It is a fledgling institution, the internal news ombudsman or Readers' Editor in The Hindu, the first of its kind in an Indian newspaper. Fifteen months into this job, I am still exploring the territorial limits of the work. In such a milieu, it sounds strange that people should discuss "ombudsmen in a time of transition", the theme for this year's conference of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen.
For the print media in the West it is a time of transition. The ever-expanding influence of the Internet is bringing in rapid changes in its functioning. This is yet to become a major concern in India, but it may not be long in coming. Planning is on to be ready for such changes. That will be the time to consider the challenges thrown up by transition. Right now the question is finding my feet!
The conference was held in Cambridge [Mass.,U.S.] from May 21 to 23 at the Nieman Foundation's Walter Lippmann House, both names famous in journalism. (I opted to stay away for health reasons and this column is based on reports from some participants.)
In his keynote address on the opening day, Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, speaking on "Ombudsman in the digital future", said "this hinge between the public and the editorial staff" would remain an essential factor in a newspaper organisation. "The changing nature of editing, the sheer volume of online material generated by the staff and users for which an editor is responsible, makes it impossible for an editor to monitor more than a fraction of what appears under the brand of the news organisation. The trove of information available to readers allows them to quickly test the accuracy and bias of news reports, and if news organisations don't have the care and system to air those concerns, or correct the record, they will take these concerns and post them elsewhere, and trust will be compromised."
I am quoting Rusbridger at some length because the points he makes are very relevant to the practices here, even though he speaks in the context of the rapidly changing methods of news presentation. The new model of journalism, he said, is more fluid, and demands more transparency. Trust is the only thing in the end that we have going for us, and that calls for "a searching examination of what we mean by journalism." That is where the ombudsman has a role, highlighting what some readers, who may know more about a subject, see as inadequacies in coverage. But such action may be seen as challenging an editor's competence, and this according to Rusbridger, contributes to the resistance to having an ombudsman and it is not cheap, he added.
The session on "Is there a shared watchdog role for the public, the blogs and ombudsmen?" produced some interesting observations. Buzzflash blogger Jeff Jarvis said news ombudsmen get saddled too much with mistakes. The architecture of news was changing and it was better to start seeing "stories as a process than as a product." What attracted my attention was his suggestion that there should be a distinction between the institutional and the personal voice of the ombudsman.
Another good point he made was, "The more you hear, the better. The more you listen, the better. There is no one voice of the public." This has been my experience and his point that if we work cooperatively it will be better journalism is very true in practice.
The ombudsman's role was succinctly spelt out by session moderator Geneva Overholser of the Missouri School of Journalism and former ombudsman of the Washington Post. He said: "It seems to me now more than ever that the ombudsman's role is a most important role. Somebody who knows the craft, is open, and has the quality of being able to say things that are important, substantial things. That is the role the ombudsman can perform, always informed by readers."
There was more in another session on "Biting the hand that feeds you" (what newspapers may feel about the ombudsmen's work). Joann Byrd, former ombudsman at the Washington Post, said the whole idea of this post was to improve the newspaper's credibility and accountability. "Readers need to feel that it is a credible voice, that they can be heard and there's some one in the corner paying attention. Readers are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this."
Richard Chacon, former public editor of the Boston Globe, pointed out that the paper had not appointed another after he left (part of its economy drive) and the reader suffers for it. Though readers have greater access to the reporter or editor (via e-mail), what was missing was someone who could explain what was going on. "There is a great deal more that the ombudsman accomplishes that you can't check off."
Sounds like beating the drum? For me these words are reassurance!
In my last column (May 28, 2007), on The Hindu's coverage of Vidya Ram's academic achievement, I had told a reader that the daughter of an ordinary employee would, and should, receive the same coverage. S. Ramya of Chennai was the topper in the Plus Two (State Board) examination, and her picture appeared on Page 1 with news (May 15, 2007). There was a more detailed report inside. EducationPlus on May 28 had a family group photo and interview of Ramya with her parents and sister. Her father, V. Selvaraj, works for The Hindu in the EDP department, as the report mentioned.