Ask Florida Times-Union Reader Advocate Mike Clark, who has one of the longest tenures as a reader advocate in the country, about the worst experience in his 14 years on the job, and he’s quick to remember: The newspaper published a story that exposed racially insensitive remarks made by a chief judge in Jacksonville. The black community was offended; the white community was incensed.
But the anger, Clark says, was not directed at the judge.
“Readers blamed the messenger,” he said. “First they questioned why we needed to even publish it. Then they started making excuses for the judge. People said we must have ambushed him. They called me for three months straight, full of emotion. It didn’t let up. And it really wore me out.”
Clark is one of about 40 reader representatives at newspapers throughout the country who field complaints, questions and comments from thousands of readers whose responses range from the hopelessly mundane to the utterly vitriolic. Between explaining why the Mary Worth comic was eliminated and listening to allegations of biased reporting on the conflict in the Middle East, these advocates often traverse a middle ground sandwiched between an outraged readership and a newsroom culture that can be aggressively defensive and resistant to change.
These advocates typically are fairly independent agents who carry the authority of management without the day-to-day responsibilities of balancing budgets and conducting performance evaluations. Because they are in the unique position of knowing the quantity and quality of public feedback, their influence often results in large- and small-scale changes that can transform even the most irate complainers into grateful – and loyal – readers.
“An editor once told me, ‘You may have the best job or worst job at the newspaper,’ “ Clark said. “I have both.”
While the reader representatives at the nation’s newspapers have a variety of roles and responsibilities, clearly much of their time is spent responding to complaints and concerns from readers. In 2003, for example, the National Public Radio ombudsman received 50,000 e-mails, excluding obviously off-point e-mails such as spam and pornography.
That requires a seven-day-a-week commitment, says NPR’s Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, who uses a high-speed data line to check e-mail at home on weekends to avoid having “to shovel my way back into the office.”
Almost by definition, news consumers who contact public editors are motivated by intense feelings about what they perceive has gone awry in the news gathering and reporting process. And public editors throughout the country report that the range of issues over which readers become passionate is wide and deep.
“You compared Martha Stewart jurors to women who stay at home. You defamed my late mother. The book reviewer went to college years ago with the author. It goes on and on and on and on,” said Daniel Okrent, who has made headlines himself as the first public editor at The New York Times.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Public Editor Mike King, who receives about 50 salient e-mails daily, says the largest category of complaints involves issues of fairness, “everything from ‘there’s bias in your presidential election coverage’ to ‘my father was named in a story, and you didn’t do him right.’ “
The second largest category of complaints is a combination of complaint and questions about play: “Why wasn’t this story played more?”
The third category – which no reader advocate would dare to underestimate – involves the “furniture” in the newspaper: Changing the stock listings, eliminating a comic strip, reducing the coverage in the TV book, replacing a columnist.
A few years ago, King remembers, The Journal-Constitution eliminated a popular parenting columnist whose message was that children needed strict and disciplined upbringings. The replacement columnist, who was thought to be more inclusive and interactive, posed questions to readers and developed columns based on their answers.
“People went crazy and hollered immediately,” King said. “I was able to show the response in a meaningful way and to say, ‘I think you made a mistake here.’ “
The newspaper ultimately published both columnists.
On a smaller scale, when the newspaper eliminated the weekly roll call of votes from Congress, now readily available on the Internet, older readers without Internet access were persistent in their complaints, and weekly roll calls were reinstated.
“Our job at a paper this size is (to be) point person for people who want some answers from this big, amorphous, mysterious organization,” King said. “We’re part of their daily lives, but they don’t know who to talk with.”
It’s that ability to influence newspaper offerings on behalf of readers that makes the job satisfying for The Salt Lake Tribune Reader Advocate Connie Coyne. When the Tribune put the crossword puzzle in the middle of the page – making it impossible to fold the newspaper in quarters as crossword puzzle people typically do – Coyne received 200 phone calls. The crossword puzzle was moved. When the Judge Parker and Mary Worth comic strips were eliminated, more than 650 people complained about each, and the comics were reinstated. Most recently, when more than 650 people complained that “News of the Weird” was eliminated, it too was reinstated.
