Posts about ombudsmen

Cleveland’s burning river of bloggers

Ted Diadiun is called the “reader representative” at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In his latest exchange with bloggers and the public, that’s a misnomer. He is the paper’s representative, explaining the paper’s way of doing things and trying to impose that system on any who come in contact with the paper. He makes no apparent attempt to understand the bloggers’ worldview. And that’s tragic because if anyone should be trying to grasp and champion new ways to look at journalism from the readers’ eyes, you’d think it would be the reader representative. Not Diadiun. This is why newspapers are having trouble adapting to new realities. They won’t ackowledge other realities.

See the background in this story from my perspective here and here and see also Diadiun’s comments. The long and the short of it: The paper hired four bloggers, two right and two left, to blog together. One liberal blogger contributed to a campaign and was told not to write about his opponent; he refused and left; the other liberal blogger left in protest; the paper stopped the blog. Bloggers accuse the paper of being pressured by a politician. The paper accused the bloggers of being unethical for making contributions.

The problem, in my view, is that Diadiun isn’t listening and learning. That, you’d think, would be the fundamental qualification for his job. Indeed, that is what journalism most needs today — new perspectives, new understanding of the public, a new relationship with that public, and new ways of serving it. But instead, Diadiun just defends the paper against an accusation of buckling to political pressure and lashes out at the bloggers as aliens to the newspaper ways.

I made some of these points before but wanted to examine the Diadiun attitude in more depth because it is so revelatory of the cultural change newspapers are having problems making. Pardon the length, but here are my reactions to Diadiun’s column:

The conflicted relationship between professional and citizen journalists — newspapers and blogs — is at various times a romance and a fistfight.

More and more, newspapers are putting their news and information online and using the Web to expand their reach. While hardly anyone doubts that print will one day give way to the Internet as a news source, how and when we eventually get there is unknown. But we do know that nothing proceeds smoothly along its evolutionary path without an occasional mudslide.

This is a story about how The Plain Dealer got itself spattered by some primordial ooze last week.

Note the victimhood there: The Plain Dealer got splattered. It got splattered by bloggers, denizens of the primordial ooze. Note how self-centered this is: It’s about the newspaper.

Diadiun explains the origins of the blog, saying that “it all began, as many vexations do, with the best of intentions.” This wasn’t a pleasant or a learning experience. It was a vexation. Dealing with the public in a new ways is a vexation. Diadiun continues:

Their mission was to opine daily about the political scene, play off each other and generate response from fellow online politics junkies. They got free rein on what they could write.

Wide Open debuted in September, and [assistant managing editor for online news Jean] Dubail sat back to watch the fun.

For his trouble, he wound up being called a “moron” in his own brainchild the second day out, when one of his bloggers linked to an unflattering story about the paper that had been in one of the city’s alternative weeklies. But in general, the blog did what he wanted it to do. Ultimately, Wide Open would attract 600 to 800 visitors a day.

More victimhood. The blogger dared to link out to the alternative paper, which dared to dislike the P-D. Newspapers are accustomed to controlling the press and thus the conversation. They don’t suffer criticism easily. You’d think an ombudsman would have grown a thick skin to this kind of talk. Apparently not.

Now Diadiun tells the story of the contribution:

Then, on Oct. 16, reporter Sabrina Eaton wrote a story about how much money Ohio’s congressional candidates had raised, and she named some of the more interesting contributors.

Among the names was one of the Wide Open bloggers — Jeff Coryell of Cleveland Heights (known in the blogosphere as “Yellow Dog Sammy”). Coryell, one of the two liberals, had contributed $100 to the campaign of Bill O’Neill, the Democratic opponent of U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican.

At first, Coryell didn’t understand why this would be news. Eaton explained that because he was a paid contributor to a Plain Dealer-sponsored blog, failure to include his name in the story would be deceptive. Then he became suspicious: How had she learned about the contribution?

As it happens, she had found out from LaTourette.

After she got the list of contributors but before she had looked it over, she had interviewed the congressman for another story. He had seen Coryell’s name on the list and asked about the ethics of such a donation.

