Linthicum’s Leaving Not Reason Enough for Readers to Follow

August 25th, 2014 · 4 Comments · journalism

By Denise Tessier

Recently, when talking about the Albuquerque Journal, an acquaintance said, “The only reason I read the Journal is Leslie Linthicum.”

When pressed, this person acknowledged other excellent writers who work at the Journal – Win Quigley and Joline Gutierrez Krueger came up for mention. My acquaintance couldn’t argue with the journalistic value of John Fleck, courthouse and city hall reportage, or the impressively strong newcomer to the paper’s Las Cruces office, Lauren Villagran. But when Linthicum leaves, this particular reader said she planned to leave the Journal, too.

Really? I find that sad.

You’ll get no argument from me about Linthicum’s talent when it has come to writing, connecting with readers and her choice of topics. It’s not surprising she was named “Best Columnist – Ever” by Johnny Mango on Duke City Fix. She’s had a brilliant career, not only at the Journal, but at the Albuquerque Tribune before that.

In the Sunday Journal, Linthicum published her last column for the paper, “Endings are hard, but vaya con Dios.”

Two weeks ago, however, my acquaintance made clear her reason for dropping the Journal when Linthicum leaves went beyond the columnist’s talent. With Linthicum gone, she said, the Journal would lose a critical counterbalance to its editorials, and that would be the deal-breaker in terms of continuing to read the paper.

I cannot disagree with her first point. Linthicum’s columns have at times provided counterbalance to the Journal’s often out-of-touch editorials, as do columns by some of her UpFront colleagues.

But I do disagree with the reader’s decision to abandon the Journal.

This might surprise some readers of ABQJournalWatch, but as I badly tried to make this point in an interview last year with New Mexico Mercury, the last thing I would want is to see the Journal “go away.”

Linthicum’s columns aren’t the only counterbalance to those editorials in the Journal. While not as obvious, the other counterbalance is in plain sight: It’s pretty much anything written by Journal writers who are reporting news.

Note I refer specifically to “Journal reporters” because as my colleague Arthur Alpert and I have pointed out in past posts, far too many wire service stories have been tainted by opinion/bias/slant, especially from the formerly staid Associated Press national desk.

(Local AP reporters have still retained their old-school journalistic tenets. An example is Saturday’s front-page “Lawsuit aims to end quick deportations from Artesia,” by Russell Contreras — a former Journal reporter – and Alicia A. Caldwell.)

With that in mind, I’d like to propose an exercise to those who are continually frustrated by the Journal’s out-of-touch editorials. Or perhaps you’ve been antagonized by its penchant for polluting the opinion page with unedited columns by climate deniers, paid hacks and letter writers who take (on faith) what non-journalistically trained pundits are saying, and parrot it back (when lengthy enough, Journal editors turn letters into yet more columns).

At times, these opinion pages are downright appalling. The inattention given column and letter editing is so bad the Journal found itself publishing this correction May 29: “The writer of a letter to the editor published in Tuesday’s Journal identified John Kerry as vice president. He is secretary of state.” (It’s likely a reader pointed that out, raising the inattention to the level of a “For the Record” mention.)

But back to the exercise: Try reading the Journal without reading the opinion pages.

Focus on the local news.

Local news is the future of newspapers. And this is one area where the Journal (usually) gets it right.

Over our five years of publication (hard to believe, but ABQJournalWatch hit that milestone last month), we at JournalWatch have pointed out Journal hits and misses, mostly focusing on the misses.

But I’ve often thought we should also consider writing what a better newspaper would look like. A critical step would be to put the Journal’s in-house columnists – those who appear under the UpFront logo — on the Op-Ed, or opposite editorial, page.

Imagine the Op-Ed page anchored by columns from Fleck, Quigley, Gutierrez, Thom Cole and the other reporters who contribute throughout the year, complemented by select syndicated columnists who also have journalism — not think tank — backgrounds. Op-Ed would become a go-to page in the paper.

More importantly, it would leave no room for the columns that now clutter that page. The way it is now, filling the page is a daily exercise in finding something suitable from whatever is at hand. If a cartoon or other graphic is available that fits a topic, then that column or expanded letter to the editor gets more prominence simply by virtue of the fact that there’s art for it.

Think tanks, politicians and others with an agenda know this, and try to make sure their treatises are part of that “whatever is at hand.”

I know this because I used to fill that page, and with all the work there is to do writing editorials and attending meetings and editing letters, there isn’t often much time to call sources and say, “I’ve got a column here on a certain topic; could you write a companion for it presenting your view?”

And I can’t say I came up with this Op-Ed page idea myself. To borrow from a previous post written for JournalWatch back in 2010:

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. . . . 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 paper most similar to the Journal in terms of demographics, 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.” The Herald served a booming city nearing a million people, dominated by the oil and natural gas industry, plus high-tech financial services, transportation and retailing.

Despite its similarities to New Mexico and Albuquerque:

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.

Lately, the Journal has made better use of its Op-Ed page by allowing candidates to submit columns, clearly marked as such, in the run-up to the November elections. As the Journal announced on Aug. 17, the new feature will run though Oct. 5, with columns written by New Mexico candidates who are opposed in races for statewide and national offices. This is a service to readers and a more controlled editorial environment in terms of putting politicians on those pages.

Since it’s been running since 2008, readers have become accustomed to UpFront – the opinion/news hybrid column – appearing on the front page. But as we’ve written here before, having it on the front page contributes to reader misunderstanding about the blur between news and opinion. These columns really belong on the Op-Ed page.

The front page, then, would be left for news. In recent months, the Journal even has placed UpFront columns in the slot normally reserved for big headline news – above the newspaper’s fold, where it can be seen from a coin box point of sale or vendor.