But not all reader complaints are as easily quantifiable and solvable as moving crossword puzzles and reinstating comic strips. From gay marriage to affirmative action, contentious social issues can generate an avalanche of complaints that one side or the other was not covered fairly or adequately. And reader advocates throughout the country report that passions have been intensely inflamed – one way or the other – by the 2004 presidential campaign. While The Oregonian’s public editor, Michael Arrieta-Walden, reports fielding complaints that the press is not critical enough of President George W. Bush, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s King says political complaints are predominately Republican Party loyalists accusing the press of liberal bias.
In some instances, news consumers inflamed enough to call or write are just plain wrong, says NPR’s Dvorkin, who tells of listeners who insist they heard something in a radio report that simply was not there.
“I tell them I’ll send them a transcript, and they’ll say, ‘I heard it. Are you calling me a liar?’ I want to get a bumper sticker that reads: NPR is not responsible for your auditory hallucinations.”
In some instances – The New York Times’ Okrent says 3 percent to 4 percent of the time – readers’ strong feelings and intense passions result in e-mails and phone calls that exceed all commonly held definitions of civil discourse.
“I told my wife after the first week that the human species is a vile race,” Okrent said. “Some people are so inexplicably nasty and foul. I learned early on not to read e-mails before bed at night.”
At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, King uses a three-minute rule and the timer on his telephone to help him respond to vitriolic phone calls: People can rant for three minutes before he interrupts. If they aren’t more reasonable after that, he thanks them for their comments and says good-bye.
NPR’s Dvorkin says listener reactions about coverage of the conflict in the Middle East have been particularly passionate partly because, for some listeners, “the idea that there may be another narrative is impossible.”
He remembers what was by far the worst incident, which occurred during the height of the Second Intifada in 2000-2001.
“I would get phone calls that would come every Sunday night,” Dvorkin said. “Threats to me, personally. He knew my name. He knew where I lived. Very nasty calls. He had his Caller ID blocked so we couldn’t find him.”
Eventually the FBI intervened and the calls stopped.
But mostly, Dvorkin says, it’s the Jewish, pro-gun, Teamster in San Francisco who has called weekly for the past four years to provide thoughtful comment and point out errors in coverage. Or it’s the country music singer in Houston who calls only twice a night now that Dvorkin has asked him to call less often. Or it’s the truck driver for J.B. Hunt who calls from his cell phone to discuss what he heard, what he liked.
Most public advocates and reader representatives have backgrounds as traditional reporters and editors – preparation that enables them to answer a wide range of questions accurately and fuels them with a passion to explain the art and practice of journalism to news consumers. They point with satisfaction to initially irate callers who end conversations thankful for information, understanding and the opportunity to be heard. Some advocates form relationships with people who have called and written, often contacting them proactively for feedback and input.
But whether it’s determining the appropriateness of a picture that accompanied a story about Mad Cow disease on a Saturday morning when children were home from school or publicly apologizing for a graphic that wrongly implied a hotbed of gang activity at the local elementary school, reader representatives stand as the mediator between the reader and reporter, between news consumer and news organization.
That challenge of responding to readers – often publicly in reader advocates’ weekly columns – and maintaining a necessary relationship with the newsroom can be a difficult and delicate role.
“You have to understand what a newsroom does in order to explain it to readers,” said the Florida Times-Union’s Clark. “And you have to be able to work in the newsroom without breaking too much china.”
Perhaps that role is being watched most closely at The New York Times, where Okrent began work Dec. 1, 2003, in the wake of the scandal wrought by reporter Jayson Blair’s fabrications. Historically, the newspaper has resisted ombudsmen because of a firmly held belief that editors should be directly accountable to readers.
