August 04, 2003

How N.Y. Times' New Ombudsman Can Succeed

There was comment aplenty the other day about the New York Times' decision to name an ombudsman, but precious little advice for the person who's going to inaugurate what Jeff Jarvis called the "worst job in journalism." (I'm not sure about that Jeff. Here's three words for you: Carson City, Nevada.)

So, I emailed 27 members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen's and got 10 responses - not bad for mid-summer. Here's what they had to say.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Nearly every one stressed that a willingness to be a sounding board - for the staff and for readers - is key to an ombudsman's success.

 John Miller, Public Editor, Detroit Free Press: "Listen well and listen often, by finding several ways to regularly talk with readers."

 David House, Reader Advocate, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Remember that people are calling because they care about the paper and want honest information (don't we all?). Listen to them. Ask them questions about why they feel as they do, and share their thoughts with the Times' staff and management."

 Dan Hortsch, former Public Editor, The Oregonian: "Getting around to talk with staffers at any larger newspaper is hard, but talking with teams, departments and individuals, on a formal and informal basis, helps the staffers see the public editor as a human being."

 Chris Chinlund, Ombudsman, Boston Globe: "Listen very carefully to what readers have to say, and try to discern patterns; everything else will flow from that."

 Mike Clark, Reader Advocate, Florida Times-Union: "It's not all that difficult or all that extreme to listen to your customers. Businesses do it every day, and so do newspapers -- in their circulation and advertising and marketing departments."

Be honest. Be fair. Be candid.

 Hortsch: "Let staff members know that you are serious and will critique the newspaper honestly, bluntly at times, but that you are not the enemy."

 House: "Candor is paramount, but so are good manners."

 Don Sellar, Ombudsman, Toronto Star "Be open with readers and newsroom staff alike, and not pursue personal or political agendas that run counter to the paper's core values."

Be professional, not personal.

 Sellar: "Ombuds' columns need to be well-researched, fair and balanced, and avoid cheap shots or personal attacks."

 Hortsch: "Emphasize an interest in the broader outcome, not in the individual reporters, editors, photographers, artists and others. Citing a story that has problems is intended to provide a subject for thought for everyone, not solely for that reporter, that reporter's editor."

 Manning Pynn, Public Editor, Orlando Sentinel: "In critiques, I would advise focusing on performance rather than personality. Everyone makes mistakes; no one intends to. And making mistakes is not indicative of bad intent, usually just carelessness. Excessive carelessness is another matter."

Be independent.

 Hortsch: "Know that you have the authority of your executive editor behind you, but don't name-drop. Don't act in the name of Bill Keller. Act on your own authority."

 Pam Platt, Public Editor, Louisville Courier-Journal: "Be independent. Find and use your own voice in this no man's land."

Be humble, but be strong.

 House: "Defend good decisions. Make no excuses for bad ones. Avoid elitism. Embrace humility."

 Hortsch: "Be willing to be proven wrong by a staffer, but not to the point of not acting/deciding, on a correction, say. Think before deciding, but don't make a running discussion out of the matter once you have the wherewithal to make a decision."

Be ready to laugh.

 Sellar: "New ombud at The Times needs to be blessed with a decent sense of humor "

 Hortsch: "Get accustomed to lots of jokes (not all of them meant for laughs) about being "internal affairs," "the gestapo" and so on. And the "Oh, oh: Here comes XXX. Who screwed up?"

(But, says Hortsch, "true insults need not go unchallenged. In bringing a complaint to me, one person began by saying, in all seriousness, 'Look: We all know your job is to make us look bad.' Don't take that stuff without immediate objection. Get such a discussion on point and don't let people knock you off balance with an offensive offensive.")

It's interesting, as Pam Platt of Louisville pointed out, how many of these characteristics "sound a whole lot like being a reporter (and when you think about it, that's what an ombudsman/public editor really is)."

An ombudsman, or public editor or readers representative, certainly cannot cure the aching, arthritic readership trend that afflict newspapers. That requires leadership, commitment to quality and relentless pursuit of innovation. But an ombudsman can be a salving voice amid a cacophony of complaints or confusion.

Manny Pynn of Orlando said the N.Y. Times' one-year experiment with a public editor will succeed or fail to the degree that the Times' staff listens to that voice.

"The position's success will depend on the participation and cooperation of the Times' reporters and editors -- which may require a mandate from Bill Keller. If they look to the public editor to absorb and deflect criticism, it won't work. The public editor can serve as a liaison between readers and the journalists whose work has puzzled or offended them, but the public editor can't hope to answer unilaterally all the questions that will be raised." (Pyle has more in his Sunday column).

Mike Clark of Florida argued that "for the New York Times to call this an 'experiment' implies a lack of commitment."

"The Times should be setting the pace for American journalism by auditing its work in public view and explaining its role to the readers," said Clark. "To do less implies that this news does not fit."

To me, the issue comes down to one word: Responsibility - to the public, to the sources, to fellow journalists, to the quality that is demanded in return for the rights we are granted. The position of ombudsman embraces that idea. It signifies accountability. And I'm all for that.

 New York Times Siegal committee report

Posted by Tim Porter at August 4, 2003 09:07 AM

This is terrific Tim...positive...good sound ideas.

Posted by: drabin on August 4, 2003 02:05 PM

Listen well and listen often, by finding several ways to regularly talk with readers:

Down Under, my favourite newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald is implementing some thoughtful initiatives...

We, the collective beacons of print and electronic imagery, are the ones permitting the death of outrage. We're invulnerable to the outrageous. We're just too damned suave -- and part of the whole stinking charade.
· Gargoyle slackjawed [HNN ]


Posted by: Jozef on August 5, 2003 06:45 PM
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