Ombudsmen Overboard? p.8

By: Tony Case WITH THE PUBLIC feeling increasingly alienated from the institutions charged with serving it ? and with opinions about the press, in particular, at rock bottom ? the argument can be made that news ombudsmen are needed more than ever.
But cost pressures and the ensuing downsizing frenzy sweeping the industry have emerged as a growing threat to this valuable link between newspapers and readers.
In today's strict penny-pinching environment, these positions just aren't being created. And while their numbers have never been especially strong, scores of dailies that used to employ reader representatives ? in cities such as Seattle, Baltimore, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Ottawa ? no longer do so. In most cases, retiring ombudsmen simply weren't replaced.
Almost 20 years after the Louisville Courier-Journal instituted the first such position, only 31 U.S. dailies are carrying on the tradition, down from a peak of 38 just a few years ago. The situation is equally bleak in Canada, where at least half a dozen reader advocates have vanished. Meanwhile, ombudsmen are becoming more commonplace in parts of the world where the press has triumphed over longtime government and military interference and hopes to build relations with the citizenry, such as Latin America.
"It's considered a success when one of us retires and is replaced," John Sweeney of the News Journal in Wilmington, Del., said.
Sweeney and colleagues from as far away as Sao Paulo and Tokyo gathered in Philadelphia this month for the annual convention of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. There, these in-house watchdogs ? whose responsibilities range from fielding reader complaints and writing columns to editing the letters page and managing newsroom budgets ? talked shop, and pondered the possibility that they're becoming an endangered species.
Maxwell E.P. King, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has had an ombudsman since 1984, believes newspapers that dismiss the importance of having an editor to "serve aggressively as a connector to the readership" are missing their calling.
"If we are to live up to our own ideals ? the ideals that got us in the business, the ideals that we believe very strongly are still true of our profession ? we've got to become more accessible and more responsive to the public than we are at most newspapers," he said. "Even the best papers have a ways to go in this regard, and I think it should be one of the top priorities of every newspaper in America."
But at a time when publishers and editors are looking for any and all ways to save money, some fear the reader advocate will be viewed more and more as a nonessential cost.
King argued, however, that the ombudsman plays a vital role.
"As circulation is dwindling at almost every paper in the country, publishers are going to be very mindful of what readers are looking for and trying to give it to them," the editor said. "You can demonstrate, probably better than anybody, what the [newspaper] is doing for readers and is hearing from readers."
"As far as I'm concerned, there's no more important person in the newsroom than the ombudsman," Larry Nighswander, director of the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, added. "If I owned a newspaper, I'd probably hire an ombudsman over a managing editor. There's a serious lack of talking to the reader . . . and I don't think the people we're communicating with know what we're really all about."
Besides bottom-line worries, the technological advances newspapers have embraced hardly bode well for ombudsmen.
Just as the presidential candidates in 1992 reached out directly to the masses via MTV and Don Imus, newspapers have discovered newfangled means of forging relationships with their audiences ? listing e-mail addresses and phone numbers with columns, and sponsoring so-called public-journalism initiatives, such as town-hall meetings.
"There was a time when the ombudsman was one of the only connections between readers and the newsroom," Arthur Nauman of the Sacramento Bee pointed out. "Now our paper, and I know many others, are finding other methods of connecting. I think that's terrific, but it also means there's less work for the ombudsman to do. Our message has gotten across."
The ombudsmen even have their own page on the World Wide Web, at http://, featuring columns by reader representatives and a listing of reader advocates from Israel to Ecuador.
Technology notwithstanding, many editors simply don't want any barrier between them and the public, some contend.
"A lot of editors think if they have an ombudsman, they won't hear the unabashed reactions, or be confronted with the need to deal with them," Washington Post ombudsman and former Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser said.
She maintained, however, that "there are plenty of complaints to go around."
By all accounts, reader gripes these days are abundant. Ombudsmen say callers and letter-writers take issue with everything from gory front-page photos to typographical errors to allegedly slanted reporting. Then, there is the perpetual complaint: that the media are liberal.
While acknowledging that they aren't necessarily the "magic key" to solving the industry's many woes, Overholser insisted ombudsmen can benefit editors and their newspapers.
Overholser never had a reader advocate at the Register, but hints she might have hired one if she knew then what she does now, after nearly a year as Post ombudsman.
"Editors, no matter how much they say they aren't going to do this, try to talk the caller into understanding: 'Let me explain to you why we did this,' " she said. "They're being defensive, even though they say they don't want to be. They're trying to justify themselves. As ombudsman, I don't have to justify ? I didn't make the [editorial] decision, and I'm not responsible for it."
Readers may take comfort in the knowledge that someone inside a newspaper's four walls is keeping an eye on the internal machinations ? even if newsroom staffers don't.
Overholser said she had some rows with Post reporters over the wide use of anonymous sources, a practice she's strongly condemned in her column. Readers in considerable numbers, meanwhile, came out in agreement with her stance.
"I really feel that we are underestimating how destructive [anonymous sources] are for journalists," she said. "They are a far greater contributor to this much-vaunted decline in civic discourse than we actually talk about. We let anybody say anything."
Through this sort of self-examination, ombudsmen strive to keep their newspapers honest ? just as reporters, at their best, inspire politicians and other community leaders to do the right thing.
As Inquirer editor King sees it, reader representatives provide much-needed scrutiny in a field not known for its introspection.
"Most newsrooms I've been familiar with over my 32 years in the newspaper business are better at self-righteousness than self-criticism," he told the ombudsmen. "So, the role that you play, and what you represent ? which is the capacity to listen outside the newsroom and to critique ? is a very, very important one in our profession."
?("If we are to live up to our own ideals . . . we've got to become more accessible and more responsive to the public than we are at most
newspapers.") [Caption]
?(? Maxwell E.P. King, editor, Philadelphia Inquirer) [Photo & Caption]
?("A lot of editors think if they have an ombudsman, they won't hear the unabashed reactions, or be confronted with the need to deal with them.") [Caption]
?(-Geneva Overholser, ombudsman, Washington Post) [Photo & Caption]


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