‘NY Times’ to Appoint First Ombudsman

By: Joe Strupp

Updated at 5:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

The New York Times plans to create three new editor positions, including an ombudsman, in response to recommendations released Wednesday by an in-house committee investigating the Jayson Blair scandal and its impact on the newspaper’s credibility.

The 28-person Siegal Committee, named for Assistant Managing Editor Al Siegal, who oversaw the group, released its 94-page report Wednesday. It blamed the Blair misdeeds on “a stunning lack of communication within the newsroom,” and “an environment of separation exacerbated by increased demands on understaffed desks.” The report added, “a series of management and operational breakdowns made it possible for a junior reporter … to get past one of the most able and sophisticated newspaper editing networks in the world.”

Among the committee’s recommendations was a suggestion that the paper hire a “public editor.” In addition, the committee suggested that the Times transfer “substantial responsibility” for news coverage away from top editors and toward the desk and section heads as a matter of efficiency, while increasing efforts to hire more mid-career and senior minority journalists.

Blair resigned May 1 after revelations that he had plagiarized numerous stories, lied about being at assignments, and fabricated news. The committee determined that Blair was able to continue being promoted up the ranks despite his problematic past because of favoritism, poor communication, and concerns that holding him back might be seen as discrimination. “These sentiments flowed from the perception that some reporters had come to be favored in a star system by the executive editor, Howell Raines,” the report stated. “A failure to communicate — to tell other editors what some people in the newsroom knew [about Blair] — emerges as the single most consistent cause, after Jayson Blair’s own behavior, of this catastrophe.”

The report also points to six moments in Blair’s time at the paper — referred to as “choke points” — when editors could have stopped his negative behavior and possibly avoided the eventual collapse of the Times‘ management oversight. Among those are the initial reviews of Blair’s work as a student at the University of Maryland, his promotion to regular, full-time reporter in the middle of his probationary period, and several instances when he was reassigned to a new department without his next supervisor being told of past problems.

In addition, the report said that Times recruiters never checked whether Blair had graduated from the University of Maryland (he had not), while revealing that the disgraced reporter had actually received a merit raise at one point in the past year.

Executive Editor Bill Keller, who formally took the post Wednesday, said in a memo released with the findings that he would create a public editor to review newsroom procedures and other policies, as well as two other new editor positions. Keller replaced Raines, who resigned along with former Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, on June 5.

“The Times has traditionally resisted suggestions that we join the few dozen American papers employing ombudsman,” Keller said in his memo. “We feared it would foster nitpicking and navel-gazing. … The Siegal Committee believes, and I agree, that we can profit from the scrutiny of an independent reader representative. A pair of professional eyes, familiar with us but independent of the day-to-day production of the paper, can make us more sensitive on matters of fairness and accuracy.”

The committee report describes the public editor, whom Keller will appoint by the fall to a one-year term, as someone who would receive and answer questions or comments from readers and the public, primarily about things that have been published, publish periodic commentaries about the paper and journalistic practices, and be appointed for a fixed term.

Nationwide, 38 newspapers have editors that belong to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, said the group’s executive secretary, Gina Lubrano.

“They’re still a great newspaper,” Lubrano said, “and I think this shows their willingness to listen to readers.”

Keller also plans to name a standards editor, who will oversee journalistic standards for the paper, hear concerns from staff about newsroom planning, oversee corrections, and editor’s notes, as well as training in ethics and guidelines.

The other new title will be that of staffing and career development editor, described as a senior member of the masthead who will oversee a “fair and consistent system for recruitment, hiring and training; advise staff on attaining career goals; and coordinate internal assignments.” That person also would oversee the ongoing diversity effort.

Keller’s memo said he would ensure that every member of the staff receives a performance assessment annually, clarify the papers byline and dateline policies, assure that each news desk has a system for tracking errors and monitoring performance of those who make them, review existing guidelines for the use of anonymous sources, and review the copy desk system.

A Times response to the Siegal report also announced that the paper would begin a pilot program of seminars on leadership development for department heads and deputies in August, reorganize the masthead in coming weeks to “define clear roles for the members, including responsibilities for coordinating projects,” review the management structure for the copy desks and news design, and adopt new goals to improve managerial accountability.

Keller’s memo to the Times staff also dismissed charges that the Blair debacle was an indictment of diversity programs in newspaper hiring. “The fraud Jayson Blair committed on us and our readers was not a consequence of our diversity program, which has been designed to apply the same rigorous standards of performance we demand of all our staff,” Keller wrote. “The problem is, in the Blair case, we failed to measure up to those standards at numerous steps along the way.”

To read Keller’s memo and the full report, visit www.nytco.com (PDF download).

The three outside analysts who joined Times staffers on the committee were former Associated Press President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi; Joann Byrd, outgoing Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor; and Roger Wilkins, a former Times columnist and editorial board member.

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