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The death of the ‘reader representative’

Today, only a handful of news organizations — and none in the Twin Cities —  still offer the means to question or further understand editorial decision-making via an ombudsman. 

Here in the Twin Cities, such a position, variously titled, “ombudsman,” “public editor” or “reader representative” has, for all intents and purposes, vanished.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

If you get the chance, listen in sometime on a group of journalists talking shop. Particularly if it’s at some high-minded confab or seminar where reporters and editors gather to kick around big noble democratic ideas. Stuff like freedom of the press, the First Amendment, the absolute need to demand transparency from government and other powerful public institutions.

Nod for a while, then ask one of them why transparency doesn’t start at home?

In the United States today, only a handful of mainstream news organizations still offer their readers/listeners/viewers any means to directly question or further understand editorial decision-making, or how significant errors were published or broadcast (very few television stations even air routine corrections). 

Here in the Twin Cities, such a position, variously titled, “ombudsman,” “public editor” or “reader representative” has, for all intents and purposes, vanished. The Star Tribune was the last to employ a specific person in anything resembling the role, and that person, Kate Parry, had the job dissolve out from under her eight years ago, during the reign of since-departed Editor Nancy Barnes.

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In her farewell column, Parry wrote, “I wish I could tell you that a fresh, new ombudsman waits in the wings, eager to advocate for you in the newsroom and fill this column space each Sunday with constructive criticism or explanations of the editors’ decisions. That healthy openness has been this newspaper’s hallmark of ethical self-policing for more than 35 years. But that is not what is happening. The position as it has been known all those years is ending, a victim of staff downsizing. … the newspaper has had many ombudsmen over the years who have successfully brought their own styles and approaches to the task. But someone should be providing the independent scrutiny of the newspaper and how it functions that journalists aim enthusiastically at other public institutions.”

Someone isn’t. Nor is anyone, directly, specifically at either the Pioneer Press, MPR or any local television station (or, for that matter, MinnPost). A check of the North American membership for the Organization of News Ombudsmen reveals only 20 current members, several of whom are retired.

Kate Parry
Star Tribune
Kate Parry

When you ask people like Pioneer Presss Editor Mike Burbach, MPR’s COO Dave Kansas, or the Star Tribune’s current editor, Rene Sanchez, about the situation, the common refrain is that budgets being tight as they are, they’d rather hire another reporter than pay an ombudsman. (As though an ombudsman would require a full-time staff salary.) They all quickly assert that the vox populi of the Internet, whether via reader comments, bloggers or e-mail provides ample opportunity for their audiences to criticize or compliment them, and if an issue truly goes viral someone will figure out a way to address it. 

Says Sanchez: “[The position] has not been restored because, to be honest, we’ve been first making sure that we’ve devoted enough resources to things like watchdog reporting.” Though he adds, “I agree with you on transparency. We are certainly devoted to swiftly correcting any mistakes we make, and we are talking to readers constantly. It’s such a different era now — thousands of readers comment on stories, readers have easy access to reporter emails since we put those addresses at the very top of stories, we do digital chats, and I hear from readers every day and also speak around the community. But I’ve always liked the idea of a Reader Rep or Ombudsman, for just the reasons you’re noting. I would not rule out reviving it in some form even though in the last [five] years or so news organizations across the country have phased that out and turned more to daily digital interaction with readers.”

At the PiPress, where when you call you get a voice prompt for a reader advocate, Burbach says, no, there isn’t any specific person in that role. A complaint or question will instead get routed over to someone involved in whatever the issue, with the bigger matters coming to him. “I answer my phone, just like I did with you,” he said. “I’m accessible. Our product goes out into the market and is judged regularly. We still hear from people pretty often. It’s certainly a good thing to have. But no, I have not converted a reporter or editor to an ombudsman.”

Speaking for Minnesota Public Radio, Chief Operating Officer Dave Kansas, who was both a reporter and editor with The Wall Street Journal prior to joining MPR, points to President Jon McTaggart’s quarterly on-air appearances as an example of “the whole membership organization’s active engagement with listeners. We are very responsive to anyone who reaches out to us.” 

Asked if it wouldn’t be more insightful to have Managing Director/Regional News Chris Worthington on air regularly answering questions from MPR’s well-educated listeners, Kansas reiterated that McTaggart is where the buck stops at his shop.

But the point of a truly independent ombudsman goes well beyond merely fielding reader complaints or sifting through the bleatings of dyspeptic Internet trolls. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the point of such a person is to assert and exemplify the highest possible standard of transparency and commitment to accuracy. In other words, a race to the top, in terms of earning public trust.

“First off, I’m never quite sure what they mean by ‘the Internet’ when they bring that up,” — online access obviating the need for a reader rep — says Jeff Dvorkin, who served as National Public Radio’s ombudsman for seven years. “But whatever it is, I don’t think the claim that ‘the Internet fills the need’ has any real merit. The difference between Internet chatter and an independent ombudsman is like the difference between wholesale and retail. Internet discussions come with no guarantee that a senior manager will respond to a specific issue or even that they were asked.”

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Jeff Dvorkin
Jeff Dvorkin

Dvorkin’s agreement with NPR gave him, he says, complete freedom to pursue any issue and line of questioning, plus the understanding among both NPR reporters and managers that they were required to respond to him, “in a timely manner.” Required.

