Across the country newspapers are looking at ways to cut costs and are letting go of their newspaper ombudsmen. Why? Because it is a widely held belief that because newspapers now allow bloggers to comment on stories, we no longer need ombudsmen to make sure that a story is not slanted one way or another. However, I am under the impression that the opposite needs to happen. In my opinion, the advent of local blogs and citizen bloggers make it even more necessary for newspapers to hire ombudsmen to protect the integrity of the newspaper and the city as a whole.
A news ombudsman receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.
News ombudsmen generally function in an advisory capacity only, not as disciplinarians. Some newspapers use titles such as "readers' representative," "readers' advocate," or "public editor." Others have an assistant managing editor or an assistant to a senior editor who act as ombudsman. (from newsombudsmen.org)
If you read pjstar.com, you know that citizen bloggers are expressing negative feelings for fellow citizens, for City initiatives and for the City as a whole. More specifically, if there is a story about minorities committing crimes, the school district, new taxes, or the police, the comments of bloggers can be down right nasty. So nasty, that the City and the Journal Star could come off looking like they condone such hateful comments when they can’t catch them fast enough.
If you were looking to move to Peoria and read the local blogs or the newspaper on line, chances are you would come away with the impression that Peoria is filled with negativity; all political leaders care about is a museum; gangs run the City; and/or the schools are worthless. These conclusions may or may not be true, but outsiders could possibly begin to view Peoria as a city devoid of culture and indifferent to diversity.
Lately the Journal Star has been restricting comments on certain stories. It’s difficult to pin point what story they may or may not allow posting, readers are left to guess why. Sometimes they allow posting on a story that seems like they should have closed. Local bloggers pick up on the story and people go to the local blogs and comment and yes, sometimes in this process, the City and the Journal Star are slammed for closing off comments and not allowing the story to be explored further by citizen bloggers.
Newspapers don’t like it, but local blogs have an impact on what stories city newspapers cover. Community blogs that have high reader interaction often raise issues that the main stream media (i.e., local news stations and newspapers) are not covering. As a result, citizens could be left to question if the news [paper] is fair and balanced in their coverage of certain issues. Closing off all comments on certain stories invites this type of scrutiny.
It’s not just locally that there are concerns about the impact of citizen bloggers. In Salisbury, Maryland, the mayor has gone on record with her belief that malicious bloggers are endangering the moral of the city:
Citizens - bloggers (negative and otherwise) are challenging newspapers and city leaders like never before. In the current environment, any city and/or newspaper with a citizenship that actively participates in blogging could benefit from the ombudsman.
As newspapers struggle to compete with the blogosphere, self-regulation and reputation management will be more important than ever. A person on staff, who the public know is an advocate, is good public relations for a city and a newspaper.