I have to confess that in all the years the "Talk, we'll listen" box has appeared in the Deseret News I had never really found out how the editors listen. That's the item that invites readers to call the ombudsman with questions or complaints (and though the box doesn't say so, even compliments) about what is in the paper.
So on an impulse last week I called the number, 237-2137, and found myself talking to Jay Livingood. He is a longtime news staffer who has been, among other assignments, the restaurant critic and community services director and currently is personnel director.Only about 40 newspapers of the nation's 1,645 have ombudsmen or reader's representatives. Livingood is unlike most who are full-time critics of the newspaper and usually serve under a fixed-term contract supposed to guarantee their independence from management. Many write more or less regular columns responding to the most pointed or instructive complaints they hear.
Livingood is much like the other ombudsmen in that he tries to provide answers to every point raised by callers. He sometimes writes memoranda to the editors and other staffers calling attention to complaints and gaffes and passing along praise.
Livingood's experience as a reader representative confirms what I have learned as well, that readers, although sometimes concerned about cosmic questions like fairness and balance, call most often to complain about lesser offenses that they nonetheless finding galling: typographical errors, a stance in an editorial they find not well defended, or unanswered questions in articles.
The calls haven't exactly flooded in. Livingood says there have been weeks in which only one or two callers have rung up the ombudsman number. But then there will be a spurt of calls.
- ONE CALLED the other day to ask about the meaning of the phrase "laundering money," which appeared in a story about drug dealing. Livingood was able to answer that one, of course, right off, and perhaps to remind writers that terms like laundered money and leveraged buyouts occasionally have to be re-explained in print.
Sometimes he goes to the writer or editor for answers. But no call or letter goes unanswered. Sometimes the matter can be settled when the caller is told the editorial page would welcome a letter to the editor.
Some editors, particularly of smaller papers, have resisted hiring or designating an ombudsman in the belief that they want direct access to the caller and want to hear first-hand from all complainers.
Wm. James Mortimer, the News editor and publisher, tells me that he always responds when a caller asks about a management problem. The most frequent complaint of this sort is from readers who want to take the LDS Church News but not the daily paper. In Utah, the Church News circulates as a section of the daily newspaper. Mortimer explains that it carries no advertising and that its costs have to be borne by the daily.
If nothing else, the ombudsman give readers a sense of access and potential avenue of participation in the paper. There's no reason for readers to suffer in silence when they can find a sympathetic ear as close as their telephone.
- THE TERM was borrowed from the Swedes, who have several ombudsmen representing the public, including a press ombudsman who is the executive of the Swedish Press Council. The first U.S. ombudsman was hired only in the late 1960s, by a great newsman, Norman Isaacs, who later headed the National News Council. Ombudsmen have their own organization, the Organization of Newspaper Ombudsman, or O NO. They got support from the National News Council during its short life, which ended in 1984, and its executive secretary was a news council executive who also had been ombudsman at the Minneapolis Tribune, Dick Cunningham.
- I KNOW OF NO RADIO or television stations that have the real equivalent of an ombudsman or of any pressure to hire, though they are of course vulnerable to criticism. Colleague Roy Gibson has for nearly two decades done the "Media Man" piece on KUTV each week, a job substantially like this "Media Monitor" column, ranging over all media.
Of course they listen to callers and critics. They can't afford not to, especially since they still have to go through a license renewal process. Some programs air selected letters (CBS's "60 Minutes," National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and right up to its unhappy demise, the "RSVP" segment on Channel 5's "Prime Time Access.)
As Mortimer says, "You have to be responsive. We feel a sense of responsibility to our readers. Ignore them and you alienate them."
Just about everything the paper does tries to engage the reader, often directly. Another reader service column is "Do-It Man," which was started many years ago as a reader service column. The first News ombudsman, John McCormick, now retired, also did the column, but now it is handled by Katie Clayton, who is also the travel editor.
Not enough newspapers have ombudsmen. When the press holds up the fact that 40 newspapers do, critics often counter that if the press were truly interested in improving its image and credibility and acceptance there would be not 40 but 1,645.