Media Reporting and the Public Editor

I’m a journalist who has been reporting at a local alt-weekly full-time for about a year. While I’m grateful to have a reporting job straight out of college, I’m realizing that my true passion is to become a media reporter and do work similar to that of this project. Any tips for how to make it happen? I’ve talked my editor into letting me start a media series, but I’m wanting to hear your input. Thanks and keep up the great work! — Caitlin Byrd

Hi Caitlin,

Thanks for getting in touch.

I think the position you’re looking to create or fill is that of your paper’s public editor (or ombudsman). The position basically informs your audience about why and how your organization reports as it does, fields complaints, analyzes your organization’s reporting and basically straddles the public you wish to inform and the newsroom.

Here’s how the New York Times describes it:

The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about news and other coverage in The Times.

Or as former Times editor Bill Keller explained it to the Columbia Journalism Review when Daniel Okrent was appointed the paper’s public editor in 2010:

“[Okrent’s] assignment is to hold us accountable to our own standards, to serve as an advocate for the interests of readers, and to give readers an independent eye into the workings of this great news organization.

A 2005 article in the American Journalism Review outlines the pros and cons of the position, and how different news organizations are implementing and using it. A 2008 article in AdAge argues against having an ombudsman. I don’t agree with it but there are cautionary points in the article to consider.

There’s even an Organization of News Ombudsmen and from it we get a little bit of history on the position:

The first newspaper ombudsman in the U.S. was appointed in June 1967 in Louisville, Kentucky, to serve readers of The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. The first Canadian appointment — at The Toronto Star — was in 1972. The concept was in place much earlier in Japan. The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo established a committee in 1922 to receive and investigate reader complaints. Another mass circulation Tokyo paper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, set up a staff committee in 1938 to monitor the paper’s quality.

Finally, take look at at NPR’s mission and mandate for Edward Schumacher-Matos, its current ombudsman.

I think becoming your weekly’s public editor (or something related to the position) is a good starting point. If you want to get into more general media reporting, I’d keep your focus on how other media outlets are covering issues in North Carolina before going national or international in your reporting and analysis. I say this because of the paper you’re currently at: a local alt-weekly in Ashville.

For inspiration, I’d read Mark Coddington’s Week in Review at Nieman Lab; Jim Romenesko; and Jack Shafer at Reuters; along with the public editors I’ve linked to above to see how they’re going about it. Our Ethics Tag is pretty good too.

Hope this helps. Let us know how things go. — Michael

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Michael Cervieri

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)