By Denise Tessier
I had been wondering when the Albuquerque Journal would offer up the story that appeared on the front page Monday, Feb. 22 about the mayor and the firefighters’ union.
What initially piqued my interest wasn’t the issue itself, but rather a column the Journal ran on its Op-Ed (opposite editorial) page on Feb. 15, entitled “Berry Gives AFD The Cold Shoulder” (subscription required). That particular column caught my eye because it obviously had not been edited.
The piece was written by a firefighter, who can’t be expected to know journalistic writing style, and the column’s blatant non-adherence to basic Journal style would have made it clear enough that no one at the state’s largest newspaper took the time to proofread and edit it.
But as further proof, a written piece with the exact wording by the same firefighter appeared Feb. 11 in the Weekly Alibi, four days earlier, boxed and labeled “Paid Advertisement.”
This post is not meant to pick on the firefighter’s column, but to question the Journal’s willy nilly publishing of columns, with little or no fact-checking or editing, a practice that turns the Op-Ed page into a “he said-she said” smorgasbord of opinions, without benefit of a reporter or staff columnist to sort it all out.
After noticing the firefighter’s column, I wondered whether the Journal would address the allegations it had made. Monday’s front-page story, as it turns out, did not. What it did explain is that union leaders at City Hall draw government salaries while working full time on union duties, a practice a District Judge ruled legal earlier this month. It then collected comments on the issue from city councilors, who predictably were split along party lines.
It did not address or even make reference to the allegations in the firefighter’s column, two of which warranted at least some reportage. These were that:
- In a time of financial hardship the mayor has hired a “well-known union-busting firm” that the firefighter says has a vested interest in “turning labor against the mayor.”
- The mayor’s chief administrative officer has repeatedly canceled meetings on ways the city can make up its budget shortfall. Firefighter/columnist Mathew D. Blanchfield claims that his union has “ideas that could cut over a million dollars from (Albuquerque Fire Department’s) budget just this year.” What are those ideas?
This column was thrown at the public, with no follow up or indication of whether the firefighter’s allegations have any traction. Furthermore, it’s hard for readers to follow the story when so much time lapses between random “installments.” Monday’s “Union Work on City’s Dime” appeared a full week after the firefighter’s column (understandably because reporters’ attention necessarily was focused on the Legislature), and the firefighter’s Feb. 15 column was taking issue with a Journal story from Jan. 28.
That the Journal ran the firefighter’s column unedited was clear — even before discovering the identical copy in the Alibi ad — because of basic style errors Op-Ed page editors neglected to fix. The first paragraph referred to the union president as “Mr. Diego Arencon,” and the Journal, unlike The New York Times, does not use the term “Mr.” (And even the Times doesn’t use Mr. on first reference). Use of Mr. is not Journal style, which calls for use of full names on first reference, last name only after that.
In this particular column, an even more egregious example of editing neglect was the fact that the “Berry” in the headline was never explained as Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry in the column; any reader from out of town likely would have no clue as to who the “Berry” in the headline might be. While there are references to “the mayor”, the first doesn’t appear until the third paragraph. Berry is mentioned only once, and then only as “Berry” as part of a Journal story quote from Jan. 28.
The Journal has traditionally run guest columns on its Op-Ed pages, and up until 2001 I thought it a universal practice. I learned otherwise at a national seminar for editorial writers and editors that year, during which the Journal’s frequent use of lay columns — especially those by politicians — raised the eyebrows of the four other editors and writers in my seminar work group. Before the seminar, each of us had read a week’s worth of the others’ editorial pages in order to critique them. And all four of my colleagues – the editors of the super conservative Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, the more liberal Toledo (Ohio) Blade, and Canada’s Calgary Herald, along with a capitol bureau chief whose articles appeared throughout Pennsylvania — expressed surprise that the Journal would readily give up so much space to state politicians.
They also wondered why the Journal had no local columnists on its editorial pages – and there were none in the Journal the week we critiqued, even back in those more robust economic times. In contrast, the other papers predominantly featured news columnists, either staff members or from state news services.
Especially impressive was the Op Ed page at the Calgary Herald, described by its editor at the time as a “small-c conservative newspaper, clearly right-leaning, that supports small government, low taxes, fiscal restraint in government spending, free enterprise, a free market and mostly traditional family values,” serving a booming city nearing a million people, dominated by the oil and natural gas industry, plus high-tech financial services, transportation and retailing. I give this background because it parallels somewhat the demographic here in New Mexico and of the state’s largest newspaper.
Yet, its editorial pages couldn’t have been more different. Its Editorial page contained locally produced editorials and letters, and its Op Ed was completely filled with columns, nearly all by staff columnists. There was never more than one column a day by a non-newspaper person, and then only three the entire week. Most were university or government experts, not politicians. They also tended to eschew “think tank” experts.
Occasionally, a clearly marked “Guest Column” appeared on the page, always accompanied by guidelines stating that “Readers are welcome to submit guest columns for consideration. They should be about 700 words and faxed …”
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a “guidelines” box in the Journal, which also is far from diligent in noting its guest columnists’ qualifications.
Yet a cacophony of special interest columns run on the Journal’s Op-Ed page virtually every day. Several have appeared in recent weeks related to proposed legislation. Some “guest” writers appear quite often, like Terri L. Cole of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce (whose frequency we’ve written about before). One line in a recent (Feb. 10) column by Cole and Chamber Board Chairman Del Archuleta, “Restaurant Surtax Has Problems,” illustrates how comfortable and secure she and other groups are in getting their “side of the story” in print. The column self-explains this point:
Several days ago, as part of our advocacy efforts at the Legislature, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce testified in the House Business and Industry Committee in opposition to HB 189 (a surtax on restaurants that would benefit tourism). This may be construed by some as ‘counter intuitive to our mission.’
So, we wanted to ‘explain our vote’ for the benefit of those who might not fully understand our position.
And the Journal let them explain – over nearly 18 column inches. This column in particular seems a better candidate for publication in the Chamber’s weekly full-page ad in the Journal’s Business Outlook. But that costs money, and I’m sure they’d prefer to get in as many free ads – I mean columns – as possible.
For the record, a quick call to Laura Marrich, editor of the Alibi, revealed that she “wasn’t approached on an editorial level at all” about the firefighter’s column/ad but first saw it when she opened the paper. (Advertising and news at the Alibi are separate departments, as they are at the Journal).
Running columns by guest writers can be a service to Journal readers, especially when they arrive on the editor’s desk current and complete, with no need for heavy editing. But too often at the Journal, columns are just thrown on the page, pretty much telling the readers, “You sort it all out.” As we’ve noted on this site before, many are run lacking even a clear description as to the qualifications and backgrounds of the writers or the groups the writers represent. The reader might not realize, too, that many are written by public relations firms in service of the person getting the byline.
These columns should at least be edited for clarity, background and style. To run them “as is” without basic editing, let alone a cursory fact check, and with no independent follow-up by a staffer, is the same as running as ad, with no added value to the reader. It’s a further swipe at the Journal’s credibility.