The Ombudsman Puzzle  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2005

The Ombudsman Puzzle   

The relationship between the public and the media is troubled. It seems logical for a news outlet to assign someone to listen to audience concerns and analyze its news coverage. So why are there so few ombudsmen?

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     


Orage Quarles III needed to catch his breath.

The pace of news and change has been rapid for most newspapers during the last four years. But at Raleigh's News & Observer, where Quarles is president and publisher, it has seemed positively dizzying.

Not only has the paper had to scramble to cover the huge stories of politics and the war on terror, it's had to wrestle with "more hurricanes than any of us want to remember, ice storms and even the National Hockey League," Quarles says. "Here we were in Raleigh in June covering hockey."

What's more, he adds, "The community we serve is very complex and diverse, with a lot of highly educated people who have lots of choices to get information."

Given all that, and with readers demanding more from news organizations and trusting them less, Quarles thought that the 164,000-circulation N&O should have someone whose full-time job was listening to its readers and examining whether the paper was serving them as it should. He decided he should hire an ombudsman.

Just one thing held him back: money. Then, last year, when the McClatchy paper consolidated printing operations and staff with those of its community papers, he realized the resources were available and the time was ripe. The paper took on former Chapel Hill News Editor and Publisher Ted Vaden as its first public editor in November.

"Having someone who will call it the way they see it adds enormous credibility to your product. That's why we're doing this," Quarles says. "I've always believed that if people have the opportunity to sit down and talk, this would be a much easier world to live in. With the public editor we have one more person who has the ability to talk to these readers. That's a plus."

The N&O's public editor joins what National Public Radio Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin calls "a slightly undiscovered journalistic subculture." There are fewer than 40 ombudsmen, also called public editors, reader representatives and reader advocates, tasked with holding U.S. news organizations accountable to readers, listeners and viewers. Almost all are at newspapers.

Of the new ombudsman, Quarles says: "If we screw up, the most important thing is that he has the ability to explain what's going on."

Makes sense. But in a nation with 1,500 daily newspapers, three network news operations, three cable news networks and countless radio and TV stations and Web sites, a roster of fewer than 40 ombudsmen hardly signifies a groundswell. And that number has remained fairly constant for years. If the ombudsman's role is so wonderful, why aren't there more of them?

The News & Observer decided to go the ombudsman route on its own, without outside pressure. For the New York Times, it took a crisis.

For decades, the Times rejected the idea that it might benefit from an independent critique. "We worried that it would foster nit-picking and navel-gazing, that it might undermine staff morale and, worst of all, that it would absolve other editors of their responsibility to represent the interests of readers," wrote Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in a memo to his staff in 2003.

After reporter Jayson Blair's extensive plagiarism and fabrication came to light that year (see "All About the Retrospect," June/July 2003), the paper found itself searching for a way to regain its credibility and prevent a recurrence while becoming more open to criticism and accessible to its audience.

The Times needed to make what former Washington Post Ombudsman Joann Byrd, a member of the external committee that investigated Blair's misdeeds, calls an "ostentatious display of accountability" by appointing an independent critic.

Even some who don't embrace the ombudsman concept in their own newsrooms say the Times needed to appoint one. "There is a time in the life cycle of a news organization when hiring an ombudsman is called for," says Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, which dropped its own reader representative position in 2001. "It's when a newsroom has become arrogant and detached and could not recognize its errors in judgment."

The Times appointed author Daniel Okrent as its public editor in December 2003. An ombudsman "can make us more sensitive on matters of fairness and accuracy, and enhance our credibility," Keller wrote.

Those who track ombudsmen wonder whether the New York Times imprimatur will encourage other American news organizations to follow its lead. Right now, as Art Nauman, former ombudsman of the Sacramento Bee, points out, "Ombudsmanship is not your basic growth industry."

As journalism struggles to salvage its credibility with the public and prevent future ethical lapses, can appointing an ombudsman help?

Publishers have been asking that question for nearly a century. The ombudsman concept made its debut in American journalism at the New York World, which established an internal Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play in 1913. After the yellow journalism era, the World hoped creating the bureau would help it improve its standards and "find its way in the competitive and shrinking marketplace for newspapers in New York," says Neil Nemeth, an associate professor of communication at Purdue University Calumet, who studies news ombudsmen. The first official ombudsman was appointed at the Courier-Journal and the Times in Louisville in 1967.

Boosting standards and reaching out to readers remain the two main reasons news organizations appoint reader representatives.

