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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Naming Names in Colorado Springs   


By Jennifer L. Goodale
     

At a time when holding the media accountable is practically a national pastime, the Gazette of Colorado Springs, Colorado, has made the job easier for readers. In a break from tradition, the 103,000-circulation daily is publishing the bylines of those who normally don't get everyday credit or complaints--the story editor and headline writer--along with the reporter's byline.

Since December, the paper has grouped three bylines together at the beginning of each section-front story, including wire copy, and certain feature or enterprise stories on the inside. The paper already includes designers' bylines for "high-design" feature pages and is considering extending the practice to section-front designs and captions.

"We do some goofy things out here," says Steven A. Smith, editor and vice president of the Gazette. "We want to make the paper more transparent to the readers and show there is more than one person responsible for a story."

Story editors can be as much a force in getting an article in the paper as reporters, and they have some of the hardest jobs, Smith says. Assistant editors not only serve as liaisons between upper management and reporters, he says, but they also should interact with readers. "Reporters have to have bylines and deal with calls about their stories, so editors should be accountable, too," Smith says. "Any editor [who] doesn't take phone calls about a story doesn't belong in my newsroom."

Smith doesn't remember who came up with the idea, which surfaced in November during a month earmarked for innovation and experimentation at the paper. The paper's decision to use the unconventional triple bylines was loosely related to the Gazette's role as one of eight test sites targeted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Journalism Credibility Project, designed to build public trust. The study caused the paper to take steps to strengthen its relationship with readers, says Managing Editor Terri Fleming.

Bill Vogrin, the paper's deputy metro editor, says the innovation hasn't changed his life dramatically. "I get almost as much fan mail now as I did before," Vogrin says, with a touch of sarcasm. "But...readers now come directly to me instead of going through the reporter first. And senior editors know exactly who to call if there is a problem with the story."

The reporters, however, still receive the majority of readers' comments, since their phone numbers and e-mail addresses are listed at the end of each article. Susan Warmbrunn, a metro reporter, and Debra Franco, a police reporter, wrote a story in November about two fatal motorcycle accidents. The article included a statistic about the benefits of helmets, which are not required in Colorado. Among the many reader responses was an e-mail, sent to the two reporters, the editor and the headline writer--all women--from a male reader telling them they didn't "understand" motorcycles and helmets. "I thought it was interesting that I was the one who included the stats, but all of us got responses," Warmbrunn says.

So how has the public reacted to the new approach? Response from Gazette readers hasn't been particularly high--about 25 calls in two months, Smith says, most of them positive.

Smith is not aware of other newspapers implementing this concept, but he says editors from all over the country have contacted him to say it's a good idea. One of them, Deborah Howell, Washington bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News Service, says the practice is an interesting departure. Now, in addition to writers, "maybe story editors and headline writers will also be held accountable and get recognition," Howell says.

But Griffin Smith jr., executive editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, doesn't see the need. "It seems to be a bigger solution than the problem warrants," he says. "Now disgruntled readers can argue with the copy desk, instead of the reporters? Most readers don't want to discuss headlines with the copy desk." Smith's paper does print daily boxes in most sections including editors' names, titles, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but attaching names to individual stories is "not something we at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are rushing to do," he says.

At Colorado Springs' Gazette, assistant editors are not in the paper's masthead every day, so this is a way for them to be recognized, Smith says.

Smaller and mid-size papers are more likely to embrace the idea because orthodoxy isn't as entrenched, he adds. But who says the little guy can't set a standard that even the New York Times could follow? "It's a shame that big papers won't accept it," Smith says. "It should be adopted."

By Jennifer L. Goodale
Edited by Lori Robertson
Headline by Rem Rieder
Designed by Lissa Cronin
Fact-checked by Bridget Gutierrez
Lawyered by Alice Lucan
Proofread by Chris Harvey and Carol Guensburg