It was a fair question. Any reporter knows that giving to a political campaign is prima facie conflict of interest. LaTourette or no LaTourette, Eaton would have used Coryell’s contribution in the story: She knew his name and his connection to The Plain Dealer’s blog, and it was obvious that fairness demanded she tell readers about it.

Here the paper is imposing its worldview and way of working on the public: Coryell gave a contribution and — note the fancy language — that is “prima facie conflict of interest.” Who’s interest? What conflict? The paper hired a liberal blogger. The blogger is involved in the community. How is that a conflict? Ah, it’s a conflict in Diadiun’s formulation because the paper paid him (they never say how much). It’s a conflict inLaTourette’s formulation because Coryell gave to the other guy. But is it a conflict in a citizen’s view? In a blogger’s? I’d say that’s a question that’s worth exploring. But Diadiun doesn’t explore it one inch. He brings his worldview and insists it must be Coryell’s. He’s not representing the reader. He’s representing the paper. More:

LaTourette was unhappy that the newspaper would pay someone who financially supported his opponent to write political opinion. He complained to editorial page director Brent Larkin, who referred him to Editor Susan Goldberg, whom he had never met. LaTourette set up an appointment, then thought better of it and canceled.

Goldberg was also unhappy, but not because LaTourette was unhappy.

“The issue here isn’t blogging, or political pressure,” she said. “The issue is our financial tie to these four bloggers. To allow someone we pay to use our site to, potentially, lobby for a candidate they financially support would put us in a place we can’t go. Had we known that he had contributed to the opponent of a person he might write about, we wouldn’t have put him on the blog in the first place.”

The editor exhibits no more curiosity than the ombudsman. That is equally troubling.

Let’s say that no money changed hands in either direction. Let’s say they had Coryell join a blog for free and he pushed LaTourette’s opponent without having contributed. What’s the difference?

The editor says that had they known he’d dared to exercise his right — and, some would say, his responsibility — to support the political process as a member of his community, they wouldn’t have put him on their blog. Well, did they ask him? Did they discuss their ruleset with him? Or did they just assume that anyone who publishes in any form follows the same rules they made for themselves? It’s as if they can’t imagine a parallel universe where people publish differently. Newspapers define publishing. That’s what this exchange says.

After some deliberation, Dubail told Coryell he would have to agree to refrain from writing about LaTourette if he wanted to continue with the blog. Coryell declined, and they parted ways. The other liberal blogger quit in sympathy, and with two of his gang of four gone, Dubail reluctantly folded the experiment Friday.

The fallout from all this draws a bright line between the way newspaper reporters and bloggers ply their crafts.

In Diadiun’s head, there’s a bright line. But I’ll just bet that if you ask bloggers or readers, the line wouldn’t be nearly so bright. Shouldn’t the newspaper try to understand new ways to do things? When they invited bloggers in, they wanted bloggers’ voice and coolness. But they didn’t want to learn bloggers’ ways.

If they’d asked, they might have heard bloggers suggesting that newspaper people should operate more like them. Perhaps newspaper reporters should declare themselves liberal or conservative as these bloggers did. That itself would be a sin under American newspaper rules. But that transparency would be welcome. Not revealing your opinions and acting as if you don’t have them is a lie of omission. And making contributions and revealing them? Well, I hear journalists complain that bloggers shouldn’t be called citizen journalists because journalists are citizens, too. But do journalists act like citizens? Are they involved in their communities? Do they support the political process? Their employers take money from politicians buying ads but they think that to give money makes a journalist unethical. Can’t that be discussed? Apparently not, not here.

But the real reason the Diadiun got his back up defending the paper, representing it, is because Coryell et al were accusing the paper of crumbling to political pressure:

Coryell concluded that he was “fired” because of political pressure from LaTourette. Both Eaton and Dubail explained to him that the ethical concerns of the situation had nothing to do with LaTourette’s objections, but he was unpersuaded.

So Coryell is unethical for his relationship to a candidate but they are not unethical for their relationshiop to a candidate. They can’t see it any other way. And worse, Coryell dared publish what happened:

And he spread that view throughout the blogosphere. On his own blog, on local blogs and on the big national forums such as the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, you can find posts from Coryell that The Plain Dealer bowed to political pressure. Others picked up the cry, spreading his interpretation as if it were the truth and adding their own spin that still others picked up and embellished.

