What a 21st Century News Ombudsman Should Do: Aggregate, Curate, Debate

It’s time to change the role of the news ombudsman. Two new posts/columns from the people who are best known in this job today prove it.

The most recent was a head-scratching query from the New York Times’ Public Editor (aka ombudsman), Art Brisbane — asking whether the Times should be telling its readers when sources don’t tell the truth. Brisbane, a friend, has taken a lot of heat for this, and I’m one of the people who’s disappointed that he would even ask this question. (He later said people misinterpreted what he was asking — and he’s not totally unreasonable about this — but from my perspective he invited the misinterpretation. Sorry, Art…)

His post followed by days an even odder piece from the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, who wondered if the organization was innovating too rapidly. Answer: Of course not; one of the Post’s biggest problems is that it’s not innovating fast enough.

These pieces highlighted how strange the ombudsman’s job has become, and why I think it needs to be updated in this networked age. Here’s how I’d change it, and I hope both of these men will consider at least adding some of these ideas to their portfolio. There would be two main approaches: aggregation and conversation.

The best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls. I would stop writing my own critiques, and then:

  • Make it a core part of my role to aggregate every responsible critique of the organization’s work that I could find;
  • Call bullshit when the critics are wrong; and thank them when they are right;
  • Encourage the best critics cross-post on my page.
  • Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these debates. UPDATE: Brisbane got a reply from the Times’ editor, Jill Abramson, and replied to that; good to see…
  • Ask readers to flag mistakes of fact and analysis, and put the corrections (easier with facts) into a database with or without the cooperation of the newsroom
  • Create a robust, open forum about the organization’s work.

In other words, I’d stop trying to be the go-between and overseer of what matters in the effort to bring media criticism inside the organization. It’s obvious — look at how the NY Times buries Brisbane’s work on its website; you can barely find it without a search — that the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.

They have a great role to play, in fact. But they should use the ample resources of the blogosphere, coverage by other news orgs (which occasionally, though not nearly often enough), and social media to bring attention to the paper or whatever kind of organization they are.

To have someone in this role implies a news organization that isn’t afraid of its own shadow — where people welcome criticism rather than dreading it. I hope some forward-looking editor/publisher does this. John Paton comes to mind.

4 thoughts on “What a 21st Century News Ombudsman Should Do: Aggregate, Curate, Debate”

  1. It is not reasonable to think that all 300 readers who commented in the two hours before posting was cut off misunderstood the post. We understood perfectly well. Brisbane just didn’t like the response.

    Your above points, while interesting, are NOT what an ombudsman does. The Ombudsman is an advocate for the readers. Period. Not a go-between, not an apologist for the paper. Not someone to “call bullshit” when he personally disagrees with the consensus of the readers. And certainly not someone who calls printing the truth being a “vigilante” and who belittles and insults anyone who disagrees with his obvious stupidity. Do not be friends with this guy. He is an ignoramus, to say the least.

  2. Great ideas, especially this observation: “The best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls… [yet they] bring media criticism inside the organization.”
    I think that gets to the heart of it: there’s the ingrained reflex to internalize the critique. Hence the cry for such institutions to pick up the pace of innovation (as you say).

    To be fair, I’ve communicated a few times with the NY Times ombudsmen (yes, men) and found them receptive, even going in though the front gate. But there’s always the institutional prerogative that makes the cheap seats feel, well, cheap.

    For example, given the volume of commentary and criticism on his first post, it’s telling that Brisbane’s quotes “thoughtful responses” from only WaPo and CJR – just the kind of in-the-fraternity chatter that might disappoint those seeking a more open and inclusive conversation. It may not happen on the Times site, but you can feed your comments off-site here: http://truthvigilantes.tumblr.com/submit

  3. I agree with the other commenters that Arthur Brisbane at the Times is off the mark. He has an extremely annoying way of substituting his own judgment for everyone else’s on the planet. I dearly wish that the ombudsman would do what your post suggests – gather up the brickbats and accolades of others, etc. – without presuming to try to turn the New York Times into the Arthur Brisbane Blog.

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