Posts about ombudsmen

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.


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? . . .