But the Journal doesn’t need to do this to buttress newsstand sales: It can promote an UpFront above the Journal masthead, or logo.

And that area of the paper – the masthead – has been exceptionally attractive since the Journal’s new design, especially when an eye-catching photograph is used as background across the entire top of the page. (An example is the dramatic crash scene shot that appeared at the top of the paper July 18, with the headline, “U.S. Says Missile Brought Down Jet.” It guided the reader to the complete story on A6.)

The Journal is also strongest when the entire front page is local news. When scanning the front page, make a point of looking for that. When there isn’t an anti-Obama story or IRS investigation to immediately rile those who lean middle-of-the-road or progressive, what remains is one’s “local newspaper” – and as mentioned before, the Journal’s reporters are the Journal’s strength – and value.

Looking at the last four days, the Journal has had a strong four-day streak of solely local stories:

On Thursday: “UNM AD on hazing: ‘We failed’;” “No delay in APD cadet class;” “Manhunt, Shooting Tie West Side in Knots;” “Teen birth rate down, but N.M. still leads nation;” “Roy murder charges dropped as sad story emerges” (an UpFront by Linthicum serving as follow-up and closure on a previous news column).

On Friday: The unusually interesting “The Land Is Rising,” subheaded, “Scientists find that Albuquerque’s streets, buildings and mountains have risen 0.15 of an inch.” Under that story: “A judge must OK Brooks’ buyout (about the resigning education superintendent)”; “Guess What Albuquerque? Our Homicide Rate Is Actually Down” (with great graphics); plus an UpFront by Cole, “PRC debate: Sunshine or tabloid journalism?”

On Saturday: Great photo at the top of the page of Isotopes field, leading readers to the Sports front inside with “Are the Dodgers Dumping the Isotopes?” Under it: “Board taps Winter as APS interim superintendent;” “UNM soccer coach gets one-week suspension;” “Rain Drops in on ABQ;” “Rio Arriba officials say sheriff tried intimidation,” and the aforementioned “Lawsuit aims to end quick deportations from Artesia.”

Then this morning: “Gary King: In Pursuit of His Father’s Legacy” (a profile of the gubernatorial candidate; we can expect the Susana Martinez profile next Sunday); two features about Santa Fe Indian Market and, at the bottom, Linthicum’s farewell column.

Linthicum will be missed. But her departure isn’t excuse enough to drop the Journal.

The metro area is blessed with a number of alternative news information outlets that complement the Journal and try to fill the gaps. They deserve reader support, too. The Journal is a vital part of that mix.

Just don’t waste time on those editorial pages.

Postscript: Online, the Journal has posted its UpFront line-up in light of Linthicum’s departure. The good news is that Quigley will now be in the slot twice a week, and Lauren Villagran’s talents have been recognized.

Tags: ··············

4 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland

    I say I am surprised to read your support of the Journal as a news outlet when the ABQ Journal Watch’s entire existence is to point out and correct the editorial content of the paper. In reading the AJW’s articles over the years, I’ve just become more and more convinced in my decision 18 months ago to quit my subscription over just those issues. But, you are right. In those months, I’ve missed the local news stories. I’m punishing myself for the sins of the owner and editors of the Journal. I may think about subscribing again. But, I will still refuse to watch even a minute of Fox News!

  • Roland

    When I first moved here 10 years ago I found the ABQ Journal to be annoying in its systematic right-wing slant, but I shrugged my shoulders and switched my subscription to the ABQ Tribune, which more closely reflected my politics. Back then we had some choice. However, the Journal is now the only major player in town and in fact, it touts itself as the major “newspaper of record” in the entire state. Albuquerque is without doubt the demographic center for the state, and politically there is a rough balance here between left and right-wing. My concern is that the political bias of our sole heavy-weight newspaper gives it undue influence in shaping perceptions of its readers, and places it in the position of tipping the political fulcrum in local, state, and national elections. It would be good if the editors followed a policy of consciously balancing columns and editorials, but that’s not going to happen. Given this sad state of affairs, I have chosen to not give my money to them. If I want local news I will watch T.V., read channel 4 and 7 on internet, or read the Alibi; if I want state news I will subscribe to the Santa Fe New Mexican; and The Nation provides me with national and international perspectives that don’t make me nauseous. Personally I would rather see the Journal go bankrupt. It would create an opportunity for perhaps a more balanced alternative to fill the gap.

  • JD Robertson

    Local news my foot! I can give you horror story after horror story (much of it documented) exposing the waste and corruption practiced by APS. The Journal doesn’t care. There are 20 people at APS making 100K per annum running the place. How cozy it is – bringing Winter back. The golden 20 could never afford to put a stranger into their circle because he would expose them in a heartbeat. So bring back one of the good old boys and close the circle. The Journal endorsed Winter yesterday – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that endorsement was made without one bit of investigative reporting. Whoever did it probably got his copy from APS. If I wanted to size the character of Winter I’d find some of his subordinate supervisors and interview them. Of course APS being what it is – it would all have to be done in the dark. APS is a mean, vicious piece of work and its revenge is very powerful.

  • F. Chris Garcia

    I agree with most of your essay on staying with the Journal, especially since, with the exception of the editorials, it seems to be getting a bit better in balance and objectivity. And Quigly, Fleck and Cole are still worth reading. However, the Journal keeps rotating its young reporters so that they often lack the knowledge to cover well their new assignments (such as Bush on UNM and Monteleone on crime). The Journal is still very biased in what they do NOT report, that is, their omissions and their too-oft tabloid-style articles. (Here I will only mention their money-saving tissue paper pages and rub-off ink). Besides, what other local daily do we have?

Leave a Comment