You might remember my missive a couple of weeks ago about the identity confusion of the Union-Tribune’s Readers’ Representative Carol Goodhue and her predecessor.

I wrote that Goodhue appeared to be interpreting her job as that of defender of the Union-Tribune against reader complaints.

In truth, it’s the job of an ombudsman or “readers’ representative” to represent the readers’ complaints about the paper — to occasionally challenge the papers’ editors and writers to explain why they made the decisions they did. It is also the traditional job of the ombudsman to take those newspaper officials to task if need be.

But now into her fifth week as the readers’ representative, it’s clear Goodhue sees her job as one designed to defend the paper’s decisions and occasionally educate readers, not represent them.

And frankly, that’s a perfectly reasonable column for a newspaper to publish. Go ahead, tout yourself. Defend and explain your policies. Just don’t call the column you do it in the “readers’ representative.”

Goodhue seems more upset and uninterested with the readers’ concerns and fixated on their supposed abusiveness.

She’s, in fact, taken to repeatedly joking about the need to physically protect herself. Take her last column Monday about the reader complaints she fields.

For extreme cases, I can seek the protection of the tin-foil hat that my favorite geek, my husband, crafted when I started this job. Wikipedia explains that this headgear, abbreviated TFH, is believed by some to ward off attempts at mind control and mind reading. Techies have embraced it. If you sound paranoid in a tech forum or blog, someone may tell you to put on your TFH.

I keep mine handy, but oddly enough, even people who’ve left scathing messages suddenly remember their manners when there’s a live human calling them back.

And the beauty of phones without cameras is that neither of us needs to know if the other has slipped on a TFH.

OK, first of all, this is pretty much all this column was about: Why readers are mean to her and others at newspapers. In five weeks, she’s surely gotten one or two legitimate complaints about the newspaper’s reporting or editorials that deserved investigation, but all she did was reprise her determination to wear protection for her head. That’s what she did in her first column in the position:

Three days into my new job as readers’ representative, I have to admit that my usually reliable hat collection has let me down.

What I need now is not some froufrou concoction with feathers or bows, though those do have a place in the collection. I’m thinking of something bearing the Riddell label, with padding, hard sides and a face mask. I hate to sound like a whiney 6-year-old, but it can’t be avoided: I wanna football helmet like LaDainian Tomlinson’s.

In more than 30 years as a journalist with a few scattered days of filling in for Gina Lubrano, I’ve never felt such a desperate need to protect my noggin. I feel as if I’ve officially been initiated now that I’ve been pounded from the right and pummeled from the left n and the complaints were about the same front page.

A critically minded newspaper ombudsman can only make a newspaper better. Here’s a good example of what they do. I don’t expect the U-T to be the Washington Post but if it’s going to have a “readers’ representative” she should approach it in the same fashion.

They don’t always have to complain about their own paper. They can justify and defend the paper’s decision. But they have to at least willingly embark on their efforts as advocates for the readers — as investigators of their complaints. If they don’t, then that’s fine, but again, call them something else.

Even ESPN, a sports network, hasan excellent ombudsman.

A newspaper ombudsman is someone who writes columns that make regular readers of the paper say, “Yes, thank you, I was wondering the same thing and I’m glad you looked into it.” He or she is someone readily accepts that the newspaper, like everyone else, can make bad decisions.

A great readers’ representative will ferret out something like this once in a while.

Here’s the official definition from the Organization of News Ombudsmen:

A news ombudsman receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.

Someday, hopefully, will have the means to hire one of its own.

But I’d never waste the opportunity on someone who just writes about how difficult our jobs are and how mean readers can be.


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