An open letter to Fairfax readers’ editor, Judy Prisk

Dear Ms Prisk,
I hope you are well and had a lovely Christmas break. I have been reading your readers’ editor column for a while now and I have to say that I think it’s the biggest load of self-serving nonsense in the Sydney Morning Herald. And that’s saying something, because the SMH publishes regular columns from Paul Sheehan and Gerard Henderson.

Ok, that is a little harsh. Sheehan and Henderson are full of way more self-serving nonsense. But before you dismiss this is as another “embittered online rant” (as SMH journo Ben Cubby did on twitter when I pointed out the lazy journalism in one of his stories), please hear me out.

I am not anti-Fairfax. In fact, I am a subscriber (although I’m not sure how much longer I’ll persist with a newspaper in which it is becoming harder and harder to find adequate journalism, let alone good journalism). I read your newspaper every morning. I blog about the SMH because I don’t read the Oz or the Tele. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d rather kick myself in the vagina than read News Ltd. Even when I worked there (part-time while studying) I didn’t read their newspapers. And when I want a good laugh, I look at their websites.

But I am baffled about this readers’ editor gig. You have been the readers’ editor for around five months now, and I’m yet to see any evidence of the stated purpose of the role. According to your page on smh.com.au, your role is to be an “in-house advocate for readers” of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald. That sounds great, and I think it’s an important role for a news organisation that takes its audience seriously. We are, after all, the people who buy your product. But I’m not convinced Fairfax does take its audience seriously. Fom your columns each week, it’s clear that the role is less “in-house advocate for readers” and more “these are the reader letters that weren’t good enough for the letters page, so we’ll just quote them here without attribution and sometimes I’ll say they are wrong but I won’t explain why”.

Let’s look your column from Wednesday: Fast and furious came the bouncers, some quite wide of the mark. You quote unnamed readers complaining about the amount of cricket coverage in the news section, yet offered no explanation of why the editor placed these stories in the news section. Nor did you mention any in-house advocating you did on behalf of the readers. The only thing you wrote that wasn’t simply quoting readers was this:

I cannot agree with the criticism of either the headline or the piece… The headline was a play on “fire in the belly”, which is screamingly obvious, and Barrett was not glorifying bullying – he was merely reporting what he saw and heard, and what Pattinson said, in neither an approving nor disapproving way.

Riiiight. So this is what you think being an “in-house advocate for readers” means? In no way does your explanation deal with that reader’s complaint about the glorification of bullying, and you resorted to your own silencing of that reader by calling the headline’s play on words “screamingly obvious”. I’m surprised you didn’t add “or are you too stupid to get that?”. Now, I haven’t read the Barrett article (here’s a hint for online journos: link to the articles being discussed) so I don’t know if it was glorifying bullying or not, but saying that it wasn’t glorifying bullying does not make it so. And what’s with the attitude in the snide “merely”?

It is clear that the readers’ editor column is little more than an opportunity for the Heralds to say their readers are wrong to criticise them. Actually, it’s nothing more than that. If I want to know what readers think of your newspaper, I’ll look to blogs and twitter and, sometimes, the letters page. If I want to know what the “in-house advocate for readers” is doing to advocate for readers, I certainly won’t be reading the readers’ editor column.

Yours in hope for better journalism,
News with Nipples.

14 responses to “An open letter to Fairfax readers’ editor, Judy Prisk

  1. The Readers’ Advocate is failing in achieving what it was set to do, but it’s probably very economical reprinting readers’ letters, rather than writing a new opinion piece.

    My criticism of Fairfax Online is Sarah Hanson-Young’s blog. I have no troubles with her politics but cannot understand why she is entitled to promote Greens achievements? Restoring the balance in a media has a right-wing bent? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to favour one brand of politics over the other?

    • I agree, since Sarah Hanson-Young is the “go to” politician for Greens quotes. And Tony Abbott has a blog at the Tele – as if he doesn’t have enough opportunities for every single word he utters to be reported – and Julie Bishop has a blog on the SMH site, plus The Punch is home to op pieces from every Liberal who cares to write one. The Drum is also going that way. None of these people are struggling to have their voices heard, so why not use the public opinion spaces for different voices. For experts.

