Where Have All the “Reader Advocates” Gone?

NEW SLAUGHTERAmong the things that continue to amaze me is how little thoughtful, generally well-informed people care about the steady demise of newspapers. It may be that after a half decade or more of hysterical death knells such people have stopped believing the Star Tribunes and Pioneer Presses of the world are really going to go away.

Or … it may be that even the thoughtful and generally well-informed have lost whatever emotional attachment they once had to papers, which is odd considering how the internet with its “comment”-ability would seem to offer more ability than ever for readers to interact — emotionally and otherwise — with those that deliver the news (as those that deliver news define news).

Word that the Washington Post has joined the list of papers dismissing their ombudsman — the allegedly independent voice that both solicited reader complaints and issued a judgment on the quality of the paper’s work –  seems like a good moment to address what’s wrong here. Largely, I’m in agreement with veteran media writer Jack Shafer, who writes:

“As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired …

But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post.  … No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.”

You will not be surprised to learn that neither of our two local dailies has ever turned such responsibility over to someone who wasn’t one of their paid and trusted employees, someone who could be counted on to “over”-represent the paper and apply team-think opacity rather than embarrassing transparency.

The reason for papers’ disinterest in the sort of brave and bold oversight Ben Bradlee suggested echoes a couple recent threads here on The SRC. Namely, the discussion after Bob Woodward’s pissy overreaction to a White House e-mail, and our new policy moderating the worst of the trolls.

Point being no one anywhere likes being told, in public, that they’re wrong, or that they’ve screwed-up, least of all journalists. Reporters and editors have extraordinarily high regard for their probity and wisdom, and already feel perpetually embattled by both cloddish know-nothings and smart-ass ideologues eager to witness their final fiery impact.

If there’s a walking hell worse than the person who outs a reporter for laziness, a breach of ethics, or an entire big city paper for timidity in the face of great civic peril, or gross conflict of interests (**VIKINGSSTADIUM!!**) I don’t know what it is. Maybe a snitch in the Baltimore drug trade. The social/professional peril for that person is nigh on to mortal. But it is what has to be risked to be of any real value, if  “reader advocacy” and “transparency” mean anything besides corporate buzz-blather for “return deflective fire”.

The reason neither local paper bothers with even the pretense of formal, regular, ongoing public accountability is that done badly and irregularly, it only serves to feed its enemies, the PowerLines of the world, adversaries determinedly selling the “reckless liberal bias” meme to their retrograde readership.

But that is almost precisely the reason to have a fully independent ombudsman, on duty throughout the day every day, rather than beard-stroking once every other Sunday. Here at SRC and other good blogs (if I must say so myself) our new “moderation” serves first to block out the worst of the socially maladjusted numbskulls, the inflamed clods who soil the punch bowl for everyone involved, while our interaction, generally speaking, has the intended effect of clarifying gaps in our original posts. (It doesn’t always work that way. But then we’re not always sober, unlike everybody working in newspapers.)

If the Star Tribune parked a Ben Bradlee-style ombudsman on its comment lines, sifting through the most trenchant complaint or observations and offering near-real time response, I kinda think the paper would win national kudos for getting its big boy/big girl pants on right and showing genuine courage in the face of enemy fire. Moreover, based on the comments we can all read on the Strib site, the majority of the complaints border on rank, ideological nonsense and can be easily dismissed with withering authority.

On the occasion that the paper or a reporter really shanks one into the woods … well, it’s not like no one noticed, and they only look worse when they send a hapless employee apologist out to explain how tough it is to do “great journalism” under deadline pressure and the vital need to sustain “open lines of communication” with powerful local business interests.

Just as no one gets ‘em all right, the public institutions that try to imply a reputation both beyond and immune to reproach is really only baiting its enemies and dismaying its allies.

31 Responses

  1. First, the concept that it was to monitor “fairness, accuracy, and relevance” is, in itself, irrelevant. Today, we have Fox News and the Wall Street Journal where NO ONE expects to see any “fairness, accuracy, and relevance.” It’s a foregone (fairgone?) conclusion that a large part of today’s news media is not intended to be fair, accurate or relevant. I think the public’s expectation in this department is minuscule compared to two decades ago.

    Second, much of what these people did – and I did it to fill in once – was to salve the ego of people who weren’t included in the story about rose bouquets on Valentine’s Day. It was a combination of “why was I overlooked?” and “I need the business more than XXX.” Today, we have the peanut gallery at the bottom of most stories were people who were overlooked can add their two cents and others can offer their opinion. I was always amazed at the general pettiness of calls in that job.

