How News Ombudsmen Can Make Themselves Essential

Five easy tips for the modern ombud

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.

3. Make It Public - An ombudsman’s job involves answering a ton of e-mails and phone calls. They are constantly communicating with members of the public, which is a very important function. Yet few realize the value they bring in this respect. An ombudsman is in many ways the face of an organization because he has to respond to comments and questions. That’s not true for all reporters and editors. A great way to enhance the value of this role is to make these exchanges public. (Though people should have the right to request a private exchange, of course.) Each ombudsman’s blog should have a regular mailbag feature where questions are posed and answered in public. They should also call upon editors and reporters to respond to readers on the blog. It’s about having a conversation and providing a forum for readers. This could help bring in more traffic, which is another way to create value. On top of that, a public archive of questions and answers could form the basis of a useful FAQ-like database of questions and answers. This eliminates the need for an ombud to answer the same question over and over again. If a frequently asked question suddenly has a new or updated answer, he can just update with a new blog post to make that information public.

4. Report Like An Ombudsman (As Well As A Journalist) - Most government ombudsmen publish an annual or twice-a-year report. This report reviews the highs and lows of the department or area that they oversee, makes recommendations, and also provides important statistics and data. News ombudsmen should take a page from their government counterparts. Keep and publish relevant statistics about errors, accuracy and corrections. (Some already do this.) Keep data about the most praised and the most controversial stories. Make this data public, while also providing perspective and recommendations not offered in a weekly column. This report will be of value to both the organization and the public because it enhances accountability and transparency and fosters discussion (which could take place on the blog!).

5. Share Your Skills - A journalist who did a stint as an ombudsman at a city paper once told me that every journalist should have to spend time in that job because it will help them understand how their work can have an effect on people, and how to deal with the public. Rather than try to make everyone in a newsroom spend a day or two on the ombud beat, it’s more realistic to have ombudsmen offer training and guidance when it comes to handling criticism and feedback from the public. Journalists increasingly respond to the community in comments, on Twitter and in other venues. They need training to help do this in a respectful, productive way. Who better than an ombudsman to help them navigate these waters?

Those are my suggestions for the modern ombud. Share yours in the comments.

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , ,