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Two of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s most high-profile journalists — the readers representative and religion reporter — both bid farewell to readers over the last few days, and a top editor acknowledged that they won’t have full-time replacements.

Carol Goodhue, the readers representative for almost two years, and religion reporter Sandi Dolbee, on the beat since 1992, both took buyouts as the U-T pares its staff in preparation for a possible sale. Tomorrow is the last day of work for at least 24 newsroom employees who agreed to take a buyout offered in August.

The U-T was one of the few remaining American newspapers to have an ombudsman — a position also known as public editor, reader advocate or readers representative — to explain the newspaper’s decisions, deal with corrections and dispense criticism at the staff in print.

According to one report, the first newspaper in the U.S. to have an ombudsman — The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, which created the position in 1967 — eliminated the position earlier this year. And that’s not all:

In addition to the Courier-Journal, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Orlando Sentinel, The Hartford Courant and The Palm Beach Post have all eliminated the position from their payrolls.

Goodhue’s final column, which ran today, said editor Karin Winner is seeking a replacement.  However, senior editor for news Todd Merriman said the newspaper will not hire staff to replace the journalists who took buyouts, and “not all the duties (of the religion reporter and reader’s representative) will be reallocated.”

For her part, Winner said that the newspaper’s editors haven’t decided whether the weekly reader’s representative column will continue.

“The responsibility for corrections and clarifications and fielding calls and inquiries from readers will be handled by Nancy Wyld at least on a temporary basis, beginning Wednesday,” Winner said.

Religion reporter Dolbee will also leave the newspaper. In 2007, she was named the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year by the Religion Newswriters Association.

Journalists have bemoaned the decline of the newspaper religion beat in several recent columns and blog items.

Dolbee said religion coverage is crucial, especially considering that 9 out of 10 Americans say they believe in God. She’s especially proud of melding religion and ethics into her coverage, which typically appeared in the Saturday edition of the paper.

“If religion is what we believe, ethics is how we behave. And sometimes the two are related,” she said.

A local religion reporter is important, she said. “Local congregations need to be covered, especially if they’re doing something. Coverage should be about verbs and actions, what’s going on. When Wall Street collapses, what are they saying about it, what are they doing about it?

“If they don’t have someone like me asking those questions, nobody’s watching them or bringing them to life. Everything is going on inside the walls, and that’s not right.”

— RANDY DOTINGA

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