These days, news organizations are falling all over themselves to engage with readers. Many are taking to Twitter and Facebook to deepen relationships with their audiences. Some even have full-time social-media editors.
Yet, there's one sure way to deepen that link that's never been very popular with newsroom managers, and is getting less so as financial pressures often force executives to subtract rather than add. That's by employing an ombudsman, also known as a public editor or reader representative, a person who will listen to complaints, investigative them and report back, often in the form of a weekly column.
The embattled ombudsman movement had a setback last week when Patrick Pexton, who holds the position at The Washington Post, wrote that it was possible he would be the last person to occupy it. His final day is Feb. 28, and he wrote that there's a good chance he won't be replaced.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, says hearing that was like a "punch in the stomach." The Post has been a mainstay in the ombudsman movement. It's had one since Richard Harwood took the job in 1970, three years after The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal named the first news ombudsman in the U.S.
Kris Coratti, Post director of public relations/communications, suggests it's too soon to write an obit for the gig. She said no decision has been made, and as a result, no one at the news organization was available to discuss the situation. But the body language doesn't look hopeful.
Dvorkin says ombudsman posts are being created in Latin America, Western Europe and the Middle East. But the movement in the U.S. has been in the other direction. ONO has 60 active members in 26 countries. Dvorkin, former ombudsman at NPR, estimates about 20 are at U.S. news outlets, half as many as a decade ago. He says 14 news organizations cut the post after the recession hit in 2008, though ONO has gained four members in the U.S. since.
It's understandable why ombudsmen are so vulnerable in the current climate. Newsroom after newsroom has slashed its staff in the punishing era of digital transformation. As the roster shrinks, tough choices have to be made. You've got to cover city hall and the police beat.
But it's a mistake to look at the position as a frill. The credibility of the media is low. Mistrust on the part of the public is high. Having someone dedicated to listening to readers or listeners or viewers and dealing with their concerns can be a major plus.
"Casting a gimlet eye over ombudsmen is very shortsighted," Dvorkin says, adding, "The public is really hungry for them."
But while the position is valuable, it could use updating. It's been traditional at many news outlets for ombudsmen to write a weekly column. But that approach is outmoded in the digital age. When news organizations make mistakes, when coverage goes awry, when controversies arise, the debate takes place in real time, via Twitter and in the blogosphere.
Which brings us to Margaret Sullivan, who became The New York Times' fifth public editor in September. The paper created the position in 2003 following the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. Unlike her predecessors, who had print columns every other week, Sullivan offers rapid-fire online responses to the contretemps du jour. It's the perfect approach.
Sullivan can be tough, criticizing the Times for errors in its coverage of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and for failing to staff the first eight days of a pretrial hearing for Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking secret documents to WikiLeaks.
The recent kerfuffle about Times reporter John M. Broder's devastating review of the electric car Tesla Model S showed the right sensibility for the current climate. The piece was sharply criticized by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and the disagreement sparked an intense Internet battle.
Rather than wait until she had gotten to the bottom of the brouhaha, Sullivan wrote an interim piece: "Let me get this out of the way up front: This blog post will not be the definitive word on the contentious subject of a Times article in Sunday's Automobiles section. It's just an early effort to put some claims and counterclaims out there, while I continue to look into it." Four days later, she followed up with a deeper look.
The revamped modus operandi was a perfect meeting of the minds, Sullivan says: "The new approach to the job -- making it more immediate, responsive and digital -- was something the Times had in mind when they began their search last summer. Luckily for me, it fit exactly with how I wanted to approach it." She has continued the print column.
While she believes that the ombudsman role has "significant value to the reader," she understands why it's a tempting target. "In a time of diminishing resources, the value of the job is bound to come under increasing scrutiny," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "And at a time when every story is examined by legions of would-be public editors among bloggers, tweeters and self-appointed critics, the role is changing. Will it become unnecessary, because there's so much other criticism, or will it become more important as a way to make sense of all the noise?"
Let's hope it's the latter.
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