To get an idea of just how short his stint was, take a look at what it says next to his farewell post: “Richard Chacón is the new Globe Ombudsman.” Yes, and the old and soon-to-be-former ombudsman, too.
Ah, Richard, we hardly knew ye. Actually, that’s not quite true. Chacón had been a Globe staffer for a dozen years, covering Latin America, among other beats, and later serving as the deputy foreign editor. But, as with his predecessor, Christine Chinlund, Chacón never seemed to get untracked as ombudsman, striking such a polite, inoffensive tone that it was hard to remember what he had written five minutes after you’d read it.
Even that may not have been good enough for the higher-ups. Last fall, he wrote what might have been his only tough piece, on the Globe’s business partnership with the Red Sox. Among other things, he criticized top Globe business-side executives for accepting World Series rings. Two weeks later, Chacón backed down.
On Saturday, Chacón hinted at how unpleasant life can be as the Globe’s in-house critic: “My year as ombudsman has been one of the most memorable in my career (note: I didn’t say ‘fun’).”
Given the Globe’s current budget woes, as well as the fact that editor Martin Baron and publisher Richard Gilman have in the past at least talked about doing away with the ombudsman’s position, it’s possible that Chacón’s departure may mark the end of an era. But assuming Baron and Gilman understand the importance of having an ongoing conversation with their readers, I’ll repeat an argument I’ve made previously: the ombudsman should be a respected outsider who serves for no more than two or three years.
That’s the way the Washington Post has always done it. That’s the way the New York Times has done it since creating the “public editor” position following the Jayson Blair/Howell Raines meltdown of several years ago. Indeed, check out Byron Calame’s piece in yesterday’s Times, on a scoop that turned out too good to be true. The estimable Jack Shafer recently whacked Calame for his “dreadful news sense.” Maybe so, but Calame’s independence and stature — he is a retired deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal — allow him to take on sensitive subjects without worrying about how management will react.
Even though several Globe ombudsmen have done an excellent job — including, most recently, my former Boston Phoenix colleague Mark Jurkowitz, who held the position in the mid-1990s — overall, it’s just too personally difficult to whack the people you work with, especially when you expect to return to the newsroom after your term is over.
Chacón, to his credit, did start a blog, which is an ideal way for news organizations to converse with readers. He never fully exploited it, but that’s no reason to give up on it. At a time when circulation is declining and public distrust of the media is growing, this is a moment to expand the ombudsman’s role — and to give that position the independence and voice that it needs.
Update: Chacón tells Mark that he’s going to work for Deval Patrick.