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.