Getting to meet critics in person was well worth it

The Baltimore Sun

As The Sun's public editor, I spend much of my workday on the phone, reading and answering e-mails, responding to letters and reading newspapers. Given the high volume of questions, complaints and comments I receive, my communication with readers is often more cursory than I like. This is why I relish the chance to speak to readers in person whenever possible.

On a recent weekday morning I addressed a group of about 60 Sun readers who are members of an organization called Senior Box Office. They represented the kind of lifelong newspaper readers who make excellent critics. In an animated and thought-provoking 90 minutes, I was reminded why direct contact with readers is so important - because as core readers and subscribers, their opinions are vitally important to The Sun's present and future.

Topics ran the gamut from journalism to customer service.

Several readers praised The Sun's commitment to investigative reporting, especially articles that hold government officials and those with power and influence accountable. "It is so important that The Sun continue to uncover and report on such things because it's in the public interest," one man said.

One reader said he thinks The Sun should acknowledge that it is a "liberal" newspaper, "just like The Washington Times acknowledges that it is a conservative newspaper." Another had a different point of view. "The Sun is at best a middle-of-the road newspaper," she said. "It's really more conservative than people think and much more conservative than I am."

Others said they were dismayed to find more grammatical and spelling mistakes in the newspaper than in the past. "It is disconcerting to discover errors in articles and headlines that should be caught by editors before the paper is printed," said one. "When the grammar and spelling in a newspaper declines, it can have a negative effect on your credibility." Another reader, aware of the staff reductions at The Sun and other newspapers, said, "I'd like to offer my services as a volunteer proofreader."

Some longtime residents of the Baltimore area complained about occasional incorrect neighborhood names, street addresses and building locations. Readers expect The Sun to be precise when providing locations in articles or on maps.

Several used that day's newspaper to address The Sun's increasing emphasis of local news on the front page. "I was surprised that Karl Rove's resignation was lower on Page One than some local articles," one reader said. "I don't think those subjects are nearly as important as the Rove situation. I expect more balance of local, national and international news on the front page."

Headlines came in for criticism, with several readers noting instances when the information in headline type failed to match the text of the story or when the tone set by the headline seems unfair or misleading. I told that group that headline writing is one of the most difficult tasks in newspaper journalism, but I also acknowledged that I receive more complaints about them than I'd like to.

That the newspaper has stopped printing full lists of individual stocks and mutual funds still troubled several, but The Sun's recent decision to stop publishing all entries and results for horse racing hit a nerve with one reader. He told me after the meeting that offering this information only online is unfair because many racing fans do not have computers. "It seems as if the newspaper is singling out this group," he said.

The Sun's system for handling customer service questions or calls for information was also noted by several of those present who described difficulties in reaching someone qualified to solve a delivery problem or to answer a specific question. These kinds of things drive readers crazy.

And then there are the puzzles. The message I got from this group echoed what I hear from readers all the time: Don't mess with my puzzles. When The Sun recently replaced the Sudoku High Fives puzzle on Sunday with a different version, hundreds of readers e-mailed or called to complain. Editors resumed publishing the High Fives the next Sunday.

During the discussion, I told the group that an essential part of a public editor's job is to represent readers and to explain to the public what a newspaper does and why - even if it means criticizing the institution that I work for. One reader said that my willingness to talk honestly and openly about The Sun had changed the way she viewed the newspaper. "I understand better now how the newspaper works and have a better appreciation of the circumstances that may require changes," she said.

Even though I had heard a number of criticisms of The Sun, I returned to the office invigorated because I understood that these readers care about this newspaper and recognize its value. This is the kind of feedback a public editor or any Sun employee needs to hear.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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