To ombud or not to ombud

Peter Preston in London’s Observer is comparing and contrasting ombudsmanly techniques as the Guardian prepares to shift to a new holder of its position and as the New York Times debates whether it should still have one:

So there, perhaps, is one basic difference between the New York Times and the Guardian. [Outgoing Guardian Readers’ Editor Ian] Mayes, appointed by the Scott Trust (which owns the Guardian) and thus proof against sacking by notionally nettled editors, is an insider who basically aims to explain, mediate and correct rather than censure. He’s slow to anger and punctilious in his judgments. [New York Times Public Editors Daniel] Okrent and [Barney] Calame, by contrast, are outsiders: they know about journalism, but not the inner sanctums of the Times. After the humiliation of Jayson Blair’s lies, they were new brooms supposed to sweep clean.

NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has been arguing — or perhaps floating trial balloon pins — that with the new openness at the paper, there is less need for an ombudsman. I say he’s right and he’s wrong. When The Times appointed Okrent, I remember saying that this could be a crutch and that every editor should be a public editor, every journalist an ombudsman. But Okrent proved to be effective not just as a representative of the readers and not just as a critic of the paper but also as a critic of journalism. So though I think that Calame has been weak broth by comparison, I now believe that The Times should continue to have an ombudsman when his term expires. The role could, indeed, change. But I think that The Times of all papers should have someone keeping an independent eye on it — and on journalism. If The Times wants to maintain its status as the leading light of American journalism, how can it do less? And, yes, that means that others in the paper — including Keller himself — should also see themselves in the role of explaining their process; transparency should be part of their job descriptions and even part of their bonuses, for transparency is now the essential building block of trust. And The Times still needs to rebuild its trust — and I don’t just mean after Jayson Blair; I mean that every journalist must build and rebuild trust every day with every story.

And there are limits to transparency and openness as last week’s episode at the Telegraph demonstrates, when a correspondent got nicked for revealing too much about his (flawed) process and for being (too) direct with a reader. The problem in organizational journalism is that the organization abhors transparency; it wants control. And so I have come to believe that it is also necessary to have someone whose role is openness. And then let the insiders compete with their openness, with the knowledge that there is always someone who can ask the uncomfortable question and give the uncomfortable answer (which, after all, is what we expect of everyone we cover).

Is it better if that person is an insider tasked with explaining or an outsider assigned to probe? I tend to think that all the insiders need to do the explaining and that the outsider is there to act as countervailing pressure on them. But as Preston points out, times, like The Times, have changed:

What’s in the New York wind now may be a far softer, insider system. Would that be disaster on the trust-in-journalism front? Perhaps. Yet there’s also a pinch of necessary change in the mix. When Mayes began his Guardian stint a decade ago, many of today’s bloggers hadn’t bought their first PC. If they didn’t like what the paper printed, they could write a letter to the editor and maybe (one chance in 10) see it printed. But now the Guardian, like its competitors, maintains an open, and very public blogging zone, where readers can put the boot in at will. More than 80 more have piled online this week, most still unconvinced about the need to hang Saddam on a front page.

There’s a feisty scorn here for what’s seen as the old routines of journalism: sacred communicators on stage, groundlings sitting in a pit. Why wait a week for an ombudsman to adjudicate when you can burn the theatre yourself?

Why, in sum, believe that the business of holding newspapers or broadcasters to account hasn’t altered hugely in the last few years, and isn’t altering still? . . .

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Sounds like two objectives so why not two people to do them?
    One is the independent critic or public advocate, the other is the insider who explains why various decisions were or made or how the process works. This could be a distributed function with each reporter or section editor responsible for his own area.

    The ombudsman would continue to maintain an outsider viewpoint.

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