Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 16, 2007

To Ombud or Not To Ombud

Are internal media watchdogs an expensive PR ploy or a useful tool in maintaining journalistic accountability?

Adam Conner-Simons

Some newspaper ombudsmen prefer to be called "ombuddies," but as the Washington Post's Deborah Howell tells Gelf, "You don't have any friends in this job." That's because ombudsmen are put in the unusual position of critiquing the work of their colleagues and the very institution they work for.

The ombudsman (also known as the "public editor" or "reader representative") serves as an in-house critic and mediator between the paper and the public. The Hartford Courant's Karen Hunter says that her responsibility is "to explain how the newsroom works to readers, and to tell the newsroom how the readers feel about them."

Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS
"You have to totally remove yourself from internal affairs, or else you spend all of your time explaining the paper rather than critiquing its content."

Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS

Considering the rich history of journalism in the US, the ombudsman is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. A growing consolidation of media outlets in the 1960s led to an emerging public skepticism of the press, and in 1967, the Louisville Courier-Journal became the first American newspaper to address the problem by hiring a readers' representative. Over the last 40 years, though, few other papers have hired ombudsman; the New York Times was ombudsman-free until the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. Today, there are fewer than 40 ombudsman jobs in the country, and many major papers—including the Wall Street Journal—have chosen not to hire one.

There are many reasons for publishers to be hesitant to employ an in-house critic. Newspapers are in a marked economic downturn, and many lack the financial resources to support a public editor. "If I have a small newspaper and I have to choose between an ombudsman telling me what I'm doing wrong, and a reporter," Hunter says, "I'll probably go with the reporter."

Just last month, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, one of the first major newspapers to hire an ombudsman, indefinitely eliminated the position, relocating reader representative Kate Perry to the paper's health-care section (Editor & Publisher). "In a time of dwindling resources," the editors wrote in an internal memo, "we need more help with the journalism in the newsroom."

Money aside, some argue that staffers should serve as their own public editors, and that ombudsmen can't effectively critique their colleagues. A 2003 article in Reason Magazine takes this tack, suggesting that the hiring of an ombudsman is merely a PR tactic by organizations with troubled reputations.

Public editors understand readers' concerns about the fact that they are paid by the same institution they critique, but maintain that their supervisors give them complete freedom of expression. "The paper doesn't fear criticism any more than it fears publishing corrections," the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's David House tells Gelf. "It all has to do with respect for the need to maintain credibility."

Another benefit of ombudsmen is less controversial: There is no doubt that they have brought to light the discrepancy between what reporters and readers deem to be important. In particular, some editors are disappointed by the lack of journalistic substance to many readers' concerns. The San Antonio Express News's Bob Richter remembers getting an inordinate amount of negative feedback—including numerous threatening late-night phone calls to his home—after the paper shortened its TV-listings section. Although it may be tempting to attribute this disconnect to journalists being "out of touch" with readers, most ombudsmen recognize it as a reminder of all the different ways newspapers serve the public. "My idea of the paper may mean nothing to someone else who is getting it for the comics," the Sacramento Bee's Armando Acuna says.

An ombudsman's place in the newsroom is different from most other newspaper employees not only symbolically, but also contractually. While many public editors cannot be fired, the downside is that they are rarely given benefits, bonuses, or raises. Some papers, like the New York Times, institute policies in which public editors serve a fixed,limited amount of time, or are prohibited from writing for the paper ever again.

The extent of ombudsmen's involvement in the paper is also restricted. They usually do not attend newsroom meetings nor do they go through the traditional editorial chain of command, thus allowing them to forgo touchy conflicts with editors responsible for the stories. Many ombudsmen find such separation essential for doing the job well. "You have to totally remove yourself from [internal affairs]," PBS's Michael Getler says. "Otherwise you wind up spending all of your time explaining the paper rather than critiquing its content."

One might assume that, even within the institution itself, ombudsmen would have the toughest time making friends. While ombudsmen do not describe their newsroom relationships as particularly chummy, most say that reporters understand the public editor's role and are good sports about being critiqued. "It's a professional relationship," Howell says. "They don't have to like me, as long as they respect me."

Related on the Web

• In an article in the Boston Phoenix, Mark Jurkowitz writes about his two years as the ombudsman for the Boston Globe.

• Daniel Okrent, the first New York Times public editor, published Public Editor #1, a compilation of his articles as the first ombudsman for the New York Times.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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- Media
- posted on Nov 20, 07
Mark Phillips

PR ploy.

And an enormous waste of money.

Readers (I mean, those who are still reading American daily newspapers) don't need a mediator between them and the newspaper.

American newspapers should worry more about how they're boring readers to death. Exciting, European free dailies are helping to increase overall circulation, while managers of American papers whine about how softening job, real estate, and auto markets are dragging down ad revenues and with it, circ.

If American papers want to continue driving readers away, then by all means, they should continue to discuss topics such as whether they need a public editor.

- Media
- posted on Nov 20, 07
Lou Gelfand

Michael Getler's comment is a bull's eye: The ombudsman who explains rather than critiques is a public relations lackey. --Lou Gelfand (ombudsman. Minneapolis
Star Tribune, 1981-2003.

Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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