Bringing an ombudsman on board sends the message that the paper, station or network is willing to subject itself to the kind of scrutiny it applies to everyone else. "Newspapers are among the most powerful institutions in the community, but nobody holds them as accountable as we hold government, universities or businesses," Vaden says. "It's an important role for the newspaper, especially in this time of concern about credibility with readers."

And having someone whose primary job is to listen shows readers that their opinions matter to the news outlet. "News organizations need individuals who can withdraw from the bustle of the newsroom and get some perspective on performance by communicating--thoughtfully, intelligently, empathetically--with people who care enough to offer their views to the organization," wrote Kenneth Starck, former ombudsman for Iowa's Cedar Rapids Gazette, via e-mail from the United Arab Emirates, where he is communications and media science dean at Zayed University.

The ombudsman serves as "an entry point into a very confusing system for readers," says Connie Coyne, reader advocate for the Salt Lake Tribune. It's better to have readers calling a single person "rather than having them [transferred] all over the room, half nuts by the time they talk to someone."

Nemeth's studies show that there's a widespread perception that the ombudsman is a public relations agent for his or her employer. Not surprisingly, many public editors resist that notion. "I don't want to use the column to make excuses for the newspaper when that shouldn't be done," says Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler.

But others say the job's public relations value is important. "When angry readers contact me, some of them just want to vent," says Mike Needs, public editor at the Akron Beacon Journal. "I feel successful when a phone call that began in anger can end in a reasonable conversation."

An ombudsman can serve readers--and the paper--by explaining how journalism works and how the news organization makes decisions. This is critical, reader advocates say, because if newspapers don't do it, someone else will. "It's a winning situation all-round anytime an organization attempts to explain itself and be responsive to audience concerns," says Starck. "The various 'marts'--Wal and K--do a better job in this regard than most news organizations."

Marvin Lake, public editor of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, spelled out in a 2001 column why the paper would refrain from publishing troop movements and details about base security. "People tend to believe decisions are made willy-nilly," he says. "This lets people see that all those decisions aren't off the top of our heads. A lot of forethought and discussion goes into it."

Just as important as explaining journalism to readers, ombudsmen say, is communicating readers' needs to journalists. Most news organizations have created "a barrier between what the reader wants and what the newspaper delivers," says Akron's Needs. These barriers can be institutional, professional and cultural. The public editor's job is to tear them down.

News organizations have " 'blind spots,' those areas that have achieved popularity in American society but have gained almost no foothold among journalists," Needs wrote in a column last year. "Newspeople do not hunt, in much the same way they generally don't go to gun shows, don't play video games and don't watch auto racing." He called on the Beacon Journal to cover these areas more thoroughly.

An ombudsman can also advocate better play for a specific story that readers crave. That's what Salt Lake City's Coyne did last fall when a new supply of flu shots became available after a national shortage had been announced in October. "The story would have been on the local page," she says. "But I'd heard from a steady stream of readers asking us to let them know when more flu shots became available." Coyne lobbied the story onto A1. "It's quite a service for the reader because I think they ought to have a voice, and I think they appreciate that," she says.

The ombudsman can play an important role in maintaining high standards. "Having an ombudsman is not an automatic guarantee of error-free journalism, but it is an indication that a news organization is committed to good standards and practices in its journalism," says NPR's Dvorkin.

Public editors hear from readers about everything from spelling errors to reporting problems on major stories, and can in turn push for corrections. At the Washington Post, Ombudsman Getler is credited with helping to set the record straight on the Jessica Lynch story. (The Post's early coverage of Lynch, a 19-year-old army supply clerk whose convoy had been ambushed during the Iraq war, greatly inflated both her exploits and her injuries.) At some papers, ombudsmen decide whether corrections are called for, and even write them.

Accuracy is also improved by allowing the ombudsman to serve as a conduit for the staff's concerns, Getler says. He thinks that if there had been an ombudsman at the New York Times in the months leading up to the Blair scandal or at USA Today while Jack Kelley was plagiarizing and making up quotes, their misdeeds would have come to light much earlier. At USA Today, many staffers were suspicious of Kelley's work, but were reluctant to approach supervisors because of the perception that Kelley was a management favorite. Journalists need someone who will listen to them, Getler says. "They don't want the paper to be embarrassed."

But they also don't want to be embarrassed themselves. "There's an internal affairs element to these jobs where you have to deal with people pretty bluntly with their skills, prejudices and fairness," says former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Public Editor Mike King.

