News Leadership 3.0

October 16, 2008

Goodbye ombudsman, hello network?

A traditional newspaper role
can be improved on the Web
How do you encourage users to evaluate your journalism?

I wrote recently that the gatekeeper role of traditional journalism was fading as news consumers find abundant sources of news. But news organizations (or others) could revive the role on the Web by becoming aggregators who point users to the best links and put them in context and point users to the worst links and debunk them.

That got me thinking about another traditional newsroom job— the ombudsman. Judging by the numbers, the role of ombudsman is in decline in the U.S. as well. Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist sums up the situation:

“Editor & Publisher picks up on a trend that’s an outgrowth of the overall cutbacks in newspapers: newsroom ombudsmen (and women) are a vanishing breed. At least 10 ombudsmen have lost their jobs in the past year to buyouts or layoffs at U.S. newspapers, leaving just 27 of the readers’ representatives in place, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen (which also has international members, but at this rate may have trouble reaching a quorum at its next convention).

“As Gina Lubrano, executive secretary of the organization, points out to E&P, the readers’ representative position has been an easy target for cost-cutters for years. So it’s probably not surprising that we’re seeing a bunch of ombudsmen cuts amid the current avalanche of newspaper cutbacks.

“But I’d argue that these days, the ombudsman - like many things in the newspaper business - is something of an anachronism, anyway. It’s another thing that technology has rendered essentially irrelevant. There are just so many other ways for readers to talk back to newspapers these days.”

Let’s face it. There never were that many U.S. ombudsmen. In 1999, I counted fewer than 40 for this speech I gave in Istanbul. (Yes, I was an ombudsman once—Public Editor at The Oregonian in the late 1990’s.)

Still, the ombudsman position embodies an ideal that the press can operate transparently and be accountable for mistakes. If surveys are any indication, the U.S. press routinely fails to deliver on that promise.

Potts is right, the Web does offer readers lots of ways to talk back to news organizations. But the real question—before the Web and since—is whether news organizaions are listening and responding. The traditional ombudsman fields questions and complaints, offers an opinion and explains the organization’s playbook, but is not empowered to change it.

The Web will demand more from the organization, with or without the ombudsman. It is critical that newsrooms listen to and learn from readers (or whatever you call Jay Rosen’s “people formerly known as the audience”) who challenge not only their accuracy and credibility, but pose questions and complaints that suggest an entirely different master narrative. What might this look like?

Start with comments and blogs

Does your organization allow comments on news stories as well as blogs?
Does your organization solicit story ideas and leads in the comments (Example: How is the economic crisis affecting your family?)
Who monitors the comments for story leads? How does the newsroom follow up?
Who responds to complaints about the coverage?
Does a senior editor blog about news decisions and field questions? Every day?
How are comments about coverage shared with the staff? Do they have significant impact on the coverage? Why? Why not?

If your organization has attempted some of these practices, or found better ones for listening to users, please share your experience in the comments.









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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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