Stephen Pritchard is the readers’ editor of The Observer, where he has also been production editor, managing editor and assistant editor. He has twice chaired the Organisation of News Ombudsman, a professional body made up of readers’ editors and standards editors working in newspapers and broadcasting right around the world.
As readers’ editor he sits between the paper and its readers, receiving complaints and observations both from those who read the paper and those who may feel injured by its coverage. He is given the freedom to decide whether redress is necessary, publishing corrections and writing a column on the paper’s journalism.
“It’s a fascinating role,” he said. “It allows me to both keep faith with the readers and to defend good journalism. People will always try to use a complaints system to undermine honest reporting. Now that everything is online as well as in print, the pressure to massage disobliging stories is increasing. It’s my job to decide when complaints are justified and when they should be resisted.”
He says he would not be able to operate without the good grounding he had in the 1970s as an indentured trainee reporter at the Portsmouth News and at NCTJ block release courses at Highbury College.
“The News had an excellent scheme, complementing thorough on-the-job training with vigorous courses at Highbury. We were taught shorthand, both during the working week and at Highbury, and were introduced to the mysteries of reporting and general newspaper practice by scores of older, wiser colleagues, who, while always encouraging, would not hesitate to castigate you if your copy wasn’t up to scratch.”
Like many of his generation, he has fond memories of David Kett’s lively classes at Highbury. “His imaginative teaching of politics and public administration made the subject come alive,” said Stephen, who also appreciated the patience of the shorthand teachers. “Here’s a tip for anyone starting out,” he said. “Improve your handwriting. If you have good handwriting then your shorthand will be easier. My handwriting has always been lousy, and it showed in my shorthand. It took me nine attempts to pass my 100 words a minute.”
After gaining his NCTJ proficiency qualification, Stephen stayed on at the News, joining the subs’ desk before becoming deputy features editor. “I worked for the tremendous Nigel Peake, whose schoolboy son Tim would regularly race around the office. Years later he made headlines himself by rocketing off into space.”
Stephen left for the London Evening Standard in 1984, where he became deputy chief sub. “It was only when I arrived in Fleet Street that I realised how good my training had been,” he said. “In those days, the Standard was producing six editions a day, and speed and accuracy were vital – skills that had been instilled in me both at the News and at Highbury.”
Throughout his time at The Observer, Stephen has been at the forefront of massive technological change but he maintains that, however the news is produced and presented, the eternal verities of journalism – those that are best learned through the NCTJ – are unchanging.
“The mainstream media is under enormous pressure today but it can resist that pressure by maintaining its credibility,” he says. “In an increasingly frantic and noisy digital world, providers of verifiable, credible news become vital for democracy. Only a proper training can equip tomorrow’s journalists to report the news faithfully and tell uncomfortable truths that the powerful want to keep secret.”