Although most reporters and editors agree with the goal of maintaining high standards, they may be less than thrilled to become the subject of the reader representative's column. "When you're a journalist, you really pour your heart and soul into your work," Needs says. When criticized, journalists can get defensive. Negative reaction to some of Okrent's early columns in the Times ranged from prickly to angry, and Getler has tangled with a Post editor in back-and-forth memos.

Still, many reporters and editors are glad their papers have someone explaining the news business to readers, even if they don't always agree with the conclusions they draw. When the Baltimore Sun's public editor, Paul Moore, wrote about reader response to a piece by Sun features columnist Susan Reimer, she didn't share his take on her work.

Her November 9 Today section column "Got Values?" had attacked the post-election notion that Republicans had cornered the market on moral values. "Apparently, if you are more worried about a Super Bowl halftime show than about the fact that the United States invaded a sovereign nation without provocation, you've got values," she wrote.

Readers responded strongly, with both positive and negative e-mails, prompting Moore's column. "I had hoped that the result of the column would be Paul explaining to our readers the difference between a columnist and a reporter. It turned out not to be," Reimer says. Instead, Moore asked whether Reimer's column should have appeared in the features section, or on the op-ed page, as some readers suggested. He included reader comments from both sides of the issue. Moore included comments from Reimer, a practice most ombudsmen make a point to do before filing.

"I felt like he was saying that my political opinions did not belong on the Today page," she says. "If I'm reading it correctly, then I hugely disagree with him." Still, Reimer thinks having an ombudsman serves the Sun's readers by explaining the newsgathering process, and says the column of which she was the subject "raised some excellent points."

So why are there so few ombudsmen? The reason cited most frequently is money.

When a publisher considers appointing an ombudsman, he or she often contacts the Organization of News Ombudsmen--ONO, pronounced "Oh-No" by members, as in "Oh, no! Here comes the ombudsman!"--a professional organization with U.S. and international members. San Diego Union-Tribune Readers Representative Gina Lubrano, ONO's executive secretary, says financial constraints often prevent news organizations from creating the position.

When Nemeth surveyed public editors in 1999, he found they earned average salaries between $75,000 and $100,000. Given the choice, most news outlets would rather use that money to hire more reporters--or not spend it at all.

But true believers say ombudsmen are worth the cost. "It's part of your core business, because journalism has the obligation to be transparent, to serve our democracy that way instead of being a defensive redoubt," says Dvorkin, who is ONO's president.

Others say an ombudsman can actually improve the company's bottom line by keeping readers happy. "Newspapers, for our livelihood, depend on someone who decides to extend that subscription another month or to put 50 cents in that box to buy a copy of the paper," Salt Lake City's Coyne says. "We have to do what we can to increase their confidence in news they need to know so they'll keep reading."

But some argue that cost isn't the real reason there are so few ombudsmen. "There's extreme financial pressure on news operations, but if you were talking about the 100 largest papers in the United States, they would be able to afford it," says Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "They're not out there because they make people mad, especially inside a newspaper," he says. "Unless a publisher is moved to demand it, it doesn't happen."

But perhaps it isn't budget constraints or the desire to avoid conflict. Skeptics resist the notion that they should concentrate responsibility for communicating with readers in one position. In fact, some say a public editor can stand in the way of the paper's relationship with its audience.

"The position can easily become a crutch that people use to avoid taking direct responsibility themselves to fix mistakes and address issues," says Miami's Fiedler. "When somebody feels wronged, a reader or someone portrayed in a story, and calls to complain, the first response is, 'You need to talk to the reader representative.'"

But that's OK, Akron's Needs says. "In some ways I do act as a filter because the reader reaction is funneled to me and I distribute it the way I think it will be most effective," he says. "I bring the dispassionate approach necessary to defuse what is often a volatile situation. That would be angry reader versus argumentative editor or reporter. I don't have a dog in that fight."

At most papers, the editor's job is intense, and there may not be enough hours in the day to put out a newspaper and handle reader feedback. The ombudsman can focus on the reader. "I have time to pursue these things as opposed to an editor who has many responsibilities," says Norfolk's Lake. "Maybe it slips their mind. If you've got one person in charge, it's more likely to be done."

But to Madelyn Ross, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it's simply a matter of priorities. She says it's important to have top editors responding to readers whether or not the paper has an ombudsman. She estimates that she and Executive Editor David M. Shribman each spend two hours daily talking to them. "This is not something we squeeze in. We believe in it," she says. "We both return all calls that come our way."

