Annual meetings of the Organization of News Ombudsmen provide members with a change of scene and a chance to swap stories about difficult complaints from readers and tough responses from editors and reporters. This year the meeting in Minneapolis had a special lift -- a recent American Society of Newspaper Editors report found that readers of papers with ombudsmen had extra confidence in the paper's news content.
At one session, the head of the ASNE credibility committee, Publisher David Lawrence Jr. of the Detroit Free Press, drew applause as he described himself as a "newspaperman in the midst of changing his mind about the place ombudsmen might have in good newspapering." Earlier he had taken the view that every employee was a "reader's representative," but now, he isclosed, he is exploring whether an "ombudsman could complement, and contribute to, our total efforts toward a newspaper of heightened credibility."
Other editors and publishers have declared that their editors and reporters were readily available to aggrieved readers, but I doubt that any of them has really tested the thesis. Their news staff has eyes on tomorrow's paper and little ear for complaints about today's.
Mr. Lawrence's change of heart last month was welcome news to the tiny flock of 35 that is still seeking recruits and wrestling with the ideal title and design for such a position.
Around the United States and Canada, titles vary, as do duties. My neighbor on the Wilmington papers is "public editor"; my colleague on the Philadelphia Inquirer is "assistant to the executive editor," and others are called by such titles as "reader representative." Most, though, are "ombudsmen."
On some newspapers the reader representative is concerned largely with writing and getting corrections into the paper, leaving the criticism to other folk. One is part-time -- a journalism professor who investigates and answers written complaints for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
The Arizona Daily Star ombudsman, Leo Della Betta, has the broadest mandate: to deal not only with complaints about news content but also with complaints about circulation and advertising. Even the Tucson sunshine doesn't seem sufficient compensation for such duty, but then perhaps he draws triple pay for the triple jobs.
The Post has had seven ombudsmen since 1970. The first three were senior editors, and the most recent four have been persons with journalistic experience but not immediately from the ranks of the newspaper. Most of the nation's other ombudsmen are upper-level news executives. The unique Post arrangement involves a two-year, non- renewable contract to ensure both independence for the ombudsman and to avoid the possibility of his "going soft" in hopes of renewal.
Each Post ombudsman has been encouraged to structure the post in his own way. In my case, I have used the past months for several activities:
As readers write or call, I have looked into valid concerns and added some of my own, using both to try to increase the sensitivity of reporters and editors to such problems as inaccuracy, unfairness, insensitivity and incompleteness.
I am also an internal critic, supplementing editors' comments. On days when comment seems appropriate I prepare a memorandum distributed to executives and also available on staff word processors. And on Wednesdays I go public with this column. Here I explore a broad range of topics dealing with the news business, occasionally whacking at The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek or public television and, often, actions of The Post.
Sometimes the column has turned into advocacy for the profession -- pressing public fficials, such as the president, to make themselves available to the media or reminding readers about hazards encountered by reporters doing their duty. Sometimes I expose tricky attacks on journalists by those who play nasty games with clippings in order to advance a point of view. And there have been columns trying to explain how things work at the newspaper -- bylines, corrections, letters to the editor or government agency news embargoes.
Some readers have hoped I would manage to barbecue a Post editor or reporter every week, but I am relieved that I do not have to do so.