Transparency 2.0

The Los Angeles Times has decided that just merely having an in-house ombudsman – or two, in their case – isn't enough.

Since they don't have a weekly ombudsman column in the print edition, they're going to skip that step and go online with a more involved "Readers' Representative Journal>" blog sort of thing:

Anchoring the changes is today's launch of the "Readers' Representative Journal," a new blog aimed at taking the public deeper into the process of how editorial decisions are made. Hosted by readers' representative Jamie Gold and assistant readers' representative Kent Zelas, the journal will feature a Q&A-oriented conversation to engage reporters and editors in addressing reader queries and observations. Among the rotating features will be "Ask a Staffer," a chance to get the story behind the story; "Whatever Happened to ... ," where readers can ask for updates on past stories; and grammar critiques.
So the Times will be enabling readers to take their concerns directly to the journalists, under the watchful eye of the ombudspeople, and have them respond. To this writer, it sounded nifty enough in theory. Transparency is no longer merely an option for media outlets. It's not 'whether or not' to be transparent. But 'how far should we go?'

Still, though, the Los Angeles Times announcement raised a few red flags to this writer:

  • Ombudsmen are already an endangered species. (Case in point: Minneapolis' Kate Parry.) Is this liason-esque tactic another attempt to phase out their "middleman" role?
  • Reporters are hardworking and conscientious and, yes, occasionally thin-skinned about their work. How will they deal directly with dissatisfied readers? Is this one instance where transparency might not be preferable to diplomacy?

    But I'm just one man here. So I decided to open it up to some professionals whose boots are in the sand daily in newsroom battles. (Neither Gold nor Kelas responded to my request for an interview.)

    Deborah Powell at the Washington Post gave the blog/journal a green light:

    I think it's fine. The LATimes readers' rep doesn't write a column or an internal memo, as I do every week, so this makes sense to me. I couldn't do that because I'm already overloaded. At The Post and at most newspapers, readers bring their complaints to reporters all the time -- and post comments on the Post website on their stories. I'm also sure that Jamie won't be taking all the queries or complaints she gets -- just ones that are instructive.

    Ted Diadun at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer liked the idea so much, he suggested he might just borrow some of it:

    Anyone who's spent much time in the newspaper business knows that readers have a wonderful curiosity about what we do and how we do it. The Internet has only increased readers' access to us, and it looks like the LA Times' new approach will allow their readers to feed that curiosity more immediately and with more interactivity than ever before.

    I've been Reader Rep at The Plain Dealer for more than two years, and during that time, reader questions have given me plenty of forehead-slapping moments about questions unasked and stories untold. I like what the Times' is doing and I think their "whatever happened to?" feature is an especially good idea. I've done a lousy job of taking advantage of online opportunities, but I plan to do better -- perhaps stealing liberally from the Times' new approach as I go.

    And the sage of the south David House at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram offered up his thoughts:

    My immediate reactions: ebullient joy, admiration and concern.

    Journalism's credibility crisis cannot be reversed without reader-journalist dialogue and a demystifying agent that's capable of correcting misperceptions and the effects of anti-media propaganda and practices. One would think that journalists, of all people, would have a keen appreciation of that, particularly given the coverage we provide of conflicts such as the mess in the Mideast that are plagued by the sides' refusal to talk with each other. At the moment, newspapers aren't taking many steps to reach out to readers, and readers aren't doing much to learn about journalism. Both sides are letting talk-show hosts such as Limbaugh and Hannity and Web-based media critics do their thinking and talking for them, and we see where that gets everyone – nowhere. The Los Angeles Times' new blog stands to serve as a model for changing all of that. For some readers, who are entrenched in their anti-media views, the blog won't matter, but I suspect – I hope -- that many readers will avail themselves of an excellent educational opportunity.

    There are many reasons to applaud the Times' move, including the establishment of a sense of human connection via interaction that broadcast media enjoy and employing a means of helping the public to understand why issues such as government secrecy are worth serious challenge.

    But obviously the blog invites potential problems and embarrassment. Among other things, it's going to require staff time and tasteful conduct. I know plenty of reporters, photographers, artists and editors who are capable of civil conversation with critics and crackpots, but I also know plenty of those folks who have short fuses, thin skins, intense focus on the work at hand and no inclination to suffer fools or the unwashed. They make nasty exchanges likely, which could compound a problem situation in all sorts of ways. Readers also are going to expect response. If they're ignored, or feel that they're being ignored (and that's likely to happen), they can make life miserable.

    You mentioned a question about whether this may portend a shift away from ombudsmen. Perhaps.

    Pressures from Wall Street are forcing many changes in staffing. But it looks to me as though this Times initiative supplements Jamie Gold's work and isn't intended to displace it. I'd hope that, if anything, the new Times blog will demonstrate the value of the ombudsman role so effectively that other newspapers will be compelled to invest in the position. Credibility's at stake everywhere.

    Great feedback from three professionals who know where the rubber meets the road. For now, then, this writer will tuck away his initial concerns and strike a "wait and see" pose.