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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, January 24, 2008

In Nervous Times: Are News Ombudsmen an Endangered Species?

A few weeks ago, the Baltimore Sun announced that the long-held position of news ombudsman, or readers' editor would be abolished. Paul Moore, who held the position with integrity and enthusiasm for almost four years, was shifted over into a management position to help run the paper.

No job in journalism should be forever and change always has some advantages. But who should look after the interests and concerns of the readers? The Sun's publisher says that there will be plenty of opportunities for readers to express views and interact with the paper. A blog is coming, designed expressly for that purpose. I have my doubts.

I held the ombudsman's job for more than six years at NPR. I learned the value of answering my own phone and personally responding to emails as quickly as possible. Listeners (and I heard from more than 750,000 of them) were eager to interact with a live person, to answer their complaints, to get a non-corporate response for them, or just to have a willing ear to bend on what they heard - or didn't hear - on the radio. It wasn't always frolicsome and fun-filled. But it was always important, interesting and intense. I consider being NPR's ombudsman perhaps the best journalistic experience of my career. And I know a lot of listeners were deeply appreciative that NPR took a risk by creating and supporting the position, which occasionally and intentionally made NPR journalists and management squirm. Nothing personal, guys.

The Baltimore Sun isn't alone in abolishing this important and vital position. Over the past five years, a significant number of American news organizations have looked around their newsrooms and decided that having an ombudsman was a luxury the paper just couldn't afford. I think this is shortsighted and wrong.

The fact that yet another ombuds position has been abolished has not gone unnoticed. A blog representing an organization of non-news ombuds noted the fact with sadness and asks "if press ombuds are in decline?"

The answer, at least in the United States, seems to be yes. The blog notes the number of news organizations with ombudsmen has dropped from a high of 65 to around 40 in less than five years.

I'm hardly unbiased in this matter. For a number of years, I used my role with the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) to pound the bully pulpit in favor of independent ombudsmen and women inside news organizations. While a few editors and publishers liked the idea and made real sacrifices to create the position, I found that many more were reluctant and even hostile to the idea. It was as though an ombudsman would somehow diminish their managerial authority by increasing public input. Frequently those editors and publishers would just blame the lawyers. "We can't do it. Our legal department says there could be liability if we admit we made a mistake." I must have heard that a dozen times.

But a study conducted by The Guardian in London showed that the cost of litigation actually drops whenever there is an ombudsman on staff...and by as much as 30% a year! Those savings would more than pay to operate the ombudsman's office. A cynic might suggest that lawyers were also concerned that the ombudsman would be taking bread out of their mouths? No. Couldn't be. Studies have also shown that having an ombudsman increases credibility and community respect for the newspaper or broadcaster. Other studies show that having a public ombudsman is actually good for internal newsroom morale especially in these nervous times.

The reasons for this ombuds-reticence aren't hard to find. The rise of the blogosphere and the vastness of the media criticism landscape means that having an internal ombudsman may appear antique to cost-conscious managers in this brave new cyber-world. Certainly, the parallel functions of bloggers and ombudsmen are worth discussing. Can blogs and ombudsmen be reconciled? Can they function together? Or is this another example of turf-wars in the new media? If it is, I can guess who will win...

As news organizations move to create a new business model, having a staff ombudsman is so, well, 20th century. Perhaps the new "wiki" model of self-correcting information could do the job better? My experience at NPR suggests otherwise. Listeners, readers and viewers want to deal with a real person. They don't want to hear that "some of our options have changed..."

The ombuds blog suggests that a deeper issue is at stake: as news organizations hold the threat of "change or leave" over their staff, some ombudsmen seem defanged because they dare not risk an open challenge to management. As a result, the ombuds blog notes that too many news ombudsmen have effectively reduced themselves to being ombuds/copy editors - lamenting on a weekly basis the preponderance of dangling participles and misplaced modifiers. Important? Sure. But the crisis in American journalism needs addressing too.

Ombudsmen - like the staff at any paper or broadcaster - are being intimidated in these rough and tumble economic times. Some ONO members have told me they worry these days about upsetting management with tough columns about the decline in standards and service at their own newspapers. Some say they feel unable to write about the real issues for fear of losing their jobs.

News ombudsmen have developed the art of mediation and neutrality at the service of the readers, listeners and viewers. But they also appear to be excessively neutral about their own decline.

Interestingly, support for news ombudsmen is coming for non-news ombuds whose ranks are growing fast in academia, government and not-for-profits. News ombudsmen ranks are growing rapidly outside the United States - especially in former Soviet countries, Latin America, India and in parts of the Middle East where ombudsmanship is seen as essential aspect of having independent, and self-regulating media in a functioning democracy.

Is ombudsmanship in America in danger? Increasingly so. But who can and will argue the case to news organizations that they are needed now, more than ever?

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