What do you tell a room filled with doomed journalists?
When invited to deliver a keynote address at this year’s Organization of News Ombudsmen conference in Montreal, I found myself thinking about whether I should focus my remarks on helping them secure their survival in the new world of news.
After all, the 2009 gathering in Washington included sessions such as “Why Have an Ombudsman?” and “Shoptalk: How Do We Survive?”
But ONO membership is now on the rise, according to executive director Jeffrey Dvorkin.
“Our numbers are growing after a period of decline caused by the economic downturn especially among U.S. newspapers,” he told me. “We dropped to forty-five members in 2008, but we are up to sixty today thanks to a remarkable growth spurt in Latin America plus a few more in Africa, eastern Europe and south Asia.”
The news for ombuds is still rather bleak in Canada and the U.S. Dvorkin said Canada is left with three, down from fourteen in the 1990s. The U.S. has “around twenty,” also down from a couple of decades ago.
I ended up focusing my presentation on what research tells us about why factual errors occur and how frequent they are in the press. I gave a brief history of the correction and provided a look some of the emerging best practices online for corrections and error reporting. I also told them that encouraging their readers and viewers and listeners to spot and report errors is a great way forge a more trusted relationship with the community, and a good way to demonstrate an ombud’s value to the organization.
I admit, however, that I still have the other speech on hand. The one about helping them stave off extinction. I’m a supporter of the ombudsman role because as it adds a dedicated layer of accountability and responsiveness to news organizations. As I told the conference, we journalists do a lot of work to hold other institutions and people accountable, but we do a lousy job of meeting the same standard.
I’d like to see news ombudsman survive and thrive. In order to see that happen, the job needs to evolve, much like many other newsroom functions. So here are the highlights from the keynote I didn’t give this week: “Five Ways for News Ombudsmen to Make Themselves Essential in Today’s Newsroom.”
1. Build Your Blog - Many ombudsmen, especially those at newspapers, write a regular column. This used to be the most visible, tangible benefit of an ombudsman. Going forward, the column can still exist, but it should not be the primary focus. Ombudsmen need to be more public and interactive in their role and deliver content with greater frequency. (Hey, we’re now in a real time world of news.) A blog is the best way to start moving in that direction. A survey of ONO members found that more of them now have a blog, which is good news. Though the next question is of course what you do with that blog. Well, ombudsmen should
2. Curate the Conversation - That same survey of ombudsman highlighted the fact that this is a deliberative position. Ombuds try to take the long view on things; they are not firing off opinions and recommendations left and right. (Thus the appeal of a weekly column, or an even longer process of investigation.) As one survey respondent put it, “It takes a good bit of thinking to be fair.” Another comment made at the conference echoed this: “We can’t give instantaneous replies - we have to think and analyze.” But who says ombudsmen should only focus on their own opinion and deliberations? The reporting and other work done by their news organization results in a groundswell of opinion and reaction, and a good ombud will track this and pay attention to what people are saying.
A good ombud should also blog about what they see and hear. An ombudsman’s blog could be filled with pointers to content that is attracting a lot of reaction; it could supply a curated collection of interesting and notable comments from the organization’s website and elsewhere. Create Storifys of what people are saying on Twitter. Be a bridge between the content and reaction to it. Then use that same blog, and a column, to provide commentary and perspective. To hold the organization accountable. With this approach, suddenly the ombud becomes a valuable source of curation and newsgathering, as well as opinion. That’s a damn good way to demonstrate your value.