Ellen Soeteber, executive editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, believes direct contact with readers is more valuable than information that has been sifted by a reader advocate.

"When, for example, readers can talk directly with the Page One editor and the photo editor about their objections to a grisly Iraq photo, their concerns hit home with more nuance and substance than when they are filtered through a third person," Soeteber wrote in an e-mail. She and Managing Editor Arnie Robbins eliminated the Post-Dispatch's reader representative position as part of their newsroom reorganization in 2001.

But by virtue of being the boss, says former Sacramento ombudsman Nauman, editors can't fulfill the job's other role: independent critic. "I doubt an editor would be as willing to criticize the staff," he says. "If there's a mistake, it reflects poorly on his own stewardship of the newspaper."

Some editors resist the idea, Purdue's Nemeth says, because they don't want someone looking over their shoulder and potentially undermining their authority.

At the Times, Okrent has heard the argument that printing his criticism provides "balm for the paper's enemies."

"They're right," he says, noting that partisan Web sites use his column to reinforce their arguments. "In any kind of journalism, you have to live with the unintended consequences of your coverage. I think it's important enough for the Times to have someone performing this function that it's worth the consequences."

Most ombudsmen write a column that appears every week or two. By definition, that makes the job very public. But some papers opt to have the reader representative critique the publication in-house.

"We decided it would be maybe more productive to do all of our communicating internally," says Glenn Drosendahl, reader representative at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who does not write a column. "We think we can all learn better if there isn't some kind of public bloodletting."

Without a column, the public editor can be even more focused on listening to readers. "A column consumes your thinking, attention and concern," says Michael Arrieta-Walden, public editor at Portland's Oregonian, who writes one. "There's also no other motivation from staff's perspective when you approach them." Staffers will know that "I'm not talking to you because I'm looking for a column."

Others argue that the column is an essential function of the position. "I think that's a half measure," says Nauman of a column-free ombudsman. "For the public to have real trust in the reader representative, that reader representative has to go public. Otherwise, you're saying, 'Trust me, I'll take [your complaints] to the staff.'"

C.B. Hanif, ombudsman for the Palm Beach Post, argues that "it helps the credibility of the newspaper to have these kinds of questions aired publicly as much as it does to run corrections." But the Post-Gazette's Ross, whose paper doesn't have an ombudsman, believes this can be accomplished without a regular column. "You feel people stretching to make something relevant" when they have to write a weekly column, she says. The Post-Gazette explains coverage "only if there's a topic that needs to be addressed."

While some public editors are involved in accuracy initiatives and meeting with reader focus groups, others see the column as their primary role: "If people in the newsroom are arguing on Monday about the column I wrote on Sunday, they are engaging in the issues that matter to readers," Okrent says. "That's probably my single greatest contribution."

A little more than a year into his 18-month tenure, Okrent believes the public's perception of the Times has improved because it created the position. People tell him, " 'I'm so glad the Times is doing this. It's not as arrogant as it once was.'"

Having an ombudsman has been good for the paper, says Jones, a former Times reporter who cowrote a book about his one-time employer. "The New York Times, like most other large, complicated institutions, has an inherent ability and tendency to ignore or minimize or deflect criticism. It's not that they're doing something consciously even. It's simply that the culture of such places is to default to a position that the criticism is overblown and there were extenuating circumstances."

Having a public editor and giving him free rein has "bolstered credibility for people who are fair-minded," he says. Even critics must "applaud the New York Times for doing the work to fix itself and doing it in public."

Jones adds, "Changes have been made in direct response to the column," noting the new three-tiered system for corrections. While the old system gave all corrections equal weight, the new gives separate space to small but serious corrections, like a name spelled wrong; to errors of more substance; and to editor's notes for an explanation of issues that are particularly serious.

Although Okrent says he'll be ready to return to writing books when his contract runs out in May--the Times plans to name a successor--he is a firm believer in the public editor position. However, "it's not a necessity. They managed to publish a newspaper for more than 100 years without it," he says. If Times editors hadn't appointed him, "there wouldn't be people out marching in the street demanding a public editor."

But there would be readers demanding a voice, and they might be frustrated in their attempts to make a connection with the paper of record.

"It's daunting for people to get through to the New York Times," Fiedler says. Now that it has a public editor, "People feel they have a direct path of accountability and accessibility."

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