    Finally, whereas I think newspapers are a quickly dying breed, journalism, in one degree or another, is not. People are crazy about news and they’re “sharing” it on Facebook and “tweeting” it on Twitter. Everyone has a website and the search engines catalog news releases there as much as they do on the New York Times website. The whole idea that someone was being picked on, or worse yet, ignored and overlooked, isn’t that big of a concern anymore. People have 25 news sources today, compared to six two decades ago (three major networks, CNN, possibly one good radio station and the daily paper.) The only real question today is how do journalists, and the organizations that cough up the dough for them to operate, get paid.

    When people stop looking at the Sunday Target circular, the presses will roll to a stop. But the news that once filled the holes around those ads will keep going.

    • Effective journalism, which is something better than reporting that a house burned down, or a gangbanger got whacked, requires both resources and nerve. There’s much less of either in second and third tier papers.

  2. Great topic. I like the idea of having an ombudsman, not because their presence can guarantee the delivery of fairness, objectivity and accountability — they obviously can’t — but because they’re a sign that a news outlet is at least grappling with those issues.

    Yes, most ombudsers are too apologetic for the home team. Yes, they’re too newsroom process-focused. But even a homer ombudsperson is better than no ombudsperson.

  3. It may be a consequence of our hyper-partisan era, or it might have as much (or more) to do with big papers’ bland, over-moderated fustiness, but they’re in a situation where very few people care all that much about their survival. Bring it up and the crickets start chirping.

    There’s much less emotional connection to a paper than before. Why? I have my theories.

    • I agree that people are much less connected to their newspaper than they were for most of my life.

      Why? My theory:

      We don’t crave newspaper journalism, because we have free substitutes that are just as satisfying to many. In the age of the Internet and cable-TV, we can get regurgitated journalism-like stuff from hundreds of other sources (e.g. blogs, tweets, FaceBook chatter, commentary-based TV and radio programming, etc.).

      Free always beats paid, unless paid is much better than free. Not enough Americans are convinced that paid is that much better than free. Why? 1) Many of us aren’t equipped to recognize good journalism and 2) Journalism isn’t as good as it could be, because of corporate pressures, lousy management and budget cuts.

  4. How about a treatise on the “local news” as seen on the “local affiliate stations”?

    Happy talk, hubbies and wives, physical enhancement surgeries, half naked frosting enhanced meteorologists, etc.

    Like I said, anything remotely resembling “journalism” finally died with Breitbart.

    • Did I “approve”you? How did the St. Maarten “wife hunt” go?

    • You actually had me right up to Breitbart.

      • Good article. The basic point is that we should not fear responsible gun owners.

        But not all gun owners are responsible, and even with responsible gun owners, accidents happen:

        http://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/sean-mccutcheon-officer-gun-suspended.php?ref=fpb

        More guns, and more gun owners, and there will be more accidents. Clearly, i think that there should be much more effort into turning all gun owners into responsible gun owners, and also more effort into ensuring that only responsible people are allowed to become gun owners. Universal serious background checks should be a simple, obvious first step towards this goal.

      • From the Atlantic piece:

        “The people who buy most of the guns are middle-aged white men who have not finished college. That demographic has been particularly screwed in this society in the past 30 years. They are losing ground economically, they are losing ground culturally, but in this country, to talk about your circumstances as part of a class is forbidden. So these guys have no vocabulary for discussing what has happened to them. All they know is, they’re pissed.

        “The only people giving them a voice is the NRA, who comes along whispering in their ears, “The liberals want to take away your guns.” The gun is the one thing that makes these guys feel vital and useful and powerful and capable. They’re managing these incredibly dangerous weapons, not hurting anybody, maybe they’re wearing a gun and keeping people around them safe. They get a lot of pride and a lot of self-esteem from having these guns. This is not crazy, and this is not pitiable — this is real.

        “So this desire to believe that crime is out of control is a desire to justify having a gun. It all fits together.”