But that’s the way things work in the blog world: “Yellow Dog Sammy” rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world, preferring to read editors’ minds and create his own reality.

What a slimy slap that is. Diadiun doesn’t give Coryell the respect to use his name but puts his handle in quotes to degrade him and then says he rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world. Diadiun calls him unethical. Diadiun presumes that Coryell should know what the newspaper thinks are universal ethics. He dismisses Coryell’s account as creating “his own reality.” He as good as calls him a liar. And he keeps going:

Other bloggers pick that up and repeat it as gospel, and suddenly we begin getting questions from all over the country about why we’re letting Steve LaTourette run the newspaper.

Here’s the reality:

You can’t contribute to a political candidate and then write about his or her campaign, either as an employee or as a paid free-lancer for The Plain Dealer, on paper or online. Period.

Steve LaTourette has got nothing to do with that, now or ever.

Now this got more interesting in the comments on my post. Coryell asked the very good question in response to Diadiun’s last pronouncement: Do they ask op-ed contributors and syndicated columnists about their contributions?

Diadiun finally acknowledged that the newspaper rules were more unspoken than spoken. He commented:

That separation is so well established in the newspaper world that it usually goes without saying. But with this arrangement, those ground rules should have been discussed up front. Quite simply, it occurred to no one — not the editors and I will take on faith not the bloggers — that it would be a problem.

That is, they assume that no one contributes to campaigns and if they do they forever cut off their right to speak about those campaigns. That’s absurd on its face, but not to Diadiun. He continues:

Everyone feels bad about this. I think that reasonable people can disagree, as you and I do, about whether the newspaper should have established different ethical guidelines for the Web site that would have acknowledged the bloggers “involvement and transparency,” as you put it.

That is a discussion worth having. I think it’s too bad that the discussion degenerated instead into conspiracy theories about political pressure and why The Plain Dealer “really” took the steps it did.

So the paper is above reproach and above questioning, even via the reader representative, who called the bloggers unethical rather than trying to discuss this from their perspective. I called that crap and Diadiun then played victim again: “Et tu, eh?” Spare me, I said.

Coryell called Diadiun’s column “grossly insulting and deliberately intended to smear me.”

So much for the conversation. So much for the P-D’s attempt to get bloggy and cool.

(Repeated full disclosure: I used to work with the Plain Dealer at Advance Internet, where I oversaw its affiliate website, Cleveland.com.)

Mahombudsman

I keep thinking over Jason Calacanis’ contemplation of hiring an ombudsman for his new service, Mahalo, and his kind (I think) inclusion of my name among the candidates (sorry, Jason; lots of irons in that fire). Though I agree with others that this is a laudable step — I think we can name the new-media sites with ombudsmen on no fingers — I still couldn’t help thinking that there’s something so old-media about this.

And then it hit me as I used Mahalo this morning. As my daughter and I started into our occasional German lessons, I went to Mahalo’s good speaking-German page, recommended on Jason’s blog. And I wanted to add something: Annik Rubin’s mellifluous Schlaflos in Muenchen and her new Slow German podcast. My choices were to send an email to the Mahalo guide, which I’m never crazy about because it’s so one-way, or start a forum discussion, which requires registration, a speedbump. Neither immediately affects the page itself. What I wanted, though, was a wiki. I wanted to contribute my knowledge then and there.

And so it occurred to me that the best ombudsman is everyone. Every one of your readers with an addition, correction, or challenge is an ombudsman. And every one of your writers, dealing directly with the people who know more, is an ombudsman for your brand and product. You have to have the faith in your public to do this. This is what I’ve been saying to newspapers: It’s not right to ghettoize contact with the public through one person so that the rest of the staff thinks that the public is somebody else’s problem; everyone needs to be responsible for conversation with the public.

So that’s my advice to Jason: Set up the systems to that every employee and every reader is your ombudsman. Fire me before you hire me.

The Times’ ombudsman arrives early

I take it as a mildly hopeful sign that the Times’ new public editor, aka ombudsman, decided to start early so he could address the, cough, questionable news judgment shown by the paper a week ago when it played on page 37 the foiling of an alleged terror plot to blow up the fuel lines under JFK Airport and New Jersey. The story was played large on every other paper I saw; it merited only a paragraph promo on page 1 of the Times.

