The Boston Globe may do away with the ombudsman. What it should do is turn the post into a truly independent watchdog.
BY DAN KENNEDY
JACK THOMASíS AUGUST 13 farewell column as the Boston Globeís ombudsman may have been more momentous than anyone realized. The Globeís new editor, Marty Baron, says that one of the options being considered is getting rid of the position altogether.
"Now that Jackís moved on, I would imagine itís something that we would be thinking about in the next several weeks," Baron says. "Obviously it has a lot of pluses, but itís just not something weíve gotten to yet. I think that itís like everything else. You look at it, you look at it fresh, and you come to a decision. But certainly no decision not to have it has been made."
In a prepared statement, publisher Richard Gilman added: "We need and want to respond to the concerns and criticisms of readers. A very small number of newspapers have an ombudsman for this purpose, while many, many others do not. We have not decided how we will approach it going forward."
For anyone who finds the idea of eliminating the post unthinkable, well, think again.
First, it appears that if Baron wanted to choose from among the ranks of current Globe staff members, heíd have to twist some arms. Focus editor Chris Chinlund had been mentioned as a possible ombudsman several months ago, but she was named foreign editor instead. Transportation reporter Tom Palmer had been interested four years ago, the last time the position became vacant. But though Palmer himself wouldnít comment, sources say he recently made it clear that heís happy where he is.
Second, and more important, the perilous state of the economy gives Baron and Gilman a powerful incentive for getting rid of the position. In the face of rapidly declining ad revenues, the Globe recently eliminated 185 positions ó about one-fourth of them in the newsroom ó through early-retirement incentives (see "Squeezing the Globe," News and Features, June 7). With Thomas moving back to Living/Arts, Baron has been able to bolster his feature-writing corps without spending more money. A new ombudsman would mean a new salary ó or a significant hole somewhere else in the newsroom.
And you can be sure that the Globeís corporate owner, the New York Times Company, isnít pressuring Baron and Gilman to replace Thomas. The New York Times is well known for its long-standing aversion to the very principle of ombudsmanship. Earlier this year the Timesí outgoing managing editor, Bill Keller, explained why in an interview with the Nation: "We think it makes more sense to have problems and complaints reviewed by people with the responsibility and authority to do something about them, namely, the editors of the paper rather than by a designated kibitzer."
Baron, who worked as an editor at the Times from 1996 to í99, insists, "Whatever the New York Times does is not a factor in any decision that has to be made here." But the point isnít that the Times Company is going to tell Baron and Gilman what to do. Rather, the point is that if they decide to dump the ombudsman, thereíll be no second-guessing them at the Mother Ship.
IF THOMASíS departure has jeopardized the ombudsmanís position, it presents an opportunity to revitalize it, too. There are few enough ways for ordinary readers to connect with a powerful institution such as the Globe. The ombudsman may be an imperfect vehicle for vetting reader frustrations, but having one is better than not having one.
During the quarter-century since then-editor Tom Winship created the position, the single biggest ongoing issue has been the ombudsmanís independence ó or lack thereof. Editorial-page editor Charles Whipple was the first to fill the role, followed by S.J. "Sal" Micciche (a journalist/lawyer who also advised the Globe on legal matters), assistant managing editor Robert Kierstead (who temporarily had to give up his management title because of union objections), business editor and London correspondent Gordon McKibben, and, finally, Thomasís immediate predecessor, former Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz. With the exception of Jurkowitz, all were insiders. On the other hand, Whipple, Micciche, Kierstead, and McKibben were all at or near their last posts before retirement (Micciche later served as managing editor for administration), which, at least in theory, freed them from having to return to the newsroom and face the wrath of their colleagues.
But the best way for Baron and Gilman to address the issue of ombudsmanly independence would be to take Ben Bagdikianís advice and follow the lead of the Washington Post ó that is, to bring in a respected outsider, presumably from a major metropolitan daily paper, to serve a stint of two or three years. And hereís the crucial part: after the ombudsmanís contract was up, she or he would leave the Globe, thus eliminating even the appearance of a conflict.
"Such a person comes in without any internal loyalties or friendships and so forth," says Bagdikian, who is generally credited as the godfather of media ombudsmen because of a 1967 essay he wrote for Esquire. A former national editor of the Post, he ended up serving as the paperís ombudsman himself. Now retired, Bagdikian is perhaps best known as the author of the oft-updated book The Media Monopoly.
Among those who have served as the Postís ombudsman is Geneva Overholser, who did a three-year stint in the mid 1990s after quitting as editor of the Des Moines Register, disgusted by the Gannett Companyís incessant cost-cutting. "The reader approaches the paper from the outside, and I think it helps to have somebody who approaches the paper much like readers do," she says. (Not that itís absolutely necessary, she concedes. In fact, the current Post ombudsman, Michael Getler, is unusually tough, despite having been a high-level Post editor earlier in his career. He took the ombudsmanís job after having been the editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, which is jointly owned by the Post and the New York Times.)
Says Baron of Bagdikianís proposal for an independent ombudsman: "I think that thatís the kind of discussion we have to have. Obviously there are a lot of merits to that because it offers a large degree of independence. On the other hand, I think a truly honest ombudsman whoís worked here can do a credible job as well."
The ombudsman movement has never exactly taken the world by storm. According to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, about 30 US media outlets have one. Ironically, the Miami Herald, where Baron was executive editor before coming to the Globe, appointed its first "reader representative," as the position was called, in 1999, just before Baronís arrival. Amid brutal downsizing ordered by owner Knight Ridder, she took early retirement this summer, just as Baron was preparing to leave for the Globe. She has not been replaced.
Issue Date: August 23-30, 2001