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From AJR,   February/March 2007

An Unwelcome Guest   

Online Exclusive » Guest-edited magazine issues and newspaper sections are a truly bad idea.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

It was a classic "What was he thinking?"

There's no way to put a positive spin on Andrés Martinez's decision to turn the Los Angeles Times' Current section over to a Hollywood producer--one who is now repped by a PR firm whose vice president Martinez is dating.

Equally misguided was Martinez's "mistakes were made"-style online outburst in which he seemed far more eager to take shots at other people at the paper than to accept responsibility for a big-time blunder.

As for L.A. Times Publisher David Hiller's decision to scrap the producer's ill-fated section, good for him. Given the sheer wrong-headedness of the venture and all the turmoil it stirred up--as if the L.A. Times needed more turmoil--it was probably best to cut the paper's losses and move on.

But there's another point that needs to be made about this unhappy situation: Guest-edited sections, and the more common guest-edited magazine issues, are a truly bad idea. This is a buzz-inducing gimmick that should be returned to its rightful home in Oblivion.

I'm all for the notion of openness, of citizen voices, of listening to new thinking and new approaches. There's no doubt journalism needs them in abundance in these wrenching times.

But the ultimate decision-making needs to rest with the journalists. To do anything else is a mammoth abrogation of responsibility.

Think of all the care that--we like to think, anyway--goes into choosing the editor of a publication or a section like Current. Those jobs bring with them a huge burden. The reputation of the news organization rests in that person's hands.

In its effort to line up more local news for its newspapers and Web sites, Gannett is making ample use of civilians. But, as Michael Maness, the newspaper giant's vice president of strategic planning, told AJR contributing writer Donna Shaw for an article in our upcoming issue, "In terms of doing news, you still need that professional journalist--people who can build on [readers'] leads."

It's often said that journalism isn't (pick your cliché here) rocket science or brain surgery. And that's true.

But it's also not nothing.

While it may be difficult for hardcore critics of the MSM to believe, journalism actually does involve some skill. You really can't just pull anybody off the street--even a big name anybody like Bono, who is guest-editing an upcoming issue of Vanity Fair--and expect to end up with a magazine or an opinion and comment section like Current that lives up to the ethical standards and quality expectations of the field.

Not that journalism is perfect, as you may have noticed. But at least, in most cases, there is a commitment to at least try to live up to those standards.

Then there is the conflict of interest question. Hollywood is a major coverage area for the L.A. Times. Do you really want a player making editorial decisions for the paper?

According to an L.A. Times story, Martinez wanted the roster of future Current guest editors to include Donald Rumsfeld and Magic Johnson. While the future of this experiment is unclear, let's just hope Rumsfeld--a friend of Times Publisher Hiller--doesn't get a chance to do for newspapers what he did for the war in Iraq. The lights might be turned off even more quickly than we anticipated.

Two final thoughts: I don't know about you, but I'm not eager to fly on the first airline to offer up a "guest pilot" program.

And I promise I'll be more enthusiastic about the next guest-edited magazine or newspaper section as soon as Brian Grazer, the editor of that doomed L.A. Times section and the producer of, among other things, "A Beautiful Mind," names a practicing journalist to direct a major motion picture.