Permutations of the ombudsman concept devolve down from there in terms of independence and authority. In it’s most diluted form, a newsroom employee fills a “reader’s advocate” role, answering most of the public’s questions and complaints, but with a highly fettered ability to interrogate colleagues and supervisors.

Such a role quickly becomes little more than an apologist/PR buffer for his or her franchise. “The issue, as you seem to have surmised,” says Dvorkin, “is the choice, often with publicly traded companies, to protect reputation as opposed to protecting credibility.”

Put another way, news organizations hammered by competition from the Internet and the recession used the set of simultaneous crises as an opportunity to redline a paid position devoted to publicizing flaws in their methodology and function, they turned a blind eye to any metric that showed how a willingness to admit and explain errors enhanced their credibility, at least among their most well-informed consumers.

The fact that very few large (or small) companies routinely publicize defects in their product or service unless under some sort of regulatory or legal threat shouldn’t have any bearing on how journalism goes about its business. But it does, if for no other reason than journalists are prideful professionals not all that different from a chemist at 3M, an administrator at Fairview Hospitals or an executive at Medtronic. They don’t much care being called out publicly for their mistakes. (Add to that the distinct impression from most journalists that they are God’s last word on the craft.) 

“Face it,” said Dvorkin, “This is a very nervous time for journalists. When they start to feel any heat, the instinct really is to duck and cover.” He added: “When I was at NPR, I had to keep in mind that journalists are notoriously sensitive people. They feel embattled. So I had to constantly remind both myself and them that what I was doing was about the work and not the person.”

Another refrain, that freely admitting error invites libel litigation, has no standing with people like Gary Gilson, long-time executive director of the now defunct Minnesota News Council, or Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

“The number of libel cases filed in the United States has been dropping steadily for years,” said Kirtley. “Moreover, the counter argument, which I believe has validity, was that the presence of an ombudsman offered news organizations a way to defuse litigation” since the publication or broadcaster could rightfully argue that it had publicly, freely and presumably quickly conceded and corrected a damaging error.

“There’s no basis in fact for saying an ombudsman’s analysis of a particular story creates more exposure to litigation,” said Gilson. “The bar for libel is very high in this country. The real issue is that they don’t like being criticized, and they sure don’t like paying someone to do it, even though most of them know it enhances their credibility.”

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Dvorkin’s status as an independent contractor — someone known to the newsroom but not of the newsroom, with regular, featured column space to say what he felt needed to be said — is the gold standard for credible ombudsman work. Margaret Sullivan, the latest “public editor” for The New York Times, has the highest profile of anyone currently holding such a position. 

Margaret Sullivan
New York Times
Margaret Sullivan

Sullivan files two columns a month and maintains a steady flow of blog posts. Her independence was recently on display in the wake of the outpouring of praise for the Times’ media columnist and Twin Cities native David Carr, who died Feb. 12. On the 21st, Sullivan, within a commentary on how the Times was going to cover media, added, “An aside: Has The Times’ attention to Mr. Carr’s death been a tad over the top, even including a posthumous ‘last column,’ constructed using the syllabus from his college course, with a ghostly byline that read ‘with David Carr’? The amount of coverage does raise the issue of what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies; of course, I’m guilty of joining in the hosannas myself.”

The Times newsroom may have agreed. I don’t know. And an aside on in-house eulogizing of a well-liked colleague hardly compares to taking the Times to task for its credulous handling of the White House’s fact-challenged case for taking the country to war against Iraq. But the point is that an effective ombudsman serves the organization best by posing questions newsrooms prefer not to expose to light.

“I’m most familiar with The Washington Post’s process,” said Kirtley. (Two years ago the Post killed off its ombudsman position, replacing it with a rotating “reader advocate,” duties that are handled by a newsroom employee.) “To do it properly you have to accept that you are going to generate tremendous resentments. It will happen. It’s symptomatic of the generally very thin-skinned nature of so many journalists. Its a group that gets extremely defensive when questioned.”

Recent public face-plants by the likes of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, while isolated far from the trenches of Minnesota, only aggravate the notion that journalists as a whole are a group of arrogant, self-serving snake oil peddlers, a cross of Ted Baxter and Ron Burgundy. Such an attitude may prevail most among less avid news consumers, but it also begs the question of why newsrooms who pay rapturous lip service to journalistic ideals don’t create a vehicle for interacting with the audience that cares most about their primary mission?

In the Internet age, every organization has the low-cost option of putting its editorial decision-makers and reporters on a live web stream for direct interaction with readers, listeners and viewers. Few do.

But it’s worth speculating on how appealing such a regular give and take would be with what is known in marketing terms as the “opinion leaders.” An independent ombudsman would be the better option, perhaps as the moderator of the Q&A in addition to a featured blog. But considering the current vacuum of access to newsroom thinking, a webcam would be a cheap first step toward necessary transparency. For his part, the Strib’s Sanchez says, “I’ve done a couple of interactive Q&As with readers online in the last year and I plan to do more when we re-launch our website in the spring. I’d like to do that once a month.”

Good. It isn’t asking too much.