Among 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.