In Praise of Ombudspeople
I'm going to weigh in on the raging journalistic controversy over whether the role of newspaper ombudsperson is obsolete, kicked off by AdAge's very smart, very witty Simon Dumenco and igniting a firestorm of letters on Romenesko. Okay, perhaps words like "raging" and "firestorm" are a wee bit of an exaggeration, but I'm still going to write about this topic even if it's not a raging firestorm of controversy, because I happen to think it's important. For those keeping score at home, that was a total zinger directed at Dumenco's fourth point. Booyah!
Dumenco thinks that ombudspeople are obsolete for the following reasons: (1) Bloggers are out there, watchdogging; (2) Romenesko has it all covered; (3) Journalists and editors are always cognizant of reader feedback and self-examining accordingly; (4) the Ombudsbeat is boring; and (5) That money is better spent on reporting, especially in these cash-strapped times. I disagree on every count. Here's why:
(1) There are over a hundred thousand new blogs created every day. Are we to assume that every one of those new bloggers are experts? Everyone's got an opinion, but not everyone knows what they're talking about or will take the time to meticulously make sure of it. I say this as a media blogger who can reel off a list of many smart media bloggers who fit that bill, for pay or for fun, from left and from right — but just because they're watching doesn't mean they're working for you, or your readers. The mission of the ombudsperson is to watch the standards and performance of your publication, with an eye to keeping it scrupulously top-notch as a service to your readers. That's a service that shouldn't be outsourced for free to random people on the internet.
(2) Simon Dumenco has now forced me into the unenviable position of having to criticize Romenesko — our dear, sweet, beloved Romenesko, lord and link-master to us all. I hope that blatant sucking up was enough to make him forgive me for what I'm about to say: Romenesko does not, in fact, have it all covered. He's a top curator-aggregator and a go-to for us all, but he doesn't link everything he gets sent (which I know from experience!) which means he's exercising judgment on what he deems worthy of inclusion. His prerogative, and that of Poynter — but it does mean that he'll miss stuff, or just not have time/space to post it based on other stuff he'd rather post instead. Two stories I would have considered Romenesko-bait never saw the light of day on his site concerned last week's PEJ report on how the Obama race speech had dominated the news coverage and overshadowed the Iraq war anniversary coverage and my post detailing the many inaccurate mischaracterizations of the Bill Clinton "fairytale" remark, four of which were in the New York Times. I would have included them but who cares? It's not my site. It's his. If I want to include something, it's up to me to do so. The same extends to any news organization that cares about rigorous, ongoing critical assessment of its standards and content.
Also, Dan Okrent's point is worth noting: Romenesko is read by a specific subset of people, which represents at best a tiny subset of readers/viewers/consumers of a given media outlet. Dumenco says that "if it really matters, chances are Romenesko has already linked it to death" — but if it really matters, isn't it worth making sure that the greatest number of people actually see it?
(3) Simon Dumenco says that "journalists and editors are doing it for themselves" — really? Journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass? Editors like whoever edits Alessandra Stanley? Sometimes I feel bad picking on Stanley, but she continues to stand for careless, easily avoidable errors that consistently slip through the editorial cracks — and let the record reflect that when NYT TV editor Stephen Reddicliffe answered reader questions for "Talk To The Newsroom" he did not address any questions about Stanley's correction record, and I know there was at least one because I submitted one. That was around the time when Bill Keller suggested that "Talk to the Newsroom" might easily replace the Ombudsperson role; at that time, I noted the built-in dangers of consigning Ombudsman-like duties to editors with a vested interest in making their sections look good. While I don't doubt that journalists and editors do strive for a high level of accuracy and fairness and quality, in my line of work I can think of a few who have been a tad, shall we say, defensive about receiving criticism.
In support of this point, Dumenco cites the infamous NYT article on the now just as infamous John McCain alleged-reputed-never-proven affair as an example of journalist-and-editor self-reflection. Sure, great — after publication, after a slew of letters and articles and cable-news segments critiquing the article from all sides — and after Bill Keller's knee-jerk response to the outcry in which he claimed that "the story speaks for itself." After mobilizing to get a response published just four days later, NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt wrote that the NYT "owes readers more proof" on such stories. Anyone see a difference between the two statements? Right then, carry on.
(4) Ombudspeople are boring, says Dumenco. That's just silly talk, says me. These are real issues of fairness and standards and accuracy and accountability and journalistic integrity and while sometimes they can be a tad pedantic, more often that's the hallmark of a boring writer — the issues themselves are quite interesting and debate surrounding them is often quite spirited. Never has that been more obvious than during this presidential campaign with the ferocious arguments over which candidate the media is in the tank for/giving a pass to/unfairly harsh toward more — and that's not even addressing the question of whether three actually is a trend. Any good ombudsperson will have more on their plate than they can possibly address, and it's because these things tend to be about fundamental matters of fairness.
But also, not everything of worth has to be packaged with bells and whistles and flashing lights and dancing nude ladies. Sometimes a thoughtful, smart piece speaks for itself — but just in case it doesn't, please enjoy the saucy photo of Lindsay Lohan above. Thanks, Ellie-winning New York magazine!
(5) Drop the obsolete old coot and spend the cash on real reporting, says Dumenco! That's an awesome idea - but why stop there? News orgs should totally fire their most senior, highly-paid people and replace them with hungry young bucks eager for a chance at a byline and a paycheck. Also they should drop those silly copyeditors - there are bloggers who will be more than happy to point out a typo! I know, apples and oranges, but still — we're talking about allocating resources to the quality of published content, pure and simple, and part of that is making sure the mistakes are learned from and not repeated. There will ALWAYS be an argument to divert as much money as possible to reporting — it's one of the greatest dilemmas facing newspapers right now, and many are the managers tearing their hair out over unforgiving budget cuts. Something's always got to give and that's for the individual news org to figure out, but at some point the need for quantity has to be weighed against the need for quality, and how that quality is to be ensured. That's essentially what this argument comes down to, and it's one that is sadly larger than this debate.
That's it — sorry if that seemed unduly earnest to you, Michael Wolff, but you can't fool us — we know you think newspapers are important too. Look how many you've got linked on your front page! Now all that's left to do is wait for that Romenesko link, otherwise this column totally doesn't exist.
Related in Similar Arguments Over A Year Ago:
Because The New York Times Never Does Anything Controversial, Bill Keller Thinks It Probably Doesn't Need A Public Editor [ETP]
Not-boring photo of Lindsay Lohan shot by Bert Stern for Ellie-winning New York magazine.