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A 'Manifesto' For News Ombudsmen In The Internet Age

Jul 3, 2012

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NPR appointed its first Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in 2000. Alicia Shepard assumed the position in 2007 and last month marked the end of my first year in the role. Each of us brought different styles to the position, though the evolution of the Internet at each stage also played a major role in our approaches.

By the time I arrived, it was clear that our national conversation was now fully online, and we all expected journalists to engage with us there. I stopped the traditional weekly column and moved to writing many times during the week, with posts of varying lengths and many that asked for your thoughts instead of proclaiming my own. I was secretly pleased to see some of my colleagues begin to follow suit.

I have been away in recent weeks and now am currently in the midst of a big project, so please forgive me if the production is low at the moment. But I thought in the interim that you might like to read this column by social media guru Dan Gillmor of The Guardian in the UK. Gillmor seems to abandon the idea of an ombudsman delivering his considered judgment altogether. I don't go that far, but Gillmor does capture some of my own thoughts on engagement, but with greater coherence. It's your thoughts, however, about our changing approaches that count the most. I anxiously wait to read them.


By Dan Gillmor, The Guardian
July 2, 2012

Almost a decade ago, in the wake of a journalistic scandal that shook the New York Times to its core, the newspaper appointed its first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. His post was called the "public editor" and the role was defined by the newspaper in this way:

"The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the Times and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper. Additionally, he publishes periodic commentaries in the paper about the Times's journalistic practices and current journalistic issues in general, to appear when he believes they are warranted."

The job hasn't changed much since Okrent's debut in 2003. He and his three successors have hewed to the format laid out in the beginning. In the outside world, they've been admired and loathed, praised and ridiculed - as you'd expect, given the prominence of the Times and what I consider to be its indispensable role in our society. (Of the four, I've been a colleague of two; and the current public editor, Arthur S Brisbane, is a friend.)

Ombudsmen have never been common in journalism, but for a time, in recent years, there was an upsurge in their number at prominent organizations. They include the Guardian's "readers' editor", and similar positions at the Washington Post and National Public Radio. There's even an organization of news-business ombudsfolk, though newspaper ombudsmen are, like their employers, an endangered species.

In January of this year, Brisbane and his Washington Post counterpart, Patrick Pexton, published columns and blog posts that led to widespread public comment. One of the commentaries was mine. I suggested that the traditional role of the ombudsman made no sense in a digital age, and offered several suggestions.

Read Gillmor's full article at The Guardian.

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