January 17, 2012

The Globe And Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, on Monday appointed its first public editor. In a memo to the paper’s staff and executives, editor in chief John Stackhouse announced that current Associate Editor Sylvia Stead will take over the newly created position as of January 23.

“The creation of this position is a major step for the Globe to make us more transparent and accountable to our readers, and to continue to build our most important asset — credibility — in the Canadian market,” Stackhouse wrote.

He added, “Credibility and trust have always been essential to the Globe, but never more so than now as technology and media behaviour open more and more doors to both questionable conduct and public scrutiny.”

Stead is a stalwart for the paper, which recently underwent a major print redesign. She joined the Globe in 1975 and served in a variety of roles, including recent stints as executive editor, deputy editor, and national editor. (Disclosure: I’m a former columnist, blogger and freelancer for the Globe, and was a regular contributor to the paper’s business magazine. I never worked with Stead.)

I got in touch with Stead to ask about her new role and see what plans she has for the job.

She said her responsibilities include, “addressing issues of journalistic integrity, investigating complaints, responding to readers, explaining our work … working with industry groups and managing legal concerns.”

Stead’s current position required her to be involved in some of those areas. Her byline also occasionally appeared in the paper and online to explain editorial decisions. Notably, in 2010 she helped explain the paper’s decision to not publish in the print edition some unsettling photos of a Canadian serial killer.

One notable item in Stackhouse’s memo is that the public editor primarily reports to him and also has a “dotted-line responsibility to the publisher.” Stackhouse said the latter is to “ensure any needed autonomy from the newsroom.”

It struck me as rare for a public editor to report primarily to the editor in chief. I contacted Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former NPR ombudsman and current executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, to get a sense of whether this is a unique scenario.

“Traditionally, an ombudsman reports only to the publisher,” he replied by email. “In my case at NPR, I answered to the Board via the President.”

He continued:

These days there may be more than one way to be an ombudsman, so as long as the Globe has guaranteed Sylvia’s independence to investigate and report, it may be possible to have a different model. But the credibility of the position with the public and the newsroom is based on the ombud’s freedom to operate and not be perceived as management with a different title.

Stead mentioned the dotted line connection to the publisher when I asked about autonomy. She also said it was Stackhouse’s idea for her to serve as public editor, an offer she “gladly accepted.”

Though the paper has never before had a public editor, the Globe has relied on a part-time “reader response editor” since 2007, according to Stead.

“That person manages complaints, corrections and responses to the Press Council,” Stead explained by email.

The reader response editor role will still exist, and now reports to the public editor for many of the aforementioned issues.

“While I will continue to have help from our reader response expert, this is a full time job with much greater expectations,” she said.

As of now, Stead is working to hand off her current duties, and gather information to determine her focus and plans as public editor. She intends to regularly communicate with readers and the community, but isn’t sure exactly how she’ll do so online and in print.

“I’m not sure what the blog or the writings will look like,” she said. “I’m frankly still trying to absorb it all right now. I write on issues from time to time or regularly. I would think it will be mostly online, although I wouldn’t want to preclude something occasionally in the paper. But it won’t be a regular column.”

I couldn’t help asking if she has plans to look at how the paper handles corrections. For example, the Globe does not have a dedicated online corrections page.

“There are many projects I want to tackle, and of course I will look at our corrections policy along with other issues,” she said.

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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