40-year-old (om)bud(sman) has yet to flower

Future Tense for Jan. 16, 2007

By Steve Welker

John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News-Record, posted some thoughts Jan. 14 about ombudsmen and public editors ("Ombudsmen: To be or not to be"

Over the past 40 years I have watched recurring debates about newspaper ombudsmen, dating back to the first time the word entered journalism's lexicon.

In March 1967, journalism teacher Kay Keefe, who established the Lyons Township High School Lion in LaGrange, Ill., as a continuing powerhouse among student newspapers, read Ben Bagdikian's Esquire article ("The American Newspaper is neither Record, Mirror, Journal, Ledger, Bulletin, Telegram, Examiner, Register, Chronicle, Gazette, Observer, Monitor nor Herald of the day's events). Bagdikian suggested putting a community ombudsman on a newspaper's board "to be present, to speak, to provide a symbol and, with luck, exert public interest in the ultimate fate of the American newspaper." The word "ombudsman" caught Ms. Keefe's eye and she assigned me to write an article about it. A few months later, after I'd graduated, on my birthday in fact (June 29), Barry Bingham and Norman Isaacs appointed the first American newspaper ombudsman at the Louisville Courier-Journal. I remember being astonished then (as now) by Ms. Keefe's prescience. She also made us read and study Marshall McLuhan's books. At the time, I didn't know enough to really appreciate "Understanding Media," but "The Medium is the Message," an early experiment in mixing text and graphics, foreshadowed things we're doing online today.

Through the years while I worked for the Lee Enterprises chain, the idea of having an ombudsman came up from time to time at some of the larger newspapers. Now-familiar arguments usually shot down the idea -- we don't have the money (or it could be spent better on a reporter or editor), we shouldn't put an obstacle (or intermediary) between readers and editors, the editor(s) should handle complaints, it's the editor's job to uphold our standards of fairness, accuracy, etc. I heard some good arguments in favor of ombudsmen, too, and one seems more compelling today than in the past.

Now that we attach reporters' e-mail addresses to their stories, readers can contact them quickly and easily. That's a good thing, but the downside is that not all reporters will respond appropriately. The danger is that a reporter (or columnist or editor) may reply or simply blow off a reader in ways that reflect poorly on the paper. And, once posted, that reply can spread virally on the Web. The value of having an ombudsman or public editor in the newsroom is that the ombudsman's presence can help ensure certain standards of fairness, courtesy, prompt responsiveness and respect. Anyone who believes that problem does not exist now should be prepared for the alligator rising out of the swamp to bite them on the ass. We've always had a few reporters and editors who try to sweep errors under the rug or into the circular file and who blow off readers on the phone. The accusations, complaints and criticisms will be even harder to hide when readers' comments appear online below a story or in a blog. That puts an obligation on editors to make sure their staffs know how to respond to readers in a public environment. Having an ombudsman or public editor may be an old solution to this new problem.

The other test of whether a newspaper needs an ombudsman, it seems to me, is to answer these questions: "Will an ombudsman make the newspaper better? Will we be more accurate, more fair, more accountable to our readers?" If the answers are in doubt, I'd invest the time and money on other projects, particularly online efforts such as John Robinson's idea of adding editor blogs or (on my wish list) a blog on blogs, such as aldaily.com, so I can see at a glance what people are writing about.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/11. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net