- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

News meetings

Byron Calame, until last month the “public editor,” or ombudsman, at the New York Times, wrote this in his final column:

“While I have not been able to observe firsthand the culture of Times news meetings, it’s my sense that department heads seldom challenge or question the enterprise stories pitched for Page 1 by their peers in charge of other sections.”

My immediate reaction was, “Huh?”

It was not his impression of the “culture” of the news meetings that surprised me, but the fact that he had not been able to observe one firsthand.

Every major news organization has these meetings at least once a day, where the senior editors and department heads get together to exchange notes and plan the day’s product. And generally they take place behind closed doors to permit the frankest possible discussion.

But at this newspaper, at least, they are far from secretive. Guests are routinely invited to sit in as observers: These include foreign journalists on State Department programs, reporters being interviewed for jobs, visiting news executives from other publications and even personal friends or visiting relatives of top editors.

As a matter of policy, staff reporters are invited to sit in on an occasional basis, just so they can see how their bosses are presenting their stories. A couple of times, we have moved the news meeting into an auditorium so that journalism classes numbering several dozen students could watch.

We do this partly because the meetings are crowd-pleasers. They can seem pretty tedious to the participants after several years of sitting around the same table with the same group of people and hearing the same corny jokes. But visitors to the paper — and we get a lot of them — almost always describe the meetings as the highlights of their tours.

We also do it because we know there is a lot of suspicion that this and other newspapers deliberately plan their stories to promote a particular point of view. We want the world to see that the only criterion in choosing our stories is whether we think they will interest our readers.

Polite proceedings

So what exactly goes on in these sessions?

Our first daily meeting is at 11 a.m., chaired by the managing editor and attended by the editor in charge of each news desk, as well as the photo and graphics chiefs and — more recently — the editor of our Web site. Any of the assistant managing editors who are available also sit in.

We go around the table, always in the same order, though no one seems to remember when or why it began that way: Sports, Metro, Arts, National, Foreign, Business, Photo, Graphics.

Each editor describes the stories that his or her desk is working on that day, calling special attention to any potential deadline problems or conflicts with other desks.

The managing editor asks questions and makes suggestions: He might instruct us to put a top reporter onto a story he is interested in for Page 1, or tell us just to use a wire agency for one he cares less about. He might tell an editor to be sure to refer back to a related story that ran the previous week, or to add other elements to a story.

Others at the table occasionally jump in with questions or point out that a particular story has already appeared in a competing publication. The proceedings are always polite, but the editors all know that they stand to be embarrassed if they cannot answer probing questions about their stories.

A popular 1994 movie, “The Paper,” depicted a news meeting in which the editors had a raging argument over how some story or other would be handled. I have never seen that here; those kinds of disagreements are handled in a more private forum.

Nevertheless, it is theater of a kind, and it goes to the very heart of what makes a newspaper what it is. I’m sorry that Mr. Calame never got to observe one.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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