Bill Keller looks toward filling The New York Times' new ombudsman position with some interesting questions on his mind. I wrote about it last week, and he responded. I post our communication at length, because I think Keller's thoughts are useful to anyone seeking to bring effective criticism into the newsroom –- and to assure readers that that's happening.

I'm heartened that the Times envisions a strong writing role. And I agree that, however the job is described, it will be as good as the person who holds it. If Keller can find, say, a Bill Kovach for the job, his chances of building a strong new model will be great. Here's hoping it happens, and I'll look forward to talking in a year.

The correspondence:

Keller called after reading my previous posting to say that the Washington Post model -- one of "putative independence plus a weekly column" -– is automatically assumed to be the best. But why? Mightn't other models –- more internally oriented -– be just as effective? "Has anyone really 'reported that out?'"


I noted, in response, the importance (at the Post) of staff memos and other internal communications, but added: "The job has more than one constituency ... An important attribute of the ombudsmanship is the assurance it gives readers that the paper (and its leaders) can hear outside criticism. A regular column provides that."

Still, I said: "My goal is not to stress the Post model or some other model per se. It's to stress that newspapers are virtually allergic to lively questioning and to probing criticism. If the ombudsmanship is to be worth anything, you've got to make the position really strong. From what I see, the reporting relationship, the absence of a regular column and the 'one-year-and-we'll-see' appointment will hamper the chance that this will work for you -- and for the Times (and for me and other readers)."

Keller responded by e-mail:

Thanks for the quick, thoughtful response to my call. I value your advice, particularly since your experience of the ombuds-world is extensive and mine is nil. I speak at this point as a curious novice preparing to subject my newspaper to an experiment and eager to get it right.

You referred in your Poynter posting to the fact that I have said skeptical things in the past about ombudsry (ombudsmanship? there's GOT to be a noun for it). That is true. I've been skeptical not because I think we are above criticism. On the contrary, I doubt not at all the need for the news media to be goaded and critiqued, responsive and accountable. But the creation of in-house reader advocates is a practice that has not been very widely tested, and for which most of the claims of accomplishment are at best subjective. Something like three dozen American papers employ them.

Some do their work very much in public, writing regular columns. Some serve as reader advocates internally, without a public forum. Others are hybrids. The evidence of what works well and what doesn't is mostly anecdotal. Have ombudsmen made the newspapers employing them more credible to readers? Have they made editors and reporters more responsive and responsible? How do we know?

I'm hesitant to leap from my admiration for you and Michael Getler to the conclusion that the Post's is the only right way to do this.Certain assumptions have become almost doctrinal among advocates of ombudsry. One is that the way the Washington Post does it -- tenure, a weekly column, and complete independence from the people who make the news judgments -- is the right way.

Perhaps this is because the Post played a pioneering role both in the use of ombudsmen and in the employment of media critics (the two groups who make up the most outspoken constituency for installing more ombudsmen). Perhaps this is because the Post ombudsman is so public that it's the first (and last) one people think of. Perhaps it's because the Post has got things just right.

I'm full of admiration for Michael Getler, a virtuoso of journalism, and I like what I've read of his columns and his (regularly leaked) internal memos to the staff. But I don't know that having a hard-writing ombudsman has significantly enhanced the Post's credibility or accountability. Maybe it has, but I'm hesitant to leap from my admiration for you and Michael Getler to the conclusion that the Post's is the only right way to do this. Call it an occupational hazard, but I'm usually skeptical of assumptions that have so little reporting to back them up. I'd like to see for myself.

An extraordinary and devoted committee of Times journalists and outsiders examined our institutional shortcomings after the crisis set in motion by (though only peripherally about) Jayson Blair. Their recommendation that we employ an ombudsman, or public editor, was persuasive, but it was also cautious. They recognized that this is a complicated business, one that may take some time to get right. They recommended a one-year trial, after which the role of the ombudsman would be considered and adjusted. They recommended that the ombudsman write only 'occasional' published commentaries. That is because when they considered the various models, they preferred that the ombudsman be first and foremost the readers' advocate for changes in and by the paper rather than a columnist whose subject happens to be The Times.

After a lot of discussion, we decided to accept the recommendation for a one-year trial. We decided to enlarge the writing role of the ombudsman, who will be entitled to publish in our pages whenever he or she sees fit. And we decided that the first ombudsman, at least, would be appointed by me.

In your appeal to us to emulate the Post model, your main concern is that we have not ensured our public editor sufficient independence -- because of the one-year trial, because I hire the person, and because he or she will not be obliged to write a column every week. Your anxiety may prove to be fully justified, and if after the first year I'm persuaded that you are right I will have an opportunity to remedy the situation. But what, aside from your admittedly expert gut, is the evidence that a different model can't be effective -- dare I suggest, even more effective?

Have ombudsmen made the newspapers employing them more credible to readers? Have they made editors and reporters more responsive and responsible? How do we know?First, I'm not so sure that the critical guarantee of independence lies in the nature of the contract. I can readily imagine an ombudsman supplied with all the contractual assurances of independence -- long tenure, a dimissal-proof contract, a weekly column -- who would still be timid in criticizing the paper, because of lack of self-confidence or a desire to preserve relationships with colleagues or an ingratiating personality. I can also imagine a person of integrity and uncompromising judgment who would be independent even knowing that I had the power to fire him or her. Indeed, I could argue that the latter situation confers GREATER, not lesser, leverage. I can render a tenured, "independent" ombudsmen ineffective simply by ignoring the advice, and who will really notice? But If I fire my supposedly less independent ombudsman, I'm inviting a whale of a scandal. My point is, the independence rests mainly in the character of the person who holds the job. And it will be most evident in how he or she performs the job.

Second, the only power I will assert over the ombudsman is the power to hire and fire. I won't be prescribing procedures or deciding when to publish and when not. As I've just said, I fire such a person at my peril. But by hiring such a person, I bestow a declaration of trust and authority that should enable the ombudsman to influence the internal workings of the paper on behalf of readers. A person who has the executive editor's blessing carries some weight in a newsroom. Michael Getler's internal memos are incisive. Do they carry any weight? Or do editors and reporters treat them as an annoyance? I don't know. As you say, the internal role is, if anything, more important than the external role. Isn't it possible that having a public editor who is appointed by me and has ready access to me may confer a greater ability to change our culture, to get us to live up to our own responsibilities to readers?

Finally, the weekly column. I've read good ombuds columns and bad ones. In some cases, the obligation to write something weekly, even lacking anything very interesting to say, makes the columns seem dispensable. What's so magic about a weekly column? Our public editor will have license to take an issue to the public whenever he or she deems necessary. We will provide a regular space for them, and assure that they are not buried. The commentaries may take us to task, or they may explain us, or they may occasionally defend us. But they will have a purpose.

Anyway, that's the plan. I could be wrong. Let's talk again in a year.

Cheers, Bill