        I agree with the facts, but his interpretation is nonsense. Having a gun, as I believe you also fatuously claimed, Erik, is not the same thing as actually doing something about your political and economic circumstances. It’s the opposite, actually. It’s a psychological dodge. A, easy balm on a wounded psyche. And it leaves you open to be played by cynics the likes of the NRA hires to talk utter malarkey. But it advances your attenuated interests in the rigged political and economic circumstance with its boot on your neck not one bit. But, to quote the last line from “The Sun Also Rises”: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” That mentality defines “pitiable” and “crazy,” however sadly “real” it demonstrably is. And demonizing “the others” who you prefer to believe are committing these delusional crimes to justify this reality dodge is actually nothing more than an elaborate act of kicking the dog after a tough day. Doesn’t get you over on your oppressive boss.

        I have guns. But unlike this guy, and all the other “gun guys,” it doesn’t define me. I have a 20-ounce framing hammer, too. I don’t go around thinking, “Yeah, I’m a hammer guy. You need a 16-penny nail driven flush with two swings, I’m your guy.” I’m not a carpenter. Just a guy who happens to own a hammer.

        And these aren’t cops or paladins roaming the kingdom in search of damsels to rescue or dragons to slay. They’d do better to figure out who they actually are and where they’d like to be, or where they’d like to see their children be, and quit ducking the complex problems that are confronting them with “gun guy” fantasies.

  5. I have to admit, that i feel the most personal connection to the Strib via two things–the comics, and the restaurant reviews. Most everything else I find better elsewhere–except now and then there is good reporting on a major local news piece, such as the Denny Hecker story, or the Trevor Cook case or Tom Petters.

    I think that local newspapers need to create an alliance with a major national paper, and then concentrate on the hyper local. So the strib carries NYT sourced national and international news, and does all of its own local stuff. Maybe the PiPress does the same, but with the WSJ.

    And the NYT/WSJ/LATimes/WaPo rely on their local partners for interesting regional stories and coverage of weather and sports, etc.

    • It hasn’t been my impression that either the Strib or the PiPress is spending any resources covering national or international stories, I suppose with the occasional local angle. They run pieces from the wire services, including the NYT, as it stands.

      I think if they made an attempt to be a more interesting read they’d attract more readers. But that is probably a naive belief.

  6. When newspapers were the only game in town, there was more of an emotional connection. They were your link to the world and they had their distinct personalties: Cowles’ Tribune and Star papers in Minneapolis and Ridder’s St. Paul PP and Dispatch. In Chicago, where I grew up and did my journalistic stint (in the 60s), I remember McCormick’s Tribune and the feisty afternoon Daily News which featured the best columnist in town, Mike Royko.

    Although I’ve not been a practicing news guy for years (ok, decades), journalism, particularly newspapers, have always been a love of sorts so their decline in stature over the years has been disappointing.

    I can think of two reasons why newspapers lost their connection:

    1. Back in the 80s and 90s, media properties were hot and most newspapers were bought up based on crazy multiples and rolled into conglomerates. Newspapers lost their local quirky personalities and became local vanilla versions of USA Today.

    2. Changes in technology from broadcast TV news (in all its blandness) which killed the afternoon dailies all the way to cable news, the internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds. There are just too many ways to find out what you want to know on an on demand basis and newspapers play a small piece, particularly on the local level.

    I’m sure there are other, possibly even more, important reasons. I’m interested in having Mr. Lambert’s espouse on his theories.

  7. I think I’ve “espoused” my theories enough over the years. But they are mostly tied to the central point of my post — namely that big modern papers — which are as you and others say — profit-delivery vehicles for private equity operations and larger corporations — practice a form of “reporting” that attempts to appeal to every imaginable interest while rarely satisfying any.

    Pick an area of coverage and second and third tier papers invariably come up significantly if not woefully short in telling the full story of an event or issue. The sole exception being sports, without which most such papers would have no reason to exist.

    And to my point about tone and interaction … sports, interestingly enough, operates with a substantially looser license in terms of allowing authoritative point of view on the part of its writers and columnists. Storytelling on the sports pages, such as Pat Reusse does well, is routinely allowed to blend with opinion, which in the case of someone like Reusse is as credible as any owner’s or commissioner’s.

    That the Strib’s institutional conflicts skewed, over-moderated and misdirected its coverage of the Vikings stadium fight is the best example going of how sorely compromised it is on large, serious matters. Then we can roll in Bill McGuire and UnitedHealth, Denny Hecker while he still pouring millions of ad dollars into the local media market and of course the paper’s dare I say limp, follow-the-herd coverage of Michele Bachmann … which extends to the Anoka-Hennepin bullying/suicide issue and other facets of Tea Party rage.

