Dailies can be bureaucratic
Ombudsmen feel their success
should spur more appointments
By John Brown
I didn't like to talk about my job when I spoke to
students on career opportunities in. newspapers.
I'm the only person in Canada with the title of
and, at time of writing, there 33 1/3 per cent unemployment in the
Actually, I exaggerate—there are two of
us. I am the Edmonton
Journal ombudsman, and Ray Timson performs a similar
function as senior
editor in charge of the Toronto
Star's Bureau of Accuracy. Our slender
ranks were slashed by the folding of the Winnipeg Tribune,
other Canadian daily to feel it should have an ombudsman.
That's the gloomy side of the story. The better
one is the naming of
ombudsmen on some 20 North American newspapers since the pioneering
editors don V like to admit
were wrong, or that wrong
appointed the first modern-style ombudsman in 1967.
Most of them operate as I do: investigating
(complaints from readers; answering their queries about the
newspaper; and acting as
internal critic who monitors the paper for fairness and accuracy.
Naturally, the ombudsmen themselves believe every
major newspaper should have one, and happily for them, no newspaper
that set up the post has since dropped it. All 'may not have been
sweetness and light, but it seems fair to say these papers believe
having an ombudsman is worthwhile.
However, the great bulk of newspapers in Canada
and the U.S. remain
indifferent or even hostile to the idea..Why that should be came up at
a meeting in Washington, D.C., in May when as Russell Austin, my
counterpart at the Milwaukee
Journal, wrote afterwards—"a
harried-looking little group of ombudsmen huddled together to organize
for mutual support against the slings and arrows of outraged readers
and resentful fellow staff members."
The outcome was the formation of the Organization
Ombudsmen, and one of its objectives is to encourage more newspapers to
A roadblock facing the ombudsman concept was
out to the meeting by Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington
Post, the paper whose ombudsmen probably have been the
best known in
the business. Said Bradlee: "The movement grows slowly becuase editors
don't like to admit they were wrong, or that wrong happens under them."
He might have added that defensiveness is by no means limited to
editors, but more on that later.
"I have no
authority to tell anyone
to do anything but I have a
licence to say what I think"
A couple of other common objections are: "Who
needs one? What can an
ombudsman do that an editor can't?" and "I don't need an ombudsman to
tell me how to run my newspaper."
For answers to these criticisms and others, let me
immodestly offer a
description of the ombudsman's role at the Edmonton Journal. I
think it's one of the better examples, as being a more recent
appointment there was an opportunity to learn from what had happened
Publisher J. Patrick O'Callaghan made me" the
paper's first ombudsman in
July, 1978, and I report only to hirn. That's a key point as some
ombudsmen are part of their news and editorial departments, a factor
that could inhibit them in pressing complaints.
Even more important is that I am not limited to
news complaints as are
most ombudsmen. I handle complaints or questions about any area of the
newspaper, the only exception being staff concerns abut their
employment. I do look into staff beefs about the paper's contents if
they appear to have a valid point.
The only provisos for the public are that the
matter must involve the
newspaper in some way—a few readers still confuse me with our
column for consumer problems—and that circulation complaints
should have been directed to that department first.
Readers can write or phone and I am available full
time to deal with
their concerns. In a recent four-week period, I handled 271 calls and
letters. Of these, 54 involved circulation, 14 were about advertising
and almost all of the rest concerned the news and editorial pages. The
circulation calls were about double the usual rate because of a press
problem at the time.
I keep a record of all calls and advise each
department of every
comment made about it. This is done by memo to the head of the
department concerned, and in the case of complaints, he or she will
decide whether to offer corrective action. If I don't agree with the
decision, we will discuss the matter further. In a line borrowed from
the Toronto Star
when the post was set up, "I have no authority to tell
anyone to do anything but I have a special licence to say what I
think." If no agreement can be reached, my ultimate recourse is to ask
the publisher to rule on the case.
Co-operation from Journal executives has been
excellent and I rarely
have to push matters to the limit. Obviously they are well able to
recognize problems and the paper has long had a policy of correcting
matters that can be shown to be wrong.
At this point, you may say that's all very nice
but what is an ombudsman doing that a department manager can't do
The heart of the ombudsman business is obtaining
redress for someone
who might not get it otherwise. The tough slogging comes lower down in
the organization. Many problems would be corrected whether the paper
had an ombudsman but others would not. That is "proved by the number of
complainants who have tried to get satisfaction on their own, but
had no luck.
Nobody likes to admit he is wrong, and that's
particularly true of
journalists. Writing is an intensely personal business and there's a
defensiveness bred by often unwarranted attacks from outside. Criticism
of an article can be viewed by the writer as an attack on his or her
integrity or ability.
