Ombudsmen the next threatened newsroom species

Posted: Monday, May 18, 2009

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth was on a panel at the Newseum last week, talking to an endangered species.

Her audience included about three dozen members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, whose ranks have been depleted as financially strapped media groups have slashed staffs here and overseas.

Weymouth recalled that when it came time to hire a new ombudsman late last year, with The Post losing money, she had to ask herself: "Is it essential?"

Many have decided it isn't. At least 14 U.S. news ombudsmen have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008. There is fear that financial woes will soon worsen for news outlets elsewhere in the world, where some already have eliminated the position.

It's a difficult call for many news executives who already have trimmed to the bone. "Do you cut the ombudsman or do you cut the city hall reporter?" asked panelist Rem Rieder, editor and publisher of the American Journalism Review.

In the Internet age, anyone can fact-check a news report and shout to the world if errors go uncorrected. That would seem sufficient evidence that ombudsman duties have been usurped by an army of online "citizen editors."

The blogosphere has provided valuable additional oversight that is holding traditional media more accountable. And it has spawned self-described "press critics," many of whom delight in ridiculing mainstream media and attacking any ombudsman's column that isn't brutal enough to leave a blood stain.

But despite this expanded oversight, ombudsmen view themselves as more essential than ever. Many attending this week's conference reported being deluged with queries and complaints from increasing numbers of readers, viewers and listeners.

At the current pace, I will receive more than 50,000 reader e-mails, calls or letters this year. Many crave understanding. They seek clarification of journalistic standards. They want the rationale for cutbacks and changes in the news pages. They're curious how The Post will survive in print and evolve online.

But many others seek redress for journalistic harm, real or perceived. And they want an informed judgment from a professional journalist who has been empowered by management to directly confront reporters and editors with unpleasant questions.

Unlike a press critic, an independent ombudsman is what Times executive editor Bill Keller has described as "an outsider with a hall pass and a platform."

In the time since I was hired last year, The Post's financial situation has worsened. I asked Weymouth if she would still replace the ombudsman if she had to decide today.

"Yes," she said. "The Internet has created a barrier-free zone in which readers can critique as much as they want. But the ombudsman role does much more than just allow readers a place to vent."

She envisions the job as more than raising reader concerns inside The Post. The ombudsman also acts as "internal critic" to push for newsroom reforms, and as a "public critic" with "an official platform, in print and online," to highlight problems and issues.

Having an ombudsman is admirable and smart, especially at a time when public skepticism of established media is high. Ombudsmen can strengthen credibility and trust.

But with so many news organizations in financial peril, it would be smart to start thinking of innovative, less costly alternatives to the traditional ombudsman model.

Kevin Klose, the new dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, suggests that a consortium of news organizations could create a "bank of qualified journalists, perhaps retirees," who could monitor performance or investigate specific complaints. "This might be a way to provide that service to the public in an economical way," Klose said.

There's no replacement for a dedicated cop on the beat. But in these uncertain times, ideas like this are worth exploring.

• Alexander is ombudsman for The Washington Post.

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