By: Karim Mostafa
A First For Online News Site
MSNBC.com has a new user. Hunkered down at his home computer in
the Seattle suburb of Woodenville, Dan Fisher is getting paid to
read a little closer than most MSNBC visitors.
Fisher was looking forward to spending quiet days at home as part
of his retirement after working as editor in chief at MSN’s
MoneyCentral for several years. Instead he’s putting retirement
on hold to become MSNBC.com’s ombudsman, a first for online news
Fisher has been on the job for 10 days, familiarizing himself
with both MSNBC’s online news operation, headquartered in
Redmond, Wash., and the history of ombudsmen in order to see
where the two will intersect.
He’s familiar enough with his new position that he can rattle off
the etymology and cite the word’s first appearance in Sweden
around 1809. And he knows that the Louisville (Ky.)
Courier-Journal was the first State-side paper to
establish a reader’s advocate in 1967.
As Fisher charts new online territory, the only thing certain
about his new gig is that he’ll be writing a column titled
“Taking Stock” which will appear on MSNBC.com’s Opinions section.
The column will appear a couple of times in May before he settles
into a weekly routine in June of covering the quality and balance
of MSNBC.com’s reporting. Fisher will also host a weekly online
chat for readers to pose questions to him regarding the site’s
“I’ll be approaching this organization as a reporter,” said
Fisher, who worked at the Los Angeles Times for 27 years
in both editing and reporting positions. Fisher also worked as
editor on that newspaper’s TimesLink service launched on Prodigy
Fisher notes that traditionally ombudsmen have served the role as
community representative, but “with an Internet organization, the
community is global.” Fisher said the question he’s asking is
“What responsibility do you have with a global audience?”
He suspects that most issues will be similar to newspaper issues:
balance perceived, bias, concern about typos, and factual errors.
But Fisher said he’s open to considering the unique issues that
online news might pose.
“Creating the position of ombudsman subjects us to substantive
feedback in order to critique our reporting,” said Merrill Brown,
editor in chief of MSNBC.com. He said Fisher’s experience would
help MSNBC improve its product and service.
Michael Getler, ombudsman at The Washington Post, noted
that “there’s a difference between online and newspapers.” Getler
thinks news sites are more vulnerable to real-time mistakes while
newspapers have more time for fact-checking and editing.
Washingtonpost.com doesn’t have its own ombudsman, but Getler
said, “I get pulled into it from time to time.” When asked if
washingtonpost.com needed an ombudsman, Getler said, “Yeah, but I
don’t know if it merits two full-time positions.” Getler said he
tries to handle the online issues that he can, but he finds that
“there are things that are peculiar to the online world.”
Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the Online News Association and
managing editor of The Wall Street Journal’s wsj.com,
said, “I don’t think that having an ombudsman for online is any
more or less useful than it would be for any other medium.” It
should be noted that Jaroslovsky isn’t a fan of the whole
One of Fisher’s first questions has regarded the lack of a
corrections page on MSNBC.com. A requirement of print newspapers,
the corrections page is absent (or hard to find) on some online
news sites. Fisher isn’t sure that a corrections page is needed,
but he does see problems behind making corrections to stories
without noting the correction, which some sites do regularly.
Fisher is well aware that MSNBC.com in particular faces
credibility questions when it functions as a news portal,
gathering news from its partners such as Newsweek, The
Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ZDNet, Space.com,
and Pioneer Newspapers. Fisher will be looking at these partners’
contracts to see if stories can be altered. If not, he suggests
that MSNBC might in some cases want to make a phone call to
partners to say, “You don’t really want it published like that do
Fisher also has a problem with MSNBC.com’s practice of naming
general staff in the byline and crediting news wires at the end
of the story. “What exactly does it mean when it says ‘MSNBC
staff?'” he asked. Readers have a right to know more.
Fisher knows his job won’t always be easy. “Overall, online
journalism has an uphill battle ahead of it.”
Karim Mostafa (email@example.com) is associate editor for E&P Online.
Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.