At the time, I saw four possible explanations:
A) An agenda — trying top play down terror’s war on us (quibble if you will about the war on terror, the war on us is real).
B) An admission that the Times is not a local newspaper. There could be no doubt that everyone in this area would be talking about this story and wanting to know more. If the Times uses that rationale to put fluffy cultural change stories on page 1, surely this story would measure up in conversational curiosity.
C) Horrendous news judgment.
D) All of the above.

I was going for D.

Clark Hoyt, the new public editor — who already shows a better ability to write than his immediate predecessor — talked with all the players at the paper and laid out who did what. And then he said:

My own view is that The Times story was very well reported and written. It quickly made clear that the accused men were a long way from action and that despite the apocalyptic comments of the U.S. attorney, their ability to carry out an attack on the airport was very much open to question.

But instead of being a reason to put the story inside, I think this was a compelling reason to keep it on Page 1. This reporting put the story in an appropriate perspective, far calmer than the day’s television coverage. Giving the story subdued play on the front page — toward the bottom, with a single-column headline — would have told readers that The Times knew what they were concerned about, that there was something real here, but that it wasn’t anywhere near happening and there was no need for alarm.

Yes. We can debate the gravity of the threat — but not if the Times doesn’t give us the facts for that debate, which they surely knew was going to go on. Isn’t that journalism’s role: contributing facts to the public debate? So as far as I’m concerned, the Times fell down on its duty. It displayed atrocious news judgment and the only reason I can see for doing so was an innate, if unspoken — and even, to the Timesman, unrecognized — agenda, a wish to downplay the story.

Hoyt did extract second thoughts from Times Managing Editor John Geddes:

Looking back at last week’s decision, Geddes told me: “If I had it to do over again, might I have started it out front? Yes.”

Why, I asked.

“I made the purest call in terms of how I view the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “But as I look at the rest of the front page that day, could I have started a small story on the front without diminution of the page? Absolutely. We second-guess ourselves all the time.”

As we second-guess you.

Hoyt also points to Suzanne Daley, Times national editor, discussing the decision online:

In truth, the decision was widely debated even within this newsroom. At the front page meeting on Monday morning, we took an informal poll and a few editors thought the story should have been more prominently played. Some argued it should have been fronted, regardless of the lameness of the plot, simply because it was what everyone was talking about.

I think Hoyt’s examination would be been even stronger had he linked to more criticism from without. The New York Post editorialized quite forcefully on the subject:

The paper’s goal seems to be getting America to lower its guard – which can only lead to disaster.

The suspects were “Short on Cash / And a Long Way From Realizing Goals,” one Times headline insisted yesterday. Regarding two of the men arrested, a second headline asserted that “Neither Seemed an Extremist.”

Indeed, on Sunday the paper barely covered the arrests of three suspects behind the plot: Its main story appeared 37 pages back. A second piece undermined the significance of that story: “Plot Was Unlikely To Work, Experts Say, Citing Safeguards and Pipeline Structure.”

OK, so these guys had no weapons or mountains of money on hand.

But they had deep, passionate intent – to do grave damage to this country.

And they represented a brand of terrorist that might be even more deadly than al Qaeda’s thugs: the kind that builds hatred toward America and takes it upon himself to vent that hatred in some deadly freelance plot. . . .

For the Times, though, the only terror plot worth worrying about is . . . a successful one.

It ought to be ashamed of itself.

I like it that Hoyt came in to work early and addressed an incident that begged examination. But I hope that he’s not so quick to dismiss motives and biases in his analysis. I’m not ready to go as far as the Post and Fox News, declaring a deliberate conspiracy to marginalize terror’s war on us, but neither am I willing to dismiss that criticism. This is a decision that can’t be made about the paper on the first day at work, I’d say. I hope Hoyt keeps digging.

Dancing around a blog

Deborah Howell, the Washington Post’s ombudsman (and a former colleague at Newhouse), reports on the ONO, the meeting of ombdsmen at Harvard I attended this week.

Jarvis thinks all ombudsmen ought to blog. His blog is at http://buzzmachine.com. He said bloggers “distrust the institutional voice and trust more the human voice. The more we represent that personal voice, the better.”

