Tempting Targets  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2008

Tempting Targets   

The newspaper industry’s financial woes and the rise of external scrutiny leave ombudsmen in a vulnerable position.

By Alex Tilitz
     


In an era of shrinking news budgets, rampant media criticism in the blogosphere and direct e-mail contact between readers and journalists, the nation's small army of ombudsmen is under siege.

Three newspapers have eliminated their ombudsman positions in the past year. That's a palpable hit, given that there are about 1,500 daily newspapers in the country and 30 or so surviving ombudsmen. But at a time when belt-tightening is the norm, it is hardly surprising.

Minneapolis' Star Tribune and the Baltimore Sun reassigned their ombudsmen to editorial positions to cut costs. Kate Parry has been the Star Tribune's health editor since her contract as ombudsman ran out in October. In January, Paul Moore gave up his duties as public editor to become a deputy managing editor for the Sun. The Orlando Sentinel simply didn't replace longtime Ombudsman Manning Pynn when he retired in March.

Ombudsmen are vulnerable targets for cost-conscious publishers. Since so few news organizations employ them, they can be perceived as luxury items. The position also pays relatively well, contributes little content to the paper and uses talent that is often needed elsewhere in today's emptying newsrooms. An extra editor, a couple of reporters or a little extra profit offer a tempting trade-off for losing the house scold.

"In a time of tightening resources, we asked ourselves two basic questions: Is there another way for us to be transparent and respond to readers' concerns, and could The Sun benefit by having one of its best and most experienced editors re-engaged in the mix of the daily paper?" Tim Franklin, editor of the Baltimore Sun, wrote in an e-mail interview. "For us, the answer to both of those questions was yes."

Nancy Barnes, editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune, offered a nearly identical explanation when she reassigned her paper's ombudsman. "At a time when resources are tight, we have had to make some very difficult decisions about how every resource is being used," she was quoted as saying in the ombudsman's final column. "Right now, I believe we owe the readers more smart journalists reporting and editing the news than critiquing the news."

After the ombudsmen at both papers were reassigned, the Sun and the Star Tribune created blogs to foster communication between readers and editors. Though discussion on the Sun's blog is informative – the Star Tribune's blog is rarely updated – such solutions are a substitute for only a portion of an ombudsman's role.

With duties that range from reader liaison to critic, ombudsmen have an unusual, often uncomfortable job. It is not only their duty to listen and respond to readers' concerns but also to confront reporters and editors with their shortcomings. Since many ombudsmen report only to the publisher, they are in a unique position to frankly critique their colleagues.

"I talk to people in the newsroom at the Times a great deal – editors, reporters and other folks," says Clark Hoyt, public editor at the New York Times. "I also spend a lot of my time engaging with readers in one way or another. Those are the two halves of the job."

Hoyt says that when reporters and editors are confronted with his criticism, they are "very open to engaging these things, for the most part. It takes a lot of courage for a news organization to open itself up to that. It's a positive, constructive thing."

Hoyt has not been bashful about finding fault with the Times, as he showed when dissecting the paper's controversial piece about Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's relationship with lobbyists (see Above the Fold, April/May). Referring to the article's suggestion that McCain may have had an affair with a lobbyist, Hoyt wrote, "if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair..it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide."

Clearly, an editors' blog is no substitute for an ombudsman's independent criticism in the pages of the newspaper, and it is that role that ombudsmen frequently cite as the greatest value of the position. However, others suggest that scrutiny from independent blogs makes even that task obsolete.

"If it really matters, chances are Romenesko has already linked it to death and posted plenty of ad hoc commentary on his letters page," wrote Simon Dumenco in the March 24 issue of Advertising Age. "The larger online conversation about media personified and enabled by Romenesko effectively makes any newspaper's public-editor column seem both parochial and anemic."

Not surprisingly, every ombudsman I spoke to rejected Dumenco's suggestion that external critiques make them superfluous. Time and again, ombudsmen said their access to and association with a newspaper gave their comments a weight and value independent blogs could not match.

Blogs are no substitute for newspapers owning up to their own mistakes, says Pam Platt, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and ombudsman at the Courier-Journal in Louisville. "I think that builds credibility, just as when newspapers print their corrections it builds credibility."

When viewed as a tool to build standing in the community and improve a paper from within, the ombudsman is harder to dismiss as an outdated relic. No amount of outside scrutiny can build credibility as well as a news outlet's own efforts to confront its mistakes. In that sense, the position's value has not changed since the first newspaper ombudsman in the U.S. was named in Louisville more than 40 years ago.

Of course, the financial realities of the business have changed dramatically since then. Ombudsmen were never widely employed even during the best of times. And like much of the rest of print journalism, their future is uncertain. "Newspapers, when they're facing the economic challenges they're facing now, have eliminated ombudsmen," says Daniel Okrent, who served as the New York Times' first public editor. "If it comes to having a city hall bureau chief or an ombudsman, you have to have the bureau chief." Nonetheless, Okrent calls the decisions to drop ombudsmen "regrettable."

Derek Donovan, reader's representative at the Kansas City Star, agrees. The ombudsman provides "recourse for people who see an agenda or inaccuracy," he says. "I don't find that particularly luxurious for an institution whose credibility is its greatest asset."

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