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Another Threatened Newsroom Species

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth was on a panel at the Newseum last week, talking to an endangered species.

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Her audience included about three dozen members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, whose ranks have been depleted as financially strapped media groups have slashed staffs here and overseas.

Weymouth recalled that when it came time to hire a new ombudsman late last year, with The Post losing money, she had to ask herself: "Is it essential?"

Many have decided it isn't. At least 14 U.S. news ombudsmen have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008. Only slightly more remain U.S. members of the group that met here. There is fear that financial woes will soon worsen for news outlets elsewhere in the world, where some already have eliminated the position.

It's a difficult call for many news executives who already have trimmed to the bone. "Do you cut the ombudsman or do you cut the city hall reporter?" asked panelist Rem Rieder, editor and publisher of the American Journalism Review.

In the Internet age, anyone can fact-check a news report and shout to the world if errors go uncorrected. That would seem sufficient evidence that ombudsman duties have been usurped by an army of online "citizen editors."

The blogosphere has provided valuable additional oversight that is holding traditional media more accountable. And it has spawned self-described "press critics," many of whom delight in ridiculing mainstream media and attacking any ombudsman's column that isn't brutal enough to leave a blood stain.

But despite this expanded oversight, ombudsmen view themselves as more essential than ever. Many attending this week's conference reported being deluged with queries and complaints from increasing numbers of readers, viewers and listeners.

At the current pace, I will receive more than 50,000 reader e-mails, calls or letters this year. Many crave understanding. They seek clarification of journalistic standards. They want the rationale for cutbacks and changes in the news pages. They're curious how The Post will survive in print and evolve online.

But many others seek redress for journalistic harm, real or perceived. And they want an informed judgment from a professional journalist who has been empowered by management to directly confront reporters and editors with unpleasant questions.

Ombudsmen come in all shapes and sizes. Some are called "Readers' Representative" or "Public Editor." Some serve more of a customer service function, handling everything from correction requests to delivery complaints. Only a few news organizations, including The Post and the New York Times, still have truly independent ombudsmen. My two-year contract with The Post specifies total freedom. I don't report to anyone.

Unlike a press critic, an independent ombudsman is what Times executive editor Bill Keller has described as "an outsider with a hall pass and a platform."


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