Thursday, July 29, 2010

What is a Newspaper Ombudsman?

by Pirongrong Ramasoota

A newspaper ombudsman, also known under other labels as readers’ advocate, public editor, and reader representative, is a profession that has existed in the U.S. as far back as 1970s.

But do we really know what they do and their significance to the newspaper they work for, or to the newspaper industry, and to the general readers, particularly in the current context of the biggest newspapers’ slump?

Andrew Alexander, the present ombudsman for the prestigious yet embattled Washington Post, says he works 75 hours a week to answer to complaints sent to the Post about its content and its performance as a newspaper.

There are a few channels through which complaints could be lodged – mail (postal system), emails, or telephone calls.

Alexander reported that he receives more than 20,000 letters and emails, and 100-120 calls per week. He goes through the letters and email himself but gets transcripts of the telephone complaints from a Post staffer. All the transcripts are also made available to the entire newsroom.

A large part of those 20,000 plus incoming messages are from those who do not actually want a reply – those who are just airing grievances from certain predispositions – anti-semitism, homophobia, religious fundamentalism, and so forth.

His job consists of three main parts, all of which are contingent upon the feedback or complaints received from the Post’s readers.

First, he responded directly to those who complain provided that they give their real name and addresses, or email addresses, or telephone numbers. He also represents them in matters of ethical concerns like accuracy, fairness, and new-gathering, among others.

“The main thing I do is give explanations,” said Alexander. And to explain, he needs to seek out the reporters who did the piece in question to understand their reason for covering that piece of news or why they wrote a column or an editorial the way they did.

“But my job is not to defend or to be apologist for the Post,” Alexander asserted, “It’s more like internal affairs. I have to investigate why the reporters did their job the way they did and give them a chance to explain themselves.”

Most of the reporters he went to ask questions have been co-operative. Of all the complaints he received, only about one percent lead to some sourt of retraction or clarification.

The readers who get a call from Alexander are usually surprised to hear from him as they never expected their complaint to get any kind of formal reply. This, he says, reflects the disconnection between the newspaper and its audience.

“This would be OK 15-20 years ago but with the kind of business situation that the newspaper industry is in now. Things have to change. Readers are now in the driver's seat and the paper has to really look into their demand,” said Alexander.

This is why Alexander needs to be upfront in his job as an internal critic, so he writes weekly column to put the Post under a critical lens, as framed by the readers’ comments. Some reporters, he said, may not be pleased with what he writes but most have been very professional about it.

After the Post underwent transformative changes in recent years, Alexander earned his third job; that is, promoting public understanding about the newspaper and the challenges facing it.

Among the transformative changes that Alexander needed to clarify to the Post readers were the buyout of the newspaper, the integration of print and online operations, the restructuring of print and online into a seamless operation, the introduction of new editorial management, the physical reorganization of the newsroom, the redesign of the paper which led to a reduction of content, among others.

“The readers need to hear about these changes and they need to be assured that the Post will survive. Personally, I think it will survive, but at what quality is another story.”

When asked if he regards his job as part of the so-called corporate social responsibility scheme to boost the Post’s public image, Alexander said no. He emphasized his independence from the newspaper organization.

“In my column, I criticize the paper openly. I am not here to increase or to hold readership necessarily but to bring credibility to the paper, he added.

Alexander is on a two-year contract with the Washington Post.

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