The importance/irrelevance of news ombudsmen

If you aren’t a publisher or the editor, is there a better position than ombudsman to improve the reader experience?

As Dan Kennedy points out, an ombudsman has the time, the access and the platform, to say nothing of the independence to work for the reader, explaining the paper, holding it accountable, and pushing the rock up the hill.

So, why isn’t the public editor of the New York Times more active and engaged? He writes a weekly newspaper column, but that includes a reader response column. His last original column was Dec. 18 about the Penn State scandal. He has a blog, but has only posted three entries since September, and he doesn’t engage readers in the comments that I can tell.

I think this is a job I want.

What is there to write about? A quick visit to Romenesko provides one answer. The exegesis of the best NYT correction ever? Status of the sale of the N.Y. Times Regional Group. And that was just Friday afternoon.

As I thought about this, I wandered over to the Washington Post to see what its ombudsman was writing about. Patrick B. Pexton seems to be more active, but, geez, in his most recent writing, he concludes that the Washington Post is innovating too quickly. The Post may be the only newspaper in the past 15 years that has been accused of that. (Given the demographic of newspaper readers, many of them complain about change. When I was editor of the News & Record, we routinely got complaints from readers annoyed that we would send readers online for more information. “I don’t have a computer, and don’t plan on getting one!” they would say.)

When I mentioned on Twitter that I thought the Times’ public editor had made himself  irrelevant, Craig Silverman pointed me to an outstanding column he wrote for CJR on how ombudsmen can make themselves essential. I would add two points — active engagement on Facebook and Twitter, and an expanded section on involving a news organization’s entire staff in talking with readers.

(Update: Dan Kennedy later tweeted: “Rule No. 6: Don’t write stuff like this,” referring to the Pexton column about innovation.)

I know why more papers don’t have ombudsmen; they would rather have a reporter than yet another commentator. Years ago, the idea was that editors should serve the role of public editor, but you don’t find many editors acting that way. It’s a shame. Serving as ombudsmen at two of the most important agenda-setting news organizations in the country could be a vital role helping both journalists and readers.