That caught me up short. I got a laugh at the meeting when I said, “I hardly have time to go to the bathroom. Start a blog?” Instead of responding to 600 letters, he said “a blog post is more efficient and adds to the conversation.” I’ll think about it.

By the way, it’s a punchline but it’s true: ombudsmen do correct each other a lot.

: LATER: And here is the account of Stephen Pritchard, readers’s editor of the Observer in London.

: LATER STILL: And here‘s Siobhain Butterworth, readers’ editor of the Guardian, with her take: “arvis urged us to “jump into the blogging pool, the water is fine”. With this encouragement I plan to experiment with a Thursday blog about issues for the Guardian and its readers.”

ONO: Rusbridger of the Guardian

I’m at the gathering of ONO (pronounced oh-no — as in, ‘somebody made a mistake, oh, no’), the Organization of News Ombudsmen, at Harvard (probably a more fun gathering than a copy editors’ conference). I came a day before my panel because I never miss a chance to see a PowerPoint performance by my part-of-a-boss, the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger. So I’ll liveblog this. (Here‘s a PDF of his prepared notes.)

He talks about the problem of being an editor: not getting out of the office. George Bernard Shaw, he says, had the idea that newspapers should have three editors so, while one is editing the other two can get out into the world. “He was very web 2.0 in the perception that people out there know more than us,” Alan says.

He laments that in the UK only the Guardian and Observer have truly independent ombudsmen. “There are two main reasons why editors are reluctant to take the plunge.” He has heard that editors are responsible for this and that outsourcing the complaint department is outsourcing their responsibility. And Rusbridger acknowledges the value of that argument but argues in turn that there is an inherent conflict in commissioning stories and dealing with complaints about them. He says this concentrates the power of prosecutor, judge, and jury in one set of hands. Then there is the marketplace argument: if your paper is unfair, it will not be bought. Alan says that too often, news organizations are monopolies.

One reason not having an ombudsman and relying instead on the editor won’t work, Alan says, is the sheer volume of content produced in print and now online. If the editor cannot see everything before it is public how can he or she be responsible for it all? And then there is the issue of losing control; editors don’t want to. “And it is a very radical move to place even a few inches of your newspaper beyond your control.” Finally, there is cost. As one attendee said to me a few minutes ago, the choice in many cases these days is between an ombudsman or a reporter.

Alan says that since the free press was born, it lived under a pretense of being infallible: of seeking the truth. He quotes Walter Lippman, after whom this building housing Nieman is named, from the 1920s: “If we assume that news and truth are the same thing we shall arrive nowhere.” Alan says the goal is to be truthful both about what we know and what we do not know.

He recounts the shift of journalist from glorified stenographer to player in the drama and points to the Independent declaring itself a viewspaper; on that day in 2004, other papers told of the tragedy in Beslan but the Independent devoted its front page to attacking George Bush.

The more you move from reporting to campaigning to persuasion, Alan says, the more people will want to criticize you. But the attitude of journalists has reflected that of a “rather thuggish” Millwall football club: “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

But this pretense is no longer sustainable, he says. The public has access to stores of information “that once were our preserve.” Once was, people did not have the means to verify journalists’ accounts; now they do. “There are now millions of fact-checkers out there for everything we write.” He asks whether it is not uncomfortable for editors to realize that all their errors and failings are being reviewed elsewhere with no word of it in your own publication.

Alan shows the Jon Sweeney BBC/Scientology clip and says this is going to happen more and more. “Your reporters as they go out, there are going to be full transcripts and tape recordings and if there is any attempt to misquote people, they are going to be released.” And so what do you do: a spin campaign, PR, or some independent process to review what happened.

He tells about interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and then putting up the entire transcript and audio recording online and says that some of his counterparts thought this was radical. (Here is my related Guardian column about the state of the interview; herehere is Jay Rosen’s transcript of his interview with Howie.)

After showing a host of examples of open journalism, Alan talks about what journalism is not. It’s not about delivering the whole truth. It’s not defined by an arbitrary moment on the clock when the presses run. It’s not about what we as journalists have exclusive access to. It’s not about having the last word on a subject. He quotes David Broder. A newspaper is “a partial, hasty, incomplete, and inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours… But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected, updated version.”