A reader who complains may well get little
sympathy at the writer or
copy editor level. Not uncommon remarks made to me at the beginning
were: "Why don't you tell that ass to get lost?" or "Whose side are you
to admit he is
and that's particularly true
Now most of the staff seems to
appreciate—that I am there to investigate readers'
and not to fob off callers with a polite answer.
my experience has been that the touchiest
writers, of all those columnists who makes a point of commenting on the
shortcomings of others. This has prompted more
than one reader to say that those who can't take it shouldn't give it.
The ombudsman has several key advantages over an
editor when it comes to
clocking into a problem. One of the main ones is time to talk to
When I was the often had to field readers' calls when we were in the
throes of making edition changes.
problems would be
if the newspaper had
ombudsman, but others
I also have the time to follow through on
complaints. If I'm not satisfied
with a newsroom reply, I can make checks on my own and they may well
throw a different light on the problem. I can make sure matters are
followed through to the end.
The system of sending memos to department heads
may seem unduly
bureaucratic, But it ensures that complaints are not forgotten or swept
under the rug. As well, it keeps those key people informed.
There had been some junior staff resentment about
these memos and some
juniors in all departments have asked me why I didn't simply take a
matter up with them rather than their boss. I suspect some complaints
might never be answered if that were the case. I do not deal directly
with an individual without the prior permission of the department head.
When I write a memo asking for comment on a
reader's grievance, I
am careful not to prejudge the matter. Despite that, writers often act
like readers in confusing the messenger with the message, and feel I am
already condemning them.
Another important advantage for the ombudsman,
particularly one who isn't attached to the news department, is that he
has no reason to feel defensive about the paper's actions. I didn't
help plan or write an offending story, I didn't turn a bill over to a
collection agency, nor did I leave the litter at the intersection where
a carrier picks up his papers. I don't feel inhibited in pressing an
investigation that a city editor might find difficult as it would upset
his or her working relationship with a reporter.
People who feel they have been mistreated by the
newspaper can be
unpleasant and it helps me keep my cool when I know that plaintive
cries of "Why don't..." really refer to a particular department and not
my shortcomings. Often problems that don't require corrections can be
straightened out by letting a caller sound off.
The ombudsman's office provides an easy means of
access to the
newspaper and this is particularly valuable to people who don't deal
with it on a regular basis. One of the most frequent comments by
callers is: "I 've never called the newspaper before."
others who frequently talk to the city desk and reporters tend to call
them first if they have a problem, and usually I am only brought into
these matters when differences can't be resolved.
The workings of the
newspaper still remain a mystery to those who don't have close contact
with it. Journalists take for granted the separation of news and
advertising, but a surprising number of readers are unaware of that
basic fact. Because of this, they may not make their needs clear and
end up being bounced from department to department by seemingly
Certainly any reader who calls the editor or the
about a legitimate problem is going to have it acted upon. However,
many readers make the mistake of dealing with the first person who
answers the phone. They don't ask for a supervisor, and on the other
side, a junior staffer may turn away an unhappy reader or customer
without checking further.
Another of my duties is to act as an internal
critic, reviewing the
paper for accuracy and fairness. Again, being removed from the pressure
of the next deadline should enable me to have more of an overview than
an editor on the firing line. The idea is to spot problems that have
not been raised by readers. Strangely enough, those readers don't
always comment on seemingly obvious errors. I am helped, of course, by
having an insider's knowledge of how the newspaper works.
The internal critic role can be a touchy one,
although most senior
editors understand my position is to help, not to order or nitpick. The
resentment comes from those staffers who feel a foul-up might have gone
undetected if I hadn't commented on it.
They also know that as well as memos, I do a
weekly report for the
publisher and have a column in the paper every Friday. The report to
the publisher summarizes all calls and pinpoints possible problem areas.
A newsroom wag says the only requirement for writing the column is
uncommon remarks made
me at the beginning were:
don't you tell that ass to
lost?' and 'Whose side are
on anyway?' "
When one writes critically about one's employer
and colleagues, it is
inevitable that feathers will be ruffled. I give the subject of the
article a chance to tell his or her side of the story, and I also do
something that would make many journalists throw up their hands in
horror. I show the subject a copy of my column before publication. This
is not for the purpose of watering down the criticism, but to make sure
I have the facts straight.
Generally, this check has been well received by
the staff and some have
even conceded that I had a point. A notable exception was the writer
who asked the publisher to kill my column. He refused.The column can be
used to straighten out those problems that don't lend
themselves to correction in the regular news columns, but still deserve
to be rectified. I also try to give readers an insight into how the
How does one judge the usefulness of a newspaper
ombudsman? I don't
keep statistics on my success rate in handling reader complaints. What
I consider a satisfactory answer may be viewed differently by a
complainant, and some people can never be satisfied.
