Managing Editor Andy Howell, and even Columnist Trentelman [and an endless number of reporters under fire] prefer version (a) and keep telling each other reporters must be doing something right if both sides are unhappy, but neither logic [nor I think the evidence] sustains their self-congratulatory back-patting preference for option (a).
I can also understand why the editors might feel some obligation to rally round their reporter. Standing by your people is, on the whole, an admirable quality in management. However, another goal of the editorial staff, it seems to me, ought to be encouraging excellence in the newsroom. Repeating bromides of doubtful validity and rewarding so-so work does not seem to me to be the way to raise the level of excellence at the SE, the way to make the paper's news columns better than they are and as good as they should be.
And what think our gentle readers about this?
Update 4/1/07 1:58 p.m. MT: Speaking of awards, The Salt Lake Tribune received the General Excellence Award from the Utah Press Association at the organization's annual banquet in St. George on Saturday. The newspaper also took first-place awards in investigative reporting, spot news coverage, general news reporting, feature reporting, sports column, sports reporting, news photography, feature photography and best front page.
No mention of the Standard-Examiner.