By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: ombudsman

Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the public editor

Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the ombudsperson, sometimes known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who holds their own news organization to account. As she observes, at one time such positions were common at large media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

They were eliminated, for the most part, when financial pressures made such a position seem like an unaffordable luxury. But as Stohr argues, with the Times and the Globe once again profitable and growing, “They can easily bring them back as a signal that they value public trust.” (Note: Stohr interviewed me.)

I suggested the Globe bring back its ombudsperson last spring after the paper published an extensive correction about a story involving top executives at the MBTA who were reportedly working from distant locales. Instead, the Globe fired the lead reporter, Andrea Estes, and has never really offered an explanation as to what went wrong. Estes, a respected investigative journalist, is now working at the Plymouth Independent, a new nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, himself a former top Globe editor.

As far as I know, the only major news organization that still has a public editor is NPR, where those duties are carried out by Kelly McBride, who’s also senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Meanwhile, as Stohr writes, the Times is increasingly under fire on social media from liberal critics who complain that the paper normalizes Donald Trump by treating him like a typical presidential candidate rather than as someone facing 91 criminal charges who attempted to foment an insurrection. I largely share that critique, although I think some of it is overblown.

The presence of a public editor, Stohr writes, “can help journalists be more self-aware while not placing the burden of public criticism on individual reporters, who are usually not in a position to make the sort of organization-wide changes that are often necessary to restore public confidence.”

The public editor was not a perfect institution by any means. Partly it depends on the skill of the person doing it. The Times’ next-to-last public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was the best I can think of, and Stohr quotes a post Sullivan wrote on Twitter/X arguing that the Times needs to bring that position back. Partly it depends on how willing top editors are to provide access. (Sullivan, who still writes media criticism for The Guardian and her own newsletter, is now executive director at the Craig Newmark Center on Journalism Ethics & Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.)

But there are certain things an in-house critic can do that an outside commentator can’t. A public editor has the time to dig deeply and, if they have the cooperation and support of the top leadership, can make a real contribution in helping the public understand why certain decisions are made. And, sometimes, what the story was behind mistakes and misjudgments.

More: There is still an Organization of News Ombudsmen, though I don’t know how active it is. If you look at the U.S. members, you’ll see that most of them hold titles like “managing editor for standards.” I should have noted that PBS has a public editor, Ric Sandoval-Palos.

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Bonfire of the ombudsmen

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I take a look at the abuse heaped upon Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton and New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. And though they clearly deserved to be criticized for their lazy, ill-considered commentaries, the over-the-top nature of the reaction says more about their critics than it does about them.

Fading ombudsmen

It’s been nearly two years since Boston Globe ombudsman Richard Chacón left to take a job with Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial campaign. Chacón remains with Patrick, and the Globe remains without an ombudsman.

Though the Globe has not, to my knowledge, abolished the position, it seems unlikely that a new internal watchdog is going to be designated at a time when the news staff is shrinking and good journalists are walking away seemingly every week. After all, if you pay an ombudsman, you can’t pay someone else. Nor are the Globe’s financial problems unique.

Which is why I was intrigued by this piece in Advertising Age by Simon Dumenco headlined “Is the Newspaper Ombudsman More or Less Obsolete?” Dumenco writes in praise of New York Times public editor (i.e., ombudsman) Clark Hoyt, but adds: So what? We live at a time, Dumenco argues, when bloggers and the ubiquitous Jim Romensko do a far better job of holding the media to account than an ombudsman can. Besides, he says, ombudsman columns are boring.

“Maybe it’s not me, and maybe it’s not really even Hoyt,” Dumenco writes. “Maybe it’s the very idea of the public editor/ombudsman — a position whose time may have come and gone.”

My reaction: Not so fast. Dumenco’s probably right that the ombudsman movement is fading due to financial pressures. The Web site of the Organization of News Ombudsmen is so moribund that it links to Chacón’s predecessor, Christine Chinlund, who gave up that role in 2005. But though bloggers certainly do much to hold the media to account, something important will have been lost as well, and that is the loss of an authoritative, inside voice.

I could point to numerous examples, but let me suggest one recent piece by Hoyt, in which he blasted the Times for its report that some former anonymous aides to John McCain were worried nine years ago that he might have, maybe, well, you know, been having sex with an attractive lobbyist many years younger than he. Everyone on the planet was ripping the Times for that story. But it was Hoyt’s column that was the show-stopper — not because it was better than all the other commentary, but because it came from inside the paper.

Then, too, a good ombudsman bases his or her columns not just on commentary, as bloggers generally do, but on reporting. Yes, in Boston, the Phoenix has a long tradition of media critics who report pretty thoroughly on the Globe, the Herald and other media organizations. (My disclosure is in the right-hand rail.*) But though Globe staffers have never been required to cooperate with the ombudsman, they’re certainly encouraged to in a way that’s not necessarily the case with respect to the Phoenix or Boston magazine.

And as former Globe ombudsman and former Phoenix media columnist Mark Jurkowitz has told me, the ombudsman’s column is actually the tip of the iceberg — most of the job consists of politely handling reader complaints about everything from smudgy ink to the cancellation of a favorite comic strip. This is basic customer service, and no blogger is going to do that.

I’d like to see every serious, 24-hour news operation in Boston have an ombudsman. Why stop at the Globe? But, barring an unexpected return to financial health, it’s not likely to happen. It’s too bad.

*Whoops. No, it’s not. OK, I was the Phoenix’s media columnist from 1994 to 2005.

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