Unhappy readers may say: "I didn't think you would
do anything as you work for the newspaper."
I try to explain an ombudsman can only operate
from within the
organization as the paper's co-operation is essential. A government
appointed ombudsman would be incompatible with freedom of
Dealing with an ombudsman in no way affects a
person's right to go to a press council or the courts, of course.
Many readers have reacted favourably to the
ombudsman appointment, and
callers still tell me they think it is a great idea. They welcome this
personal contact with the newspaper. It is a sad cornmentary on modern
society that people often express surprise when I call them back with
answers to their questions.
Readers do raise some points that go to the heart
philosophy and they find serious mistakes. But the majority of calls
are about bureaucratic problems or errors in routine coverage rather
points of principle.
message comes through
and dear: there is a vast
between how journalists
the paper and how
A favorite remark of callers is: "This may not be important to you but
it is to me." The problem may not be a widespread one, but it's better
to have a chance to correct it rather than lose a subscriber.
Incidentally, more readers threaten to quit" because of delivery
problems than anything else.
The nature of journalism encourages the fire-horse
mentality with its
excitement over the big story, and this means there may not be the same
enthusiasm devoted to the seemingly dull routine that runs in the paper
on a regular basis.
I'm constantly reminded that the paper is many
things to many people
and not everyone is waiting with bated breath for the line story. Not
unreasonably, readers expect the recipes to list all the ingredients
correctly; the television schedules to have information that was
available in time; the Vancouver stocks to be completed and not have
the last few listings deleted because there wasn't enough space
allocated; the British soccer results to be there on Mondays so pools
followers can check their entries;and the guide to city events to have the right times.
Incidentally, hell hath no fury like the
proverbial little old lady who
is a racing fan and doesn't have up-to-date information. She provides a
good test of an ombudsman's patience as attempts at explanations only
send her further up the wall.
The great unanswered question about ombudsmen is
how representative of
the readership at large are the calls and letters. It's impossible to
say as each situation has to be judged separately and naturally people
are most concerned about those things that directly affect them.
Readers often ask if many others have made the same complaint and are
surprised to be told they haven't.
My office hours are nine to five so I miss those
late-evening bar calls
that plague night news editors. People have to be reasonably concerned
to make the effort to phone the next day. Even more effort is required
The nature of the job means at least 95 per cent
of the calls concern
complaints rather than compliments, so the ombudsman lives in a world
that is largely negative or critical.
Whether the callers represent that famous silent
majority, one message
comes through loud and clear. There is a vast gap 'between how
journalists perceive the paper and how readers do. This point is also
brought out when I am asked questions at speaking engagements.
Journalists have a reputation for cynicism but
it's nothing compared
with that displayed by readers who seem to believe there's a
Pravda-like organization where the publisher and editorsit on the news
desk and yet every story that appears in the paper. People are
remarkably quick to suggest questionable motives behind problems that
on investigation turn out to be caused by human error or carelessness.
The reasons for that suspicion could be the
subject of an article
itself, as today's journalism with its emphasis on interpretative
reporting and opinion columns isn't clearly understood by many readers.
We are seen as revelling in the miseries of others
and the bigger and
closer to home a disaster is, the better. Readers feel unequal when
they challenge what they see in the paper. It's fine to say the
will publish letters from those who disagree with its editorials or
columnists, and The
Journal with a full page of letters everyday
publishes as many as, or more than, any other paper. Readers, though,
don't think a letter is equal and they resent a columnist being able to
go on belaboring his or her pet topic. They point out also that they
don't have the journalists' writing skills.
Another problem is that a few journalists do not
relate well to the
public: the former have a God-given knowledge of newspapering and to
hell with some twit who thinks he has an idea for improving the guide
to the paper's contents. Even worse to these journalists is a nervy
reader suggesting he's found an error or a one-sided story.
Lest anyone think these misunderstandings are
confined to Edmonton
because it was a one-newspaper city for many years, let me say my
experiences closely match those of ombudsmen elsewhere. The arrival of
"It is a sad
commentary on modern
that people often express
when I call them back with
to their questions."
Sun has not lessened readers' concerns and I've been
the number of callers who call about a Journal problem
and toss in a
disparaging comment about the Sun.
Readers' impressions of the Journal are by no
means all negative and an
established paper has a tremendous amount of goodwill. Those readers
expect a certain standard and feel let down if the paper falls below
"Having an ombudsman is one good way of showing
readers that a newspaper really does care about them and their concerns.
Brown, is the Ombudsman for the Edmonton Journal.
Published in Sources Winter 1980/81
Sources, 812A Bloor Street West,
Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
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