Will the Times Pull the Plug on its Ombudsman?

  • January 04, 2007

On his first day as executive editor of the New York Times in July 2003, Bill Keller announced a number of changes intended to suggest reform at the country's most influential newspaper, among them the appointment of the paper's first ombudsman—or “public editor.”

The Times had always vehemently resisted the idea of having an independent editor reviewing reader complaints and writing a column evaluating the paper's coverage. But decision to hire its first came after Jayson Blair's infamous ethical lapses eroded the paper's credibility, exposed a deeply divided newsroom and led to the departure of executive editor Howell Raines.

In appointing an ombudsman, Keller was following the recommendation of the so-called Siegal Committee, a largely internal Times group that examined the paper's workplace culture in the wake of the Blair scandal and found, among other things, a failure to be accessible and accountable to the readers.

“A pair of professional eyes, familiar with us but independent of the day-to-day production of the paper, can make us more sensitive on matters of fairness and accuracy, and enhance our credibility,” Keller wrote in a memo explaining his decision to hire an ombudsman. That original Times ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, recently penned a memoir about that experience pithily titled Public Editor #1.

Yet this week the New York Observer reported in its current issue that the Times is actually debating whether to terminate the position when current public editor Byron (Barney) Calame's term ends in May.

In an email to the Observer, Keller wrote that “the creation of a public editor has helped the paper immensely in a period when the credibility of the media generally has been under assault,” but added that some of his colleagues now believed there might be a “diminished” need for such a person. (The Observer story circulated quickly in journalism circles, triggering an instant reaction from the Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar who wrote that the Times “can't afford to lose its public editor.”)

Any decision by the Times to end its public editor experiment would have, if nothing else, a psychological impact on the small, tight-knit fraternity of American news ombudsmen. These journalists occupy an unusual niche in the news media, somewhere between a complaint department and internal affairs cop.

The modern newspaper ombudsman is a relatively new creation, with the Louisville Courier-Journal widely credited as being the first U.S. paper to employ one in 1967. The trade group, the Organization of News Ombudsmen, generally has about three dozen U.S. members. But that number tends to vacillate (right now, there are two noticeable openings at the Boston Globe and NPR), and in a time of tightening newsroom resources, the position is sometimes viewed as an expendable luxury. Any retrenchment by the Times might send that kind of signal to other publishers around the country.

What is the Times likely to do? For the moment, the signals are that the concerns triggered by the Observer piece may be overblown. Keller's emails fell considerably short of saying the end was at hand. Moreover, when the PEJ asked Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis about the subject, she was clear in pointing in another direction about the paper's plans.

“We're beginning to look for potential successors to Barney,” Mathis said.

From the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.