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.