The Sunday Times has published the summary of the findings of a four-person panel appointed to look at the newspaper's policies and processes.  In brief, the panel has recommended a review of the paper's structures and policies, to avoid editorial missteps.

This is the executive summary of an examination of this newspaper’s operations by Paula Fray, Anton Harber, Dario Milo and Franz Kruger:

 

IN September 2008, a four-person panel was appointed to review the Sunday Times’s editorial processes after a number of high-profile story retractions.

The first story was published on November 11 2007 on the front page under the headline “How fat cats looted Land Bank billions”. The press ombudsman ruled that the publication of the story was in breach of the press code. The second story was published on August 24 2008, also on the front page, under the headline “Transnet sold our sea to foreigners”. The story was subsequently retracted.

The panel was asked to make recommendations “to enable the Sunday Times to produce bold, incisive journalism that maintains the utmost credibility with its audience”. The members of the panel were Professor Anton Harber of the journalism department at the University of the Witwatersrand, communications expert Paula Fray, former journalist Franz Kruger and lawyer Dario Milo.

The panel interviewed more than 80 staff members, reviewed documentation and editorial processes, studied international best practice and undertook four case studies of problematic stories.

It found that the paper’s stature and a string of successes in previous years had led to complacency and that, over time, some policies, practices and structures had become inadequate.

The organisational structure had become top-heavy and too thin on the front lines of news generation, with a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities, particularly among the proliferation of senior editorial managers.

There was no chief subeditor, regarded as a vanguard for quality control, and there was a need to strengthen the office of the managing editor. There was also a need for resources to be redirected to the start of the process — story generation. The weekly Johannesburg newsroom diary meeting was seldom happening, and too many decisions were being deferred to a large conference.

Rewriting by senior editors was raised as a problem, with many expressing unhappiness with the process of rewriting a lead story into a “splash”. Subeditors and junior reporters felt disempowered and marginalised in this process. Internal communication was seriously inadequate and needed improvement, especially among managers and general staff, as well as between Johannesburg and the provincial bureaus.

Staff development was also identified as an essential issue, not just in terms of induction processes but also continuing training that would help to minimise potential errors and, most importantly, the rewrite process.

There was general dissatisfaction and lack of clarity about the company’s performance management system. The key performance assessments were identified as potential deterrents to getting exclusives because reporters stuck to predictable stories.

The panel considered various editorial policies, such as the policy on gifts and freebies, and found a need for them to be reviewed, updated and for gaps to be filled. Additional policies were needed on plagiarism, corrections and apologies, privacy, the use of unconventional methods of reporting, and the handling of taste, decency and violence.

The Sunday Times used an accuracy check form, which was designed to ensure that reporters meet accuracy and fairness requirements. There was, however, no consistency in the use of the form and few consequences for not using it or for getting facts wrong. The disciplinary process was described as uneven and this appeared to have had an impact on morale.

There was agreement that the form was a useful tool, but also criticism that it had been reduced to a bureaucratic formality. It needed to be supplemented with a more comprehensive system of quality-monitoring, with firm checkpoints and clear responsibilities for signing off on stories.

The panel believed the paper’s approach to sourcing was a crucial flaw in current Sunday Times policy and practice. There was an urgent need to return to the forms of attribution typical of journalism.

The Sunday Times had a set process for stories that had potential legal issues, yet neither the Transnet nor the first Land Bank stories had been sent for external legal advice. There was general concern about the lack of training on legal and other issues.

The response to stories that elicited complaints also pointed to a lack of policy on complaints and corrections.

The panel believed that secrecy surrounding investigations should be kept to an absolute minimum. When secrecy was required, a small team of senior people should be assigned early in the process to guide the project.

The scope of this report was limited to the news operation of the Sunday Times. The perception exists that The Times and Times Online have drained the weekly’s resources, but this view was challenged.

The panel found real frustrations related to the demands for online content.

The panel noted that, while there were many criticisms of the systems and processes, the editor-in-chief emerged as well respected and well placed to lead the newspaper out of the current situation.


The panel made several recommendations, key among which were:

  • The appointment of a public editor to investigate complaints and engage with readers and the general public;
  • A review of the paper’s staff structure, particularly in relation to news generation, clarification of roles and responsibilities, strengthening of the managing editor’s office and the reinstatement of the position of chief subeditor;
  • A more rigorous internal communication process;
  • The implementation of a structured induction process and proactive newsroom-based training programmes;
  • A review of existing editorial policies and an update to cover new policies; and
  • The accuracy check form should be reviewed and incorporated into a more comprehensive system to ensure editorial integrity.

The panel believed there should be open debate on these recommendations, as well as a structured review of their implementation.

* This executive summary was published on the Sunday Times website on 14 December 2008.