  2. I forget about Julie Bishop’s blog. Mark Dreyfus has a blog but hasn’t written much of late, but its hardly enough to compete with the torrent of criticism aimed at the Government.

    Experts aren’t sought, I think, because that would involve more investigation. Who to ask? What to ask?

    Do politicians get paid to write opinion pieces? I think writers should be paid for their work but pollies are getting free advertising in these circumstances.

    • Academics aren’t paid, so I imagine politicians aren’t paid either.

      The torrent of criticism aimed at the Government – in op pieces and also in general reporting – is another journalism failing. Journalists believe that negative reporting is “holding the Government to account” but when there’s no fact-checking of anything, no questioning of claims being made on either side, all it’s really doing is letting the Opposition set your news agenda. They’re giving the Opposition free run, and it’s bloggers who are doing the heavy lifting for them and publishing pieces that report the facts.

  3. So is anyone closer to determining what being “an in-house advocate for readers” actually involves? I don’t want to get all conspiratorial and don my tin foil hat, but it appears to be a position that was created with no other goal than to appease someone that was majorly pissed off. The whole readers’ editor concept sounds impressive, but nothing tangible seems to have taken place as a result of the appointment.

  4. I thought academics were paid for op-ed pieces. I’ve had one published at SMH (independently) and was paid.

  5. I had to invoice them. They didn’t offer. (I only knew that because I met someone who worked there who told me so.)

  6. Great letter! Made me laugh tea out of my nose.

    • Thanks Melski. I doubt it will make any difference. But at least she’s aware of it, because when I tweeted the link to this post – and others re-tweeted it – I included Prisk (@SMHReadersEd).

  7. I think you are brilliant. Paul Heywood could improve the SMH profitability by slicing through the swathe of self serving journals that have infested Fairfax. The paper seems intent to run stories that run down the very people that support the paper – the people who buy it and subscribe… The lost souls of the north shore line and eastern suburbs… As for the letters page editor, she ( I think it is a she) goes out her way to publish letters that are theory uboth pushing a tragic political line and are from obscure addresses like kyogle. But again the paper sneers at its supporters. It will go broke, which will be sad.

    • I disagree. I think the SMH is losing readers because of quality, not because it’s sneering at supporters. Still, publishing any old rubbish is a form of sneering, so there’s that.

      Gordon Hinds, welcome to the News with Nipples.

      • Quality is right – I sent it from my iphone and his name is Greg Hywood… not Paul Heywood… you press send and then wish you hadn’t… so I got his name way wrong…guilty as charged. The issues facing Fairfax are somewhat complex. They have reduced distribution as newsagents disappear, reduced ad revenue (the rivers of gold – classifieds have gone.) Paper costs climb and they charge for yesterday’s news when today’s is free. They sell to mainly the AB demographic (old school white collar professionals/managers), their heartland is the same demograghic suburbs of Northshore line (1.2 million) and Eastern Suburbs (200,000) where their subscription base is. Their primary readership would be middle to high income earners, largely own their own home, probably university educated, married (or divorced) 30+, if they have kids, they probably go to a private school. Play golf, tennis and go to the beach. They vote conservative or if older female flutter with the greens. The younger audience is on the net. They don’t buy the SMH and read it when they visit the folks on the odd weekend, or at a cafe. The journalistic tone of the paper (see today’s front page) is self indulgently set against their readership. I would guess that 60-70% of the SMH paying readership would support Tony Abbot. The paper doesn’t. The inner west doesn’t support the paper in a meaningful way and while the population of Newtown and Petersham may be smug with their middle class temporary foray into socialism (while keeping a keen eye of property values) they don’t pay the wages of the journalists who often live in the same area. The fault lies with the editors, particularly the editor in chief, whom it seems have no connection to their readers in an emotional sense. they don’t share their values and that is a big mistake. It has lost nearly 90% of shareholder value, blown $4 billion in cash reserves and would be a prayer away from breaching its covenants on its debts, which are considerable. Fairfax is going broke rapidly and pleases no-one except its staff. It has to change to survive, but I suspect it won’t. Kodak suffered a similar fate of denying the reality of the world it inhibited.

        • The MSM has never been big on innovation. It was dragged kicking and screaming onto the internet, and news websites are just print stories that are online. The paper is filled with one voice stories – that shit shouldn’t be online, let alone in a broadsheet the following day.

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