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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   May 1999  issue

Times to Listen   

The L.A. Times gets its first readers' representative. Narda Zacchino, the paper's associate editor and vice president, steps into the role.


By Jennifer L. Goodale
     


By 9 a.m. on an average weekday, Narda Zacchino will have 40 phone messages. By midafternoon, she can expect that number to climb to 75.
A little unusual for an associate editor and vice president of the Los Angeles Times,? Not really, when you consider that she's also taken on the job of the paper's first readers' representative.
"The Times is a huge enterprise, and sometimes a big paper can come off as being aloof or arrogant," Zacchino, 51, says. "There's a real trust that readers place in us. We in the industry have sometimes forgotten who we exist for. We exist for our readers."
The position is a brand new one for the Times, whose readers were previously at the mercy of the first person to answer the phone--whether that was a clerk, reporter, editor or publisher--when trying to log a complaint. With 990 journalists in the newsroom, it's hard to let readers know whom to call, says Los Angeles Times Editor and Executive Vice President Michael Parks.
When Parks came on board a year ago, he immediately started work on getting a reader representative in place. He wanted someone who would be more responsive to readers, who deserve to have a representative with a face and an address, Parks says. "We want to be a reader's paper."
He approached Zacchino, a 29-year LAT veteran, last summer, and she immediately began talking to other reader representatives, going out into various sectors of the community and consulting a recent ASNE credibility survey, which documented public distrust of newspapers.
Despite the fact that credibility has been such a concern among journalists and their editors, only 34 U.S. papers have ombudsmen who are members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, according to Gina Lubrano, the group's vice president and readers representative at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Zacchino became readers' representative March 18. She received her first phone call at 4:54 a.m. that day. The volume of response has been so great--more than 75 e-mails, about 70 phone messages and 30 letters a day--says Zacchino, that "if I had 20- hour days, I couldn't answer all the complaints."
Zacchino's major duties include writing an occasional column to demystify journalism for readers and an internal staff newsletter on issues readers are raising. She wants both to be entertaining and humorous but also informative. In addition, Zacchino, a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, will talk to community groups and coordinate meetings between readers and various Times reporters, editors and photographers.
The Times, with a circulation hovering under 1.1 million, isn't the only paper to begin taking a real interest in the bad and the good that readers have to say. In the last six months, the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and several other big dailies have established positions devoted to readers.
The Times' readers are taking full advantage of their new voice at the paper. People complain about anything from grammar--a big issue with many--to the daily crossword puzzle. In fact, Zacchino received more complaints about a recent change in the Times' crossword than on any other issue.
Besides being attuned to the moods of the Los Angeles community, Zacchino is one of the most experienced editors at the Times. Since 1970, Zacchino, a former chair of ASNE's diversity committee, has overseen the Times' nine feature sections and has held various editorial positions, including reporter, Sacramento bureau chief, Orange County Edition editor and deputy managing editor.
"For the L.A. Times to do this sends a very big signal to others on the fence," says John V. R. Bull, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and assistant to the editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. But, he adds, this "is the tip of the iceberg."