As promised in recent posts, the blogHOUSTON bloggers have been doing some brainstorming to come up with a list of suggestions to improve the Houston Chronicle -- because this great city deserves a much better newspaper.
Here are those suggestions, in no particular order:
1) The Editorial Board should have a blog, and members should participate actively.
We've been pointing out for a while now that the Chronicle's house editorials are frequently mediocre, when they're not plainly erroneous. We think the Chronicle often goes astray because of insufficient intellectual and ideological diversity on the editorial board, and for the simple reason that the board members aren't nearly as attuned to the news -- and to media criticism -- as they fancy themselves. The point of an editorial board blog would be to force them to converse publicly with each other about the issues the paper will be addressing on the editorial page, and to expose that process to reader criticism. The resulting give and take between the members themselves and members/readers would surely improve a lackluster product. And a blog would give readers some way of knowing who was responsible for which editorials, so that individuals who make up treaties that don't exist will be exposed.
The Dallas Morning News has had such a blog for some time now, and while it's not perfect (because it should be more active, and have more reader input), it's a decent starter model.
2) The reader rep should have more authority and more impact
One can't help but suspect that the job of reader rep/ombudsman at most newspapers -- and certainly the Chronicle -- is a thankless task, for the person must take all sorts of grief from readers, without possessing any real power to fix any but the most egregious problems/errors.
That's unacceptable. We think Jeff Cohen should boost James T. Campbell's authority considerably at the newspaper, and give him a regular column (or even better, a blog) to address reader concerns and criticisms.
I've had a fair number of email conversations with Campbell about problems this blog has found at the newspaper, and he's been professional and responsive. That said, the newspaper would probably benefit if that process were much more transparent. To that end, Campbell should have a column and blog where he regularly addresses reader complaints, and the Chronicle's responses (because sometimes, reader complaints are not legitimate).
3) The Editorial Board should have a focus (and it should be hyperlocal)
The Dallas Morning News just printed its list of important editorial issues for 2005, and the individual editorial board members who focus on those issues, with contact info. I'm not crazy about some of their issue selections, but at least it brings a focus to the page. We also think the focus should be hyperlocal. The Chronicle editorial board frequently ventures off on topics for which it seems intellectually deficient, and the results are not pretty. It should be much more focused on local and state issues -- and readers should know which board members specialize in which topics.
4) The Editorial Board should be much more transparent regarding political endorsements
In the past, newspaper editorial boards presumably served a useful purpose by meeting with political candidates, throwing them questions, screening their answers, and coming up with endorsements based on the board's deliberations. Obviously, a newspaper doesn't have space for whole transcripts of such meetings, so readers historically have gotten a few paragraphs of the board's judgments. With the internet, length isn't a problem. Storage is cheap, and technology allows readers effectively to "sit in" on Editorial Board meetings with candidates via audio and video streams.
It's well past time that the Chronicle Editorial Board open up its mysterious process of candidate evaluation. There's no reason for that process to remain driven by 19th century concerns. Record video (or at least audio) of those meetings, and put it all online. Give readers a chance to make evaluations for themselves based on the same information the Editorial Board gains. And post the Editorial Board deliberations and votes as well. That further serves the purpose of (1) above, in that it gives readers some mechanism to hold Editorial Board members to account.
5) The newspaper should embrace at least some principles of open-source journalism
The notion that what is printed in the newspaper is the final word on a given topic must be discarded as archaic. What is printed in the newspaper should be regarded as the starting point of a larger conversation in our community. Attitudes by journalists like Lucas Wall, who occasionally engages in petulant outbursts on local message boards that challenge his reporting, must be improved. Journalists could benefit from paying a little more attention to bloggers. And at a minimum, the Chronicle could benefit by such simple measures as enabling comments and or trackbacks to the articles it posts to the web. Yes, that would require abandoning the attitude that the newspaper is the final word on truth -- but surely if KTRK-13 can let its readers comment on stories, the Chronicle could move into this century as well.
For that matter, the newspaper could be less stingy with its archives (and discourage its assertive librarian from making threats to bloggers who excerpt from the newspaper), and ought to provide RSS feeds for its major sections. Again, if KTRK-13 can do it, then surely Houston's self-proclaimed "leading information source" can.
6) Embrace diversity on the editorial page
The Chronicle frequently claims its editorial page is neither liberal nor conservative, which is a fairly amusing claim given the fact that the page's two regular local columnists are hyperpartisan lefties Cragg Hines (who also reports from the DC bureau) and Clay Robison (who heads the Austin bureau). Both should be given the choice of becoming full-time editorialists for the newspaper or full-time reporters. The page should make a point of hiring at least one local libertarian/conservative columnist, and should make much better use of the syndicated columns available on the left and right. Finally, it should end the "other voice" experiment, which wastes valuable column space.
Those are our New Year's thoughts on how the Houston Chronicle might start to improve itself. We hope some of the folks at 801 Texas Avenue will give it some thought. And we'd like to hear from our readers on the topic. Please contribute your thoughts to the message board.