September 21, 2003

New(ly Posted) Reason Colum...

woe-is-media journalism establishment. Excerpt:

Ombudsman is a Swedish word, originally meaning "the man who sees to it that the snow and ice and rubbish are removed from the streets and that the chimneys are swept," according to a mini-history written by Arthur Nauman, former ombudsman for The Sacramento Bee. The term evolved over time to describe state employees who help disgruntled citizens deal with an indifferent or hostile government. [...]

Halliburton has an ombudsman; Southwest Airlines does not. (When contacted to confirm this, a Southwest public relations officer drawled, "What's an ombud-man?") [...]

Hiring a public editor is like advertising your monopolist indifference and staffing bloat; it's admitting defeat (or, depending on how you look at it, victory).

Interesting that a Sac Bee ombudsman should be mentioned. As Mickey Kaus rightly criticizes today, Bee Ombudsman Tony Marcano has written a stinker of a column proudly explaining how his paper has caved to Latino complaints about the valuable recall-blogger Daniel Weintraub, who will now no longer be allowed to post without being edited. Here's the relevant passage; italics will be mine:
It's unfathomable to me how any media outlet could allow its newsroom to publish unedited content, whether in print or on the Web.

The Bee got a further lesson in the pitfalls of that recently when columnist Daniel Weintraub included a contentious statement in his Sept. 1 Weblog, which is posted on sacbee.com.

Weintraub wrote that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante "certainly owed his elevation to the job of Assembly speaker to his ethnic background and to the support he received from fellow Latinos. If his name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher."

Further, he alleged, "it's indisputably true that the Legislature's Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity." The caucus protested in a letter to Bee Publisher Janis Besler Heaphy.

Make what you will of Weintraub's statement, and of the caucus' protests. No matter what I or anyone else thinks, he has every right to analyze the political scene and reach those conclusions. But no newspaper should publish an analysis without an editor's review. That doesn't necessarily mean that Weintraub's blog should have been reworded, but an editor should at least have had the opportunity to question his conclusions.

Since these incidents came to light, The Bee has instituted some reforms. Weintraub's blog now goes to the editorial page editor or his deputy before it's posted on sacbee.com. Editors will not be allowed to write items for the Web without another editor's review.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Part of the problem is that no one in the newsroom is assigned full-time to oversee and disseminate Web content, and no reporters or editors work at the Web site.

The biggest problem with this? Weintraub is an opinion columnist. He is being paid to dispense opinion (albeit, chock full o' insidery Sacramento observations), and he is being punished in this case for an opinionated assertion, not a botched indisputable fact. And he is being punished as a direct result of an interest group complaining about his opinion. Whether it had been an auto dealer, or the English-Only crowd, or the Latino Caucus, the proper response to such a complaint, in my view, is, "He's a valued opinion columnist, and this was his opinion. We will certainly pass along your concerns, and even suggest he engage them on his blog. Please consider writing a letter to the editor. Good-bye."

I understand (though I don't necessarily agree) when newspaper editors freak out about beat reporters writing unedited stuff on the Web about their areas of published expertise. But clamping down on columnist blogging will just make for less compelling blogs, and the paper simply looks one or two notches less credible when it caves to an interest-group complaint over opinionated content. You don't need to employ an ombudsman to be gutless and wrong, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Posted by at September 21, 2003 04:12 PM
Comments

In reading your post a person might come to the conclusion that the Sacramento Bee is a real live, actual newspaper. It isn't. It's nothing more than an in-house company newsletter. The company being the California legislature and state government.

The old Sacramento Union, now that was a newspaper. I loved that it tap-danced on that edge between feisty and cranky. (Cranky in a 75-year old Orange County Republican perpetually pissed-off way).

Posted by: David Crawford at September 21, 2003 05:37 PM

The Bee has shot itself on the foot. It's essentially giving up its biggest advantage over its competitors in the recall coverage.

Posted by: Robert Tagorda at September 21, 2003 05:58 PM

The Bee has shot itself on the foot. It's essentially giving up its biggest advantage over its competitors in the recall coverage.

Yup. Why bother to go to Weintraub's blog now?

Posted by: Rand Simberg at September 21, 2003 08:25 PM

IIRC, Berke Brethead in "Bloom County" got the Washington Post's ombudsman pompusly mad at him about 15 years ago when his strip (distributed by the Post's syndication arm) showed readers why it was called an "ombudsman" by detailing a day in the life of Opus, who after dealing with several irate readers wanted an Bud (man).

The visuals (hey, it was a Sunday strip in color) made the rather obvious gag funnier than it reads on a video screen, but either way, reaction by