“There have been some criticisms,” Okrent said after two months on the job. “There’s been ‘We don’t need you.’ ‘Who the hell are you?’ ‘How can you say this if you don’t have a newspaper background?’ ‘Don’t you realize that you’re helping people who want to hurt The Times?’ And that’s a valid point. Anything critical I say is magnified by the newspaper’s enemies.”
Even at newspapers with traditions of ombudsmen, reader advocates often find themselves at odds with their newsroom colleagues and, sometimes, with their editors and publishers. While some ombudsmen have employment contracts that provide a degree of job protection, most do not.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s Coyne recalls a reporter who refused to speak to her for a more than a year after a reader sent her e-mail pointing to plagiarism that resulted in the reporter’s demotion. Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman, said four years ago he was asked to stop going to the daily editorial meeting because he made people uncomfortable.
“I’ve been told recently that the level of trust changed, and I would be welcome, he said, “but it hurt my feelings. The thing about this job is that it’s very solitary, and I miss schmoozing it up with the newsroom.”
The isolation is a major concern to public advocates who generally are one of a kind in their news operations. The feeling is exacerbated among advocates who feel their long-standing ties to the newsroom have been loosened by virtue of their jobs.
“This is isolating,” said The Florida Times-Union’s Clark. “Newsroom people are like cops. They sort of hang together because a lot of times they’re unpopular. Who does the ombudsman hang with? A lot of times you’re unpopular in the newsroom because you’re giving people bad news.”
To help combat that sense of isolation, most public editors and advocates belong to the Organization of News Ombudsmen – with the appropriate acronym of ONO, a sometimes automatic response when a complaint call comes in. In addition to annual meetings, the organization sponsors conference-calling groups generally of six people each who talk about their experiences on a regular basis.
Clark, past president of ONO and a conference-call leader, is responsible for calling the five others about once a month.
“We just talk,” Clark said. “We’ll talk about 45 minutes about what’s going on, what’s new, have we experienced the same kinds of calls. You get attached and sort of start bonding. And it’s extremely helpful for new ombudsmen who can tap into the experience of the veterans.”
For example, Clark said, veterans of the group offer new members practical and emotional support, even to the point of once advising an advocate who was under siege that she needed to take time off.
A listserv supplements the phone calls and provides a means of support and participation for the organization’s international membership. Members pose questions and solicit feedback on the issues of the day: how stories were played, for example, or whether a particular advocacy group is blanketing news organizations with correspondence as part a publicity campaign.
In addition to the supportive role of ONO and colleagues at other news organizations, advocates say what stands between them and job-ending stress is a dogged belief in their roles, an ability to avoid taking criticism personally, patience, a talent for diffusing anger and a sense of humor.
“My philosophy is that if I can get you to laugh before you get off the phone, then I won,” said the Salt Lake Tribune’s Coyne, who likens listening to reader complaints with “being beaten to death with popcorn.”
In some cases, other duties help dilute the stress of being a one-person complaint department. Coyne, for example, also directs the Newspaper in Education program and a community service outreach program. Clark has held nine reader forums and has established a database of 650 readers who are willing to provide input to the newspaper. NPR’s Dvorkin, who also is vice president of ONO, has been writing an ethics guide for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Still, some ombudsmen maintain that the stress in the job, the isolation inherent in it and heavy doses of negativity suggest that their tenures should not be permanent. The New York Times’ Okrent, for example, would commit to no more than 18 months.
“At a certain point,” says Dvorkin, “an ombudsman should be medivac’d out.”
But Minneapolis Star Tribune reader representative Lou Gelfand who, at 80, is acknowledged as the grandfather of American ombudsmen, says 22 years on the job is simply not enough.
“When it gets old, I’ll quit,” he said. “It’s all about trying to make the newspaper better, to enhance the public’s feeling abut a free press, the readability, the importance of the newspaper. I feel like I’m making a contribution.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.