LA Times names reader liaison p.14

By: Joe Strupp Ombudsman will respond to complaints, edit internal newsletter, review policies

The Los Angeles Times became the largest U.S. newspaper to have an ombudsman-type editor last week when it appointed news veteran Narda Zacchino to the post of reader representative, the first in the newspaper's 118-year history.
Zacchino, 51, says the job will go beyond the traditional role of ombudsman, which has often been to review reader complaints and write response columns about major issues facing a newspaper. She hopes to improve the newspaper's image through community meetings; responses to concerns from readers, reporters, and editors; editing an internal newsletter; and a review of newspaper policies.
"We should be looked up to by our readers," says Zacchino, who credits Times editor and executive vice president Michael Parks with creating the new post. "Newspapers and journalists do not have the high credibility that they should and I think that is a tragedy."
Zacchino says a review of the newspaper's corrections policy will be one of her first projects. "We want to see if it's easy enough for readers to lodge complaints," she says. "We also don't have a consistent policy about where they are run in the paper."
Parks, who announced the appointment on March 16, says the new post is aimed at bridging the gap between editors and readers. "We need to draw closer to our readers, to serve their interests and meet their needs more fully," Parks said in a statement announcing the appointment. "We also need to demystify our practice of journalism and to hold ourselves more accountable."
The appointment brought praise from the Organization of News Ombudsmen, which represents most of the nation's newspaper ombudsmen and reader representatives. The organization's president, John V.R. Bull, says such a move will help pave the way for other newspapers to add similar positions.
"I think the more papers that do it, the less editors will worry that they will be unfairly criticized," says Bull, who has held an ombudsman-type role at The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1986. "The basis is to have contact with the reader."
Bull says Zacchino's appointment adds to a continuing trend in the appointment of ombudsmen. He says his organization's membership is at its highest level ever, up from about 33 in the mid-1980s to 38 today.
There's "a renewed interest in ombudsmen," Bull says. "I think it stems from an understanding that the public does not trust us."
To help kick off the new program, the Times is setting up a toll-free number (877-554-4000) for readers who want to register concerns with Zacchino, along with a special fax line (213-237-3535) and an e-mail address: Zacchino says she will keep a database of all inquiries to make sure they are followed up by herself or other editors.
"There will be accountability," she says. "I'm not going to be able to investigate every complaint and write a column about it, but I will be the reader's spokesperson to the editorial department."
Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp, who became the 12th person in 29 years to hold the job there when she was appointed last fall, welcomed Zacchino's appointment and says the position can be challenging, but rewarding. "I have enjoyed the contact with the public," she says. "There has been a lot of receptivity."
Zacchino, who joined the LA Times in 1970, has served as a reporter, Sacramento bureau chief, Orange County editor, and deputy managing editor. She also has overseen the weekend city desk, local government and politics, and several features sections.
She currently holds the position of associate editor and vice president, overseeing the Los Angeles Times Book Review and its annual book fair. Zacchino says she will keep the same title and continue to be involved in the book review projects, but will concentrate mainly on the reader representative position and have an assistant.
When Parks approached her several months ago to consider the post, Zacchino began researching what other newspapers had done with similar positions and surveyed members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "It will be a Herculean task," says Zacchino, who will report to Parks. "But we want to do it."
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