Lonely Critics  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

Lonely Critics   

A few college newspapers are appointing ombudsmen to critique their content and address readers’ concerns. The job isn’t an easy one.

By Jay McDaniel
Jay McDaniel is an AJR editorial assistant.     


"Keep up the lousy job you're doing, Scumbudsman," mocked a recent Internet post blasting Scott Goldstein, the ombudsman at the University of Maryland's daily newspaper, the Diamondback.

Goldstein brushes off the attack, but he admits the feedback — and he's struggling to solicit more — is rarely positive from either readers or reporters. He is one of an emerging group of ombudsmen at university newspapers who, like their professional counterparts, have taken on the often misunderstood and thankless job of representing readers and critiquing the paper.

There is no official tally of how many university newspapers have an ombudsman. The Associated Collegiate Press, which tracks college newspapers, says they are a rare breed, if only because the high staff turnover rate does not dovetail well with the experience expected in an ombudsman. A search of major university papers using Uwire.com, a college media connection site, turned up nine individuals who serve as ombudsmen, all appointed less than a year ago.

The few college editors who have named ombudsmen cite a desire to make their newspapers more responsive to readers and to raise standards of accuracy and fairness while facing the challenges of a rotating student staff and a diverse campus audience.

That was Diamondback Editor in Chief Megan Watzin's thinking when she hired Goldstein in late August. The paper had appointed its first ombudsman during the 2003-2004 school year; after he graduated, she believed the Diamondback began to lose touch with its audience. When Watzin introduced Goldstein to readers, she wrote that his job was "to tune into readers and critique the paper, both internally and publicly." Added Goldstein: "It is a job I believe is essential to any publication with an interest in holding its staff accountable to its readers."

Lisa Fleisher, the ombudsman at the University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily, outlined similar goals in her debut piece: "I see this less as an opinion column and more as a way to make a newspaper more interactive. I understand the daily challenges that face student reporters and editors and can hopefully help you, the reader, understand that as well."

Andy Jensen, the ombudsman of the State Hornet at California State University, Sacramento, and a former news editor at the paper, says he was tapped because the editor in chief "wanted some oversight of the paper to lend credibility to the editorial process and allow a channel for reporting on the paper itself."

Last spring, he criticized the Hornet for incomplete coverage of the student elections. "Yes there was coverage, but it was far from comprehensive," he wrote in a May 4 column. "More emphasis needed to be placed on who the candidates were, what they planned on doing and where they stood on the issues facing students today."

As in the professional world, sometimes a controversy galvanizes an ombudsman's appointment. The University News, the weekly at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, created the position last January on the recommendation of the Kansas City Press Club after a dispute between the paper and the university's student government association. The SGA had accused the News of targeting the association with sensational and possibly libelous stories, and threatened to slash its funding. As for criticism that designating an ombudsman was a sign of caving in to the SGA's censorship demands, Editor in Chief Emily Iorg says her paper is still independent but realized "we did need somebody to explain who we are."

She appointed Samir Patel, who says it hasn't been easy to stir student interest. "We're one of the smallest Division I schools," Patel says. "We're also a commuter campus. So it's hard to get students involved. I want to let them know that it's their paper, and we write for them. Without them, we're nothing."

Patel says he has one advantage in connecting with readers that professional newspaper ombudsmen don't: As a fellow student, he sees them every day — at class, in the courtyard, at parties and events. "People know me on campus and come to me. [With] each article there's a picture and contact info. They recognize me. I try to let them know I'm on their side — their representative for the paper," he says.

Other student ombudsmen have had similar troubles rousing their peers. Goldstein, a senior majoring in journalism, admits the toughest part of his job is reader feedback — or the lack thereof: "I've been pretty frustrated by the fact that readers just don't e-mail me," he says. Part of the problem is confusion about the ombudsman's role. "Most nonjournalists that I talk to — and not just college students — when I say, 'ombudsman,' they're like, 'What is that?'" he says.

The State Hornet's Jensen says he initially went out and searched for column ideas among his readers, but interest is gradually picking up. He's received five times as many letters this semester as last, mainly from groups concerned with the adequacy of the paper's coverage of special-interest groups and events.

As the students' representatives, ombudsmen have to distance themselves from friends at the paper. That's not easy, editors say, and it's one reason there are so few ombudsmen positions among students. Though Patel still writes the occasional movie review for the University News, he tries not to get involved with its editorial content and acts as an outside source of constructive criticism. Besides a regular (usually biweekly) column, this criticism often includes internal critiques. Patel sends out a weekly "Reader's Rep. Report" to the University News staff in which he examines issues like incomplete reporting, factual errors, bias and story placement. He concedes his peers took awhile to warm to the critiques.

Goldstein doesn't hold back in his weekly internal criticisms either. "I'm not out there to humiliate anybody," he says, "but at the same time, I'm going to point out major stuff and try to make suggestions [on] how they could have gone about it to make it better."

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