Farewell, with reservations, from the reader's rep

  • Article by: KATE PARRY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2007 - 4:01 PM

As I move to another position, editors aren't filling this job. That's not good news for readers.

I keep a quote torn from a calendar posted by the computer where I write these columns. "Tell the truth even if it hurts, especially if it hurts," said Hubert Beuve-Mery, the founder of the French newspaper Le Monde.

This one definitely hurts.

When I stepped out of an editing job several years ago to become your reader's representative, my plan was to do this strange and fascinating job for about three years.

That self-imposed deadline is coming right up. On Monday I'll leave the post of ombudsman and return to editing, in a coverage area that has long held fascination for me. As the health editor, I'll be working with some of the newspaper's most-accomplished journalists on stories of deep concern to our readers.

I wish I could tell you that a fresh, new ombudsman waits in the wings, eager to advocate for you in the newsroom and fill this column space each Sunday with constructive criticism or explanations of the editors' decisions. That healthy openness has been this newspaper's hallmark of ethical self-policing for more than 35 years.

But that is not what is happening. The position as it has been known all those years is ending, a victim of staff downsizing. In announcing her decision, Editor Nancy Barnes used more delicate language, saying it was being left "open" and holding out the prospect that a part-time version might be considered in the future.

In a final act as your reader's representative, I feel compelled to say this is a lousy decision that does not serve readers or the quality of journalism in this newspaper. Even if a part-time version of this very full-time job is attempted, it would have to leave out some core functions that defined this job as an ombudsman rather than something else.

It doesn't need to be me -- the newspaper has had many ombudsmen over the years who have successfully brought their own styles and approaches to the task. But someone should be providing the independent scrutiny of the newspaper and how it functions that journalists aim enthusiastically at other public institutions.

I do not buy the reasoning that in this time of shrinking staffs at the Star Tribune and many other newspapers, the ombudsman's post is an expendable luxury. Although not every large newspaper has an ombudsman, far smaller newspapers that put a high priority on quality, ethics and openness manage to eke out a position for this role.

I have strongly made that case on your behalf. My arguments have not succeeded.

Barnes provided this explanation of her reasoning: "At a time when resources are tight, we have had to make some very difficult decisions about how every resource is being used. Right now, I believe we owe the readers more smart journalists reporting and editing the news than critiquing the news. Kate is one of those people, and we're lucky to have her. I am committed to being honest and forthright with our readers about what is going on at this paper. That's why top editors will write regularly about how and why the news is covered, and why we will resume an editors' blog. It's not a perfect solution."

Last week, Barnes told me "it's very likely we'll look at it as a part-time job if I can find the resources." But there is currently no plan for that, which is a real shame for readers and for journalism. We are not so far from a series of ethical scandals at newspapers early in this decade that we can afford to forget the Jayson Blair debacle -- and that part of the New York Times' remedy was to establish an ombudsman to raise the visibility of ethical issues.

I've worked at newspapers with an ombudsman and without. The difference is vivid in the quality of attention to readers' concerns. Although the probing function of an ombudsman may be fleetingly uncomfortable, it is ultimately a sign of strength, not weakness, when a newspaper welcomes tough public scrutiny and fair criticism.

The thoughtful and intelligent comments of readers have enriched many newsroom discussions and your story ideas have graced page one again and again (just last week readers spurred a page one story on the cultural clash between the new condo residents downtown and Vikings tailgaters). I have loved the idea that readers of a newspaper this large could call up the reader's rep with a story idea and find it right on page one the next morning.

I have thoroughly enjoyed our ongoing discussion of the newspaper. Nearly all of you have been gracious and civil, even when profoundly upset with this newspaper.

So now what?

Editors are developing a plan for people who answer the newsroom's phones (that number is 612-673-4414) to forward your concerns and story ideas to various editors for attention. An e-mail box -- corrections@ startribune.com -- will be monitored. Various section editors will be responsible for ensuring corrections are published. A weekly summary of themes in reader comments will replace the daily report of what readers had to say. As always, letters to the editor can be sent to opinion@startribune.com. As Barnes mentioned, a blog and columns by top editors on news coverage are planned.

Although my job will no longer be to resolve your complaints or convey your story ideas, I'll be easy to reach if you have ideas about health care coverage or just want to say hello. You can reach me at 612-673-4435 or at kparry@startribune.com.

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