Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Campus Resident and the UNA's draft editorial policy

The Campus Resident (CR) has itself become a news story. Dissatisfaction with editorial decisions and the apparent lack of public clarity over whether UNA staff, UNA Directors, or the CR Editor are ultimately responsible for the day-to-day operational and editorial decisions at the paper have led to a series of complaints -public and private- over the past number of months.  These complaints have resulted in the drafting of an Editorial Policy that would create rules of operation and an Editorial Management Board charged with direct control over the paper's editorial content.

As matter of disclosure all items that I have submitted to the Editor prior to being a UNA Director and since becoming a UNA Director have been accepted for print.  At times my articles have been modestly edited and occasionally they have been delayed to a later edition of the paper.  So I am not commenting from a place where I feel in any way aggrieved against the operations of the press.  I would go further and commend the Editor for the job that he has done over the years of his Editorship.  The Campus Resident has been an exemplar of the community newspaper. If I had any criticism it would be that I wish the paper had more actual news stories and be published more frequently than monthly; but these are small criticisms indeed.

The discussion around the Editorial Policy brings to the forefront questions as to the role that a community newspaper should play. Should the paper only print articles that publicize the great things being done by the UNA?  Should it only focus on matters that foster a good feeling about our community?  Should outright dissent and disagreement with UNA or UBC policies be kept out of the paper?  Over the life of the paper all sorts of stories have been printed.  We get chatty pieces written by U Hill Secondary students, notes on sustainable living, theatre and arts reviews, general coverage of the UNA Directors meetings, and critical commentaries and critiques of UNA and UBC policy.  While I would like more news and more critiques I find the overall balance to work well enough.

So why do we need an elaborate and detailed Editorial Administration Policy at this point in time?  Why are we trying to fix a problem that doesn't appear to exist? I can't answer that; or at least, my answer is already framed in the way I ask the question.  I don’t think we need an elaborate editorial policy at this point in time.

I can see the value of an Editorial Board as long as that board is divorced from the day-to-day operations of the Campus Resident. Having high level oversight is a good idea.  Having a formalized review and censorship panel is a bit of an overkill. One way to avoid overkill is to keep the Editorial Board out of daily editorial decisions.  The other is to ensure that the board consists of elected officials and community members - not staff.

The composition of the board, if one is needed, should include the Editor, an elected UNA Director and a community member.  The draft policy has the UNA executive director on the board. It’s laudable, but how much can one person actually do?  Currently the Executive Director of the UNA manages the entire staff, attends all meetings of the UNA, prepares meeting notes, minutes, committee reports, and attends all manner of meetings with stakeholders, business partners, and government agencies as the leading employee of the UNA.  Adding hands on management of the Campus Resident will take the ED away from responsibilities more important and more directly germane to the reason the UNA has an executive director in the first place.  Furthermore, we have an elected Director with responsibilities as outlined in the bylaws of the UNA who is responsible for communications – the secretary.  Having community members on the board is a great idea.  Ideally we would have a community member appointed by the UNA Board who has some experience in the world of media – I am certain that there are at least one or two such folks living in our community.  Finally the Editor, who is the primary decision maker for the Campus Resident should be on any such editorial board.  This composition would ensure that community members, not staff are in a majority on the Board and that the appropriate degree of skill and responsibility is included on the board.

The Editorial Board, if we really need and want one, should not have any direct role in the daily editorial or operational decisions made by the Editor of the Campus Resident. If we don’t like the Editor’s decisions then the remedy should be replacement, not the establishment of a board to look over the Editor’s shoulder and study each minute decision made. To take such a heavy hand is a form of micromanagement that has no good end. While past complaints may have highlighted the role that staff have played in shaping and constraining the content of the CR, the current draft editorial policy actually formalizes that perceived problem and entrenches it as policy.

At the end of the day we need to ensure that the Campus Resident operates freely and fairly as a newspaper.  This means that sometimes some residents and some university officials and some UNA staff/directors won't like what is printed.  So be it.  That's a small price to pay to live in a democratic society.  There is more harm in fostering a micromanaging hands on Editorial Management Board then there is in allowing the Editor free range in his/her editorial decisions.  Ultimately, if we don't like the decisions the Editor makes then it is a matter of replacing the editor.  We shouldn't be creating yet another unnecessarily intrusive bureaucratic structure.