    In a nutshell, their product is unpalatably bland, even on emotion-rich topics close at hand. When pugnacious metro columnists like Nick Coleman (love him and hate him, that’s fine) are instructed NOT to write about a national election in the final, frenzied weeks when it is Topic A with everyone, you have a clear view into what the paper’s owners and managers fear most … the roar of the democratic rabble and a possible — possible, not likely — blowback in terms of ad revenue. The possibility that they might increase readership and thereby increase such revenue by engaging in a robust debate never seems to have crossed their mind. Or if it did it was quickly blotted out, like an altar boy guiltily snuffing out an impure thought. (Hell, I say bring back Katharine Kersten full time. She was always good for provoking debate).

    In terms of controlling costs in a way that would allow tight budgets to focus deeply on stories of consequence — like UnitedHealth’s stratospheric profits and stock back-dating, Tom Petters, Hecker, Bachmann, etc. — I’d start by farming out every topic “silo” that is produced better on a national level, (usually because it is written in a more entertaining way), and contracting with Patch! type hyper-local reporters for semi-regular coverage from their suburban outposts. (Allow the Guild to bring those writers into the fold.)

    PM mentions food reviews, and while this is a good example of local coverage I often wonder how many more local “news outlets” can possibly live off the local restaurant trade? I’m no foodie, but I perceive a hell of glut in “food reporting”, as opposed to, you know, newspaper work that calls out fraud and rascals, no matter what their social relation to someone’s private equity partners.

  8. “ESPOUSE” – A mate found via on-line dating?

  9. Those who fear the gun are generally unfamiliar with them. Compound that with a liberal mindset that believes one knows best about what’s “good” or “right” for others, or in a utopian vision of wonderful peace and harmony, and you have the recipe for “gun control” and worse, gun seizure or gun elimination.

    “Heavens, those lower than myself certainly shouldn’t have something I know nothing about, but which scares me!”

    It’s funny how the utopian vision demands these same types be the “leaders”…..Diane Feinstein, I’m talkin to you.

  10. Sounds like a guy was doing somethin’ he should ‘na been…and in Montanny!

  11. i will posit – with no evidence whatsoever – the following: most people who own a gun are ill-equipped to use it in an emergency. i will make the same statement regarding cars: most people who drive are ill-prepared to cope with an emergency situation when driving. The only thing that saves the fools in either category is that – statistically – they’re very unlikely to have to use either in such circumstances. And, when people get drunk or otherwise mentally impaired, they use guns and cars to kill themselves and others in roughly – on an order of magnitude basis at least – equal numbers.

    So…should we ban cars and guns both?

    i think not.

    i do think, though, that it ought to be at least as hard to get a gun as it is to get a drivers license. And, gun owners should be required to use their guns – at a shooting range, in target practice, through continuing education – at least as often as they drive their cars so that they are familiar with their characteristics and how to use them in a variety of daily circumstances. And, last but not least, gun owners should be required to renew their permits to use a gun every so often just like drivers licenses.

    All of this is consistent with the Second Amendment and with how we regulate other potentially hazardous consumer objects.

    Let’s hope Diane Feinstein is a regular reader.

    - Austin

  12. I thought I might bump this topic again. CNN had an opinion piece the other day with more disturbing data on how many consumers are fleeing mainstream media.

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/18/opinion/kurtz-shrinking-media/index.html?iref=allsearch

    This gist was the media in general has become so watered down that people are leaving it in droves because they don’t produce “news” just programming and opinion. Among the more sobering stats:

    “CNN is the only one to produce more reporting than commentary, 54% to 46%, says the report. But even at CNN, the report says, the number of packaged news reports in prime time dropped from 50% to 24% from 2007 to 2012, with more time devoted to interviews.”

    “As for local TV newscasts, sports, weather and traffic soaked up 40% of airtime last year, up from 32% in 2005. And news reports are practically becoming blips: only 20% of stories lasted longer than a minute, while half took less than 30 seconds.”

    In somewhat related news, did anyone see Sid doing the Harlem Shake with Goldy, a U of M basketball player and some other folks that was promoted by the Strib?

    Now, I realize Sid is the ultimate homer and gets a tremendous amount of slack – but wasn’t in just a few years ago that a local female sports reporter almost lost her job for taking part in a Twins locker room celebration when they made the playoffs?

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