“Everything we do,” Alan says, “is going to become more contestable, more open to challenge.”

He says that ombudsman explain them to us and us to them but the best also explain us to us.

In discussion, Alan is asked by Michael Getler, now of PBS and formerly of the Washington Post, about the pressure that the flood of comments puts on reporters. Alan says that reporters will have to get used to it; it is all out there anyway and they can come in in the morning and check Technorati for what is being said about their work. “Reporters are just going to have to grow up and like big boys and girls take it on the chin.”

Alan also says, intriguingly, that he is looking at new organization for a newsroom that has reporters have their first relationship with the public more than a section editor. I think that’s right. I don’t know exactly what it means yet — how one does it. Neither does he.

In a discussion about the tone and quality of comments, Alan says that success becomes a problem: How does one read 600 comments on one article and what does comment No. 601 add? He is looking for software to help rank and thus filter that.

There is also discussion of the lack of ombudsing on TV. Getler of PBS says he is the only broadcast ombudsman in the U.S. He points to CBS’ Public Eye but cautions that it is not an ombudsman in that it is not an independent review. If there had been an ombudsman during the Dan Rather episode, he says, the story would have surfaced much earlier and it would have helped CBS. Much head-nodding around the room.

Ombudsing

I’m on my way to Cambridge to be part of a panel at the international confab of ombudsmen. The topic: Is There a Shared Watchdog Role for the Public, the Blogs & Ombudsmen? As is my practice, I’ll share with you my notes, hoping for some of your wisdom on the topic:

* We need to see the news story as more of a process and less of a product. And once we do that, we open the door for collaboration with the public. So that relationship need no longer be solely about complaint and fault. It can be about cooperative effort, asking for each others’ help, networked journalism. So now, before the story is done, we can ask the public what they know that we don’t; we can ask them what they want to know; they can ask us to find facts. This profoundly changes the relationship between news organizations and their publics.

* Consider our ethic of the link. I’ve been arguing that news organizations should do what they do best and link to the rest. That is part of looking at news as a process: newspapers should link to others’ reporting and others’ criticism (and they are beginning to). This says that they are not the be-all-and-end-all and that the less they put themselves on a pedestal, the less that criticism and correction are seen as extraordinary events.

* Everyone’s an ombudsman inside the paper. Every reporter and editor has the responsibility to interact with the public over matters of fact and misunderstanding. I actually don’t suggest that every reporter respond to every letter. I remember a columnist who’d said something ridiculous — arguing, as I remember, that bicycle racing is not a sport — and he got scores of angry letters, of course; his editor bragged that he’d personally answered each one. I thought that was rather a waste of time; a blog or forum conversation would have kept the discussion going much more efficiently and openly.

* Everyone’s an ombudsman outside the paper. Is there a shared watchdog role for the public? Of course, there is. There always has been. Only now those watchdogs have a voice via blogs.

* Why should ombudsmen necessarily come from within the community of journalists? Yes, they may be able to understand the ins-and-outs of newspapers, all the better to dig into the organization and to explain it. But wouldn’t it also be better to have members of the public in the role? I argue that of the reasons Dan Okrent was such a good ombudsman at the Times — besides intelligence and orneriness — was that he came from outside newspapers (though not far outside).

* Stipulated: There are asses in the world. But we should not judge communities by their worst. That is cultural redlining. Yet that is what I hear news organizations do when they dip into blogs, forums, and comments: They obsess on the asses. But we all know who the asses are. It would be a much more valuable service to concentrate instead on finding the smart things smart people say, encouraging them to say more.

* And, by the way, when you confront the asses, they will generally back down like the bullies they are. If they don’t, then they are trolls in need of meds and it’s best to ignore them. But also remember that people dislike walls and especially dislike shouting at them. So don’t be shocked if they get mad speaking with no response.

* I think the best ombudsmanship comes not just from criticizing or justifying the actions within one organization but instead from reviewing and commenting on the broader context: Why shouldn’t the ombudsman talk about the habits of journalism in a broader sense, as practiced by competitors and by community members? When the ombudsman acts more as a critic than as a spokesman for either the community or the institution, the conversation is more compelling.

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? . . .