When it comes time to review and consider the draft editorial board policy I will be looking for ways to minimize the intrusive aspect of the policy so that a free and open press can be fostered in our community.

For the record the following are my specific comments on the draft Editorial Board Policy.

General:  Should be Editorial Board, not Editorial Management Board.

Business manager.  The Editor should remain being called an Editor or, if people wish, a Managing Editor.  BUT not a Business Manager (though I note on the CR masthead it refers to the current editor as “The Editor and Business Manager.”  The draft policy is unclear as to whether these are two roles, two people, or one combined role.

The category of this policy seems misplaced.  First, this is a communications policy, not an administration policy.  Second, and unless all our policies are labeled corporate, I have an issue with calling our communications functions corporate policies.

3.14  to liaise with UBC public affairs.  This is unnecessary.  The presumption should be that he Editor will fact check.   This is covered under 3.1.

3.3 Encouraging the chair to publish.  Should be dropped.  Encouragement is non enforceable.  It’s like stating a wish.  If we want an official UNA statement each month then it should be published as a separate item so titled and published without a by line or with the byline UNA Board.

3.4 Fact and Opinion. This might be harder to do then the drafters of the policy anticipate.  For example, many of the articles are mixtures of ‘fact’ and ‘opinion,’ Consider, for example, the sustainability corner for example or the various reviews of performances, or the special series of articles on leasehold – these are all items that mesh fact and opinion of various sorts.  The way an article is written, while only citing ‘facts,’ can also be structured to present an opinion.  The ordering of quotes, the way the topic is presented, the use of adjectives, etc. all contribute to a point of view.  The na├»ve belief that there is in fact something that is unproblematicly a fact or that an article can be objective in any pure sense will result in more problems than solutions. If the point is to have an ‘opinion page’ with letters and editorials and ‘news section’ reporting on timely articles then say so.  But the distinction between objective and opinion is one that even our colleagues at the UBC School of Journalism recognize to be problematic in application.

3.5 on banning nasty comments. This is a standard clause and one that has a legal history and sets of precedents that will make it useful.  However, the “otherwise offensive to general community” phrase is way to general and should be deleted from this clause.

3.8 .5 ‘tone of article.’  Not sure how this will be operationalized. ‘Tone’ is such a subjective category that it opens the door wide to abuse unless very clearly defined.  Even then I can see a situation where when an editorial board member disagrees with the augment of a piece that they might suggest the tone is off and have the piece pulled.  This subclasue should be deleted.

3.11 editing for article length. There should be pragmatic article word lengths used.  Many of the articles published are far too long.  Having shorter pieces perhaps no longer than 500-750 words for features and leading news articles could accommodate more diversity (300-500 for less relevant pieces;  250 word cap for letters).  However, these ideas should be managed at the newspaper’s operations level and not by policy. 

6. Composition of the Editorial Board. (should not be called Editorial Management Board).

6.1 The Board should not have a majority of UNA staff as members (i.e. not both the Editor and the Executive Director).  While the ED can play a useful role in a non voting role, the oversight role should more properly fall to the elected directors and community representatives.

Also there is no provision for how the director/resident board member will be selected.  Also lacking is a term of office for the board members.

6.1 & 6.2 should be revised as follows: 
6.1 There shall an Editorial Board consisting of:
(1) the Editor,
(2) the Secretary of the UNA
(3) a UNA resident who is not a UNA Director or employee.

6.2 The UNA Board shall appoint the members of the Editorial Board, for one year terms. The governance standing committee will select the UNA resident Editorial Board member at the first meeting of the committee following the UNA Annual General.

6.8 (2) headlines should be an editorial matter and not the matter of the editorial board. 

Final comment: As it is structured this policy invites micromanagement.  Having an explicit policy allowing changes to individual headlines goes beyond invitation to mandating micro management.  Ideally the press should be reasonably free of the constraint by officials, advertisers, and other vested interests to pursue a free and unencumbered line of inquiry and journalistic integrity.  If we want a PR sheet then we need to change the model.  If we are wishing to encourage actual local journalism and to foster a diversity of perspectives then we should not be creating a board of micro managers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very sensible observations and good recommendations for changes. As it is, the publication is not very effective.

G. Rupert