Monday, Feb. 11, 2008 | There are more than 1,600 daily newspapers published in the United States but less than 40 employ what they variously call a readers representative, public editor or an ombudsman. Despite the different titles, Pam Platt, the president of the Organization of Newspaper Ombudsmen, says they all share the goal of promoting credibility and transparency and serve as the point person for readers to contact with questions, comments and concerns.
I would add that newspaper ombudsmen serve another crucial function. They are an internal check on power at an institution that is constitutionally protected from government interference.
Carol Goodhue took over as readers representative of The San Diego Union-Tribune a little over a year ago. Goodhue, a 22-year veteran at the newspaper, oversees all corrections and writes a weekly column, which runs Monday on the editorial page. She told me that she spends much of her time answering the 15-20 phone calls and more than 30 e-mails she receives from readers each day.
Other ombudsmen routinely take their colleagues’ work to task, but Goodhue said she doesn’t see herself as a critic of her newspaper. In her column, she quotes readers, gets editors to answer their questions or concerns, and then sometimes weighs in with her opinion, which quite often takes the newspaper’s side of things.
The ombudsman is often described as the loneliest job in the newsroom since journalists are notoriously thin-skinned and defensive in the face of criticism. But I found myself wondering whether Goodhue was in an even tighter spot. The right-leaning newspaper, owned by the Copley family, was long part and parcel of San Diego’s power structure. To many people, including San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre, it still is.
Goodhue said there is an inherent tension in her job, but nothing out of the ordinary.
“As long as you’re being paid by an organization to criticize it, that is forever going to be a delicate situation,” she said. Were any of the constraints she experienced self-imposed? “I think there are some self-imposed constraints that anybody would feel if they like their job and they want to keep it,” Goodhue replied. “There are probably limits to how much they would be willing to put up with. The most awful things that people say to me I don’t put in the column. They’re rude and they’re crude and they’re not going to go into print in our paper.”
Stories involving illegal immigration in particular seem to bring out the hatred and racism in people, she said.
“The question I guess you might wonder is could somebody come in from the outside and do a better job?” she volunteered. “I think they would do a very different job. They would not have the trust of their colleagues. They would not know who it is they should be talking to get answers to questions. And I think they would have a harder time explaining what goes on. Because 22 years here, you start to know where some bodies are buried and you have some feel for how things work.”
The flip side of that equation is that change doesn’t come so easily. The Internet is pushing some newspaper ombudsman to a deeper dialogue with readers. Both the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times are using their websites to discuss internal changes at their newspapers.
Jamie Gold, the readers representative at the Times, writes a blog on the paper’s website, where she posted staff memos and reader reactions to the recent dismissal of editor James O’Shea. The Register also has a blog where subscribers sound off about internal changes. Goodhue said the Union-Tribune had no immediate plans to follow suit, although she added that she has been wrestling with the question.
The Internet has also been on Goodhue’s mind of late. She had some questions for me. She started out by asking me whether voiceofsandiego.org had an ombudsman (it doesn’t); how requests for corrections were handled (by the two co-editors, Scott Lewis and Andrew Donohue); and whether Voice did any actual reporting (they do, since it’s basically a small newspaper that happens to be online). She then turned to online journalism: Does the Internet put a higher value on opinion over facts? Did I think that online writers had a different concern about mistakes than print journalists and take it less seriously?
Goodhue conceded that she had mixed feelings about online journalism because she often hears from readers who wonder why the bit of dubious information they saw on the Internet isn’t in the newspaper. While I share Goodhue’s concern over readers who believe what they read on the Internet, I am equally wary of newspaper readers who accept what they read on the printed page as the truth. The list of stories that were fabricated, totally mistaken or misleading is too numerous to count.
Finally, Goodhue surprised me by asking why voiceofsandiego.org was devoting so much attention to the troubles at her employer, the Union-Tribune. The newspaper has just gone through a wrenching series of layoffs and buyouts that reduced the staff by 10 percent. To me, the reason Voice covered the story was obvious: It was impossible to find the news in the Union-Tribune.
Had it been any other company, it would have been a major story in the paper, but apparently, the only major institution in town that isn’t covered by the Union-Tribune is the newspaper itself.
Goodhue didn’t disagree. “In terms of reporting what goes on inside the paper, I think there is this feeling that it is a privately held company and it’s not going to reveal private information,” she said. “So there is a reluctance. Things that we have getting from other privately-held companies, we have trouble getting from this one.”
So it was left to Voice to chronicle what was happening in the newsroom. Even though the city’s major daily didn’t think its internal affairs were anybody’s business, the Voice’s readers did. Rob Davis’ stories about the Union-Tribune topped the list of the most-read and most-emailed stories of the day.
Goodhue may not see her role as critic, but somebody needs to level with readers.
A newspaper’s unwillingness to cover itself steadily eats away at its own credibility with readers. It’s a basic matter of fairness: How can readers trust a newspaper that is unwilling or unable to cast a critical eye on itself? The Union-Tribune, like all newspapers, should work like hell to restore credibility because there are other, cheaper ways to deliver coupons, crosswords, and comics.
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at email@example.com with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.