Hiatus Is Over….A Rough Week for Ombudsmen

Hi and welcome back!  It’s been awhile.  Admittedly, the care and feeding of this blog fell off last semester (sometimes life takes over) but now I’m back to reviving my little plant.

So, of course, where to start?  As more than a few folks noted on Twitter the past several days, it’s been a rough week for newspaper ombudsmen.  Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor for The New York Times, drew much attention  with his column which posed this question:  “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

The lede is poster-child verbiage for those wondering whether there are still out-of-touch editors roaming around in the mainstream media:   “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”


My head hurts.

The backlash on Twitter and on the comments board for the article was predictable. Christian Moerk of Brooklyn captured the feelings of many:  “As a former Times freelancer, and ’92 graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, I’ll keep it short and to the point: Mr. Brisbane, even posing the question as you did reveals an appalling ignorance of what journalists are supposed to do for a living. You wouldn’t have lasted in a J-school ethics class for five minutes, let alone a newsroom.”

This old-school print mentality of he said/he said journalism still dominates too many mainstream newsrooms.  It’s one of the many reasons why journalists get a bad reputation.  Too many readers views journalists as nothing more than glorified stenographers.  NYU’s Jay Rosen calls it the “View From Nowhere.”  The Times should really know better (remember the assertions about the “weapons of mass destruction?)

Brisbane’s question on how to tell the truth while being “objective and fair” came on the heels of a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, where he asked: “Is The Post innovating too fast?

I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I saw this headline come across my Facebook feed:   Instantly, I knew several things:  This column was written by someone with a strictly print background — and the headline was written by someone longing for ye good ole days when editors didn’t have to file stories to the Web 24 hours a day.

Pexton has 28 years of experience as a newspaper reporter and editor and took over as the ombudsman last March.  Pexton suggests there is too much going on at The Post and suggested a “breather lap.”  For a news organization that has deeply gouged its reporting and editing staffs in the past five years, this hardly seems like a strong strategy. These days, if you take a “breather lap,” you may return and find your newsroom shuttered. Unfortunately, Pexton, like many newspaper-focused journalists, considers journalistic innovation as an afterthought.

It’s not.  Today, the rule is innovate or die.

Matthew Ingram points out that innovating too fast is not the issue:  “Why not imagine what could happen if the Post became known for being the most forward-thinking and innovative mainstream newspaper out there?”


The problem is one of culture.  The mentality espoused by both Pexton and Brisbane had dominated mainstream newsrooms since the early days of the Web (and lead to the departure of many innovators.)  If you want to know why newspapers are losing readers, you don’t have to look farther than the archaic thinking put forth in these two columns.  Maybe The Times and The Post should consider hiring young people of color as their ombudsman.  Ya know, shake things up a bit.


About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
This entry was posted in In the News, innovation, New York Times, Washington Post, Web journalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Hiatus Is Over….A Rough Week for Ombudsmen

  1. Larry Kelley says:

    Just after Christmas Steve Buttry published the obligatory predictions for 2012 concerning the world of (digital) journalism, and just to tweak print purists predicted that Gene Weingarten would write another column railing against All Things Digital.

    Within hours Weingarten tweeted a response saying Buttry would at least be correct about one prediction, as he had recently delivered to his editor just such a column…and it would appear in a couple of weeks.

    A couple of WEEKS. Yikes!

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