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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 newspaper ombudsman, and, at time of writing, there 33 1/3 per cent unemployment in the field.

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, the only 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 Louisville Courier-Journal

"The movement grows slowly
because editors don V like to admit
they were wrong, or that wrong
happens under them"

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 of Newspaper Ombudsmen, and one of its objectives is to encourage more newspapers to appoint ombudsmen.

A roadblock facing the ombudsman concept was pointed 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
special 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 like to think it's one of the better examples, as being a more recent appointment there was an opportunity to learn from what had happened elsewhere.

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 SOS 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 equally well?

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 on anyway?"

"Nobody likes to admit he is
wrong, and that's particularly true
of journalists"

Now most of the staff seems to realize—if not appreciate—that I am there to investigate readers' complaints, and not to fob off callers with a polite answer.

Incidentally, 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 callers. When I was the often had to field readers' calls when we were in the throes of making edition changes.

"Many problems would be
corrected if the newspaper had
an ombudsman, but others
would not"

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." 

Politicians and 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 uninterested staffers.

Certainly any reader who calls the editor or the advertising manager 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 20-20 hindsight.

"Not uncommon remarks made
to me at the beginning were:
'Why don't you tell that ass to
get lost?' and 'Whose side are
you 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 paper operates.

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 the press.

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 of newspaper philosophy and they find serious mistakes. But the majority of calls are about bureaucratic problems or errors in routine coverage rather than great  points of principle.

"... one message comes through
loud and dear: there is a vast
gap between how journalists
perceive the paper and how
readers do"


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 to write.

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 newspaper 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 the

"It is a sad commentary on modern
society that people often express
surprise when I call them back with
answers to their questions."

Edmonton Sun has not lessened readers' concerns and I've been struck by 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 that.

"Having an ombudsman is one good way of showing readers that a newspaper really does care about them and their concerns.

 John Brown, is the Ombudsman for the Edmonton Journal.


Published in Sources Winter 1980/81

 



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