Q&A with Deirdre Edgar, readers’ representative at the L.A. Times

Deirdre Edgar is the new readers’ representative at the Los Angeles Times. Edgar is a longtime copy editor and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Copy Editors Society. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Edgar discusses her job, common complaints from readers and how her editing background influences her new role.

Q. Describe your job. What does the readers’ representative do on a typical day?

The official mission of the readers’ representative’s office is to help uphold The Times’ standards on accuracy and fairness. I also see it as an explanatory role, explaining readers’ points of view to the newsroom and the newsroom’s thinking or decision-making to readers.

A lot of my day is spent on e-mail. Most reader questions, comments, complaints come in electronically. I read everything, then must decide whether complaints or calls for correction are warranted. The AME/copy desks, Henry Fuhrmann, is the paper’s standards editor, and as such, he is responsible for corrections. I forward a lot of things to him.

I also have a blog, the Readers’ Representative Journal at latimes.com/readers, which I try to post to daily. Some of my posts so far have addressed The Times’ coverage of Haiti and the Toyota recalls, a style change regarding the use of “today” as a time element and why “who dat” isn’t racist.

As part of my explanatory role, I’ve also started hosting online chats with readers. The first one featured reporter Joe Mozingo, who had just returned from covering the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

There’s a readers’ rep Twitter account, too, @LATreadersrep, although I haven’t done much with it yet. I want to monitor Twitter more, especially The Times’ main account, @latimes, because we get a lot of feedback there that very few people here ever see.

Q. What are some of the common questions and concerns you get?

Anything and everything! The paper made an error — factual or grammatical. The paper is biased — generally people say toward the left, but it surprises me how often people say a story takes the Republican side. A person wants an article taken off latimes.com because it’s old, embarrassing or they don’t like it (we generally don’t do that because the Web site is a record of a public journal). The reader didn’t get his paper, or there’s a billing problem — but those I forward.

And then last week The Times made changes to its crossword and comics pages as part of a reduction in page width, so that drew a flood of e-mails and calls. I’ve responded to each person who’s written to us about the changes. And thankfully the AME/design was able to change the layout of the crossword to address readers’ complaints.

Q. How does your editing background influence how you do your new job?

A. The goals are the same, being concerned about accuracy and fairness. But now I’m looking at stories after they’re published instead of before.

I was previously The Times’ national copy desk chief, and on that desk we still had the luxury of being able to fact-check stories. (I know that’s not the case elsewhere, or even on some other desks here.) I use those fact-checking skills now to research reader questions or items for the blog.

And when colleagues express sympathy that I have to answer reader complaints, I’ve been joking that I’m used to having a thankless job — I was a copy editor for 19 years.

Q. Many newspapers have eliminated positions like yours. Why does the Los Angeles Times consider the readers’ representative a job worth keeping in these difficult times?

A. The Times’ editor, Russ Stanton, made a big push to keep this position when my predecessor decided to step down after 10 years. He felt that, more than ever, now was not the time for the paper to turn its back on readers. I agree with that completely — and would even if I hadn’t been chosen to do this job.

Follow the Los Angeles Times readers’ representative on Twitter and read her blog.