Is the Newspaper Ombudsman More or Less Obsolete?

Five Reasons Why Having a 'Public Editor' at the Times and Other Papers No Longer Makes Much Sense

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A colleague of mine recently said some complimentary things about Clark Hoyt, the so-called public editor (i.e., ombudsman) of The New York Times. Unlike his immediate predecessor Byron Calame, Hoyt, my colleague pointed out, is tough, no-nonsense and productively cranky.
Clark Hoyt: Public frenemy at the Times is good, but does it really matter?
Clark Hoyt: Public frenemy at the Times is good, but does it really matter?

I found myself agreeing (Hoyt's better than Calame, no doubt).

Then, I confess, I found myself reverting to my usual position regarding Hoyt: vague indifference.

Then I found myself feeling a little guilty for not particularly caring.

And then I thought: Maybe it's not me, and maybe it's not really even Hoyt. Maybe it's the very idea of the public editor/ombudsman -- a position whose time may have come and gone.

We're nearing the fifth anniversary of the creation of the public-editor gig at the Times (Daniel Okrent, the first PE, was hired in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair catastrophe). The Times, it's worth noting, was late to the game. As the Organization of News Ombudsmen notes on its website, The Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times put the first U.S. newspaper ombudsman to work in June 1967 (borrowing from a Japanese model), and the ONO now lists dozens of members at American newspapers.

Some four decades later, I think it might be time to pull the plug on ombudsfolk. Why? Five reasons spring immediately to mind:

Readers are doing it for themselves. At some papers, ombudsmen go by the title "reader advocate." It would have been hard to imagine even just a few years ago that readers could effectively advocate for themselves, but given the megaphone of the blogosphere, that's clearly the case. In fact, in many cases bloggers -- and energetic non-blogging readers who engage the interest of key bloggers -- can quickly gain the upper hand in defining how controversial newspaper reports are received and spun.

Chances are, Romenesko has already been there, done that. Jim Romenesko's Poynter Institute media blog is, of course, the go-to place for not only journalistic navel-gazing but serious, worthy, in-depth considerations of journalistic issues. If it really matters, chances are Romenesko has already linked it to death and posted plenty of ad hoc commentary on his letters page. The larger online conversation about media personified and enabled by Romenesko effectively makes any newspaper's public-editor column seem both parochial and anemic.

Journalists and editors are doing it for themselves. In the recent past, senior citizens, unemployed cranks and other gadflies were the people most likely to bother writing letters to newspaper editors. Now, of course, plenty of average people of all ages directly engage with journalists and editors through e-mail and especially website comments. And the best newspaper people are addressing that feedback directly (the Times certainly did regarding its controversial January report about John McCain's rumored extramarital affair). That's the way it should be.

Ombudsmen are (sorry) boring as hell. Comes with the territory, I suppose, given that newspaper management invariably expects ombudsfolk to be sober, seasoned, borderline-elderly paternal/maternal types. That sort of pedantic sensibility is just dated and tone-deaf -- and at odds with how newspapers should be engaging with their newly empowered readers.

The money's better spent elsewhere. My message to newspaper executives: There is no shortage of people who are all too happy to second-guess your coverage; they're doing it every day, every hour, every minute. Graciously accept -- even celebrate -- their contributions, and make plenty of space for them online and in print.

And then spend your dwindling budgets on reporting -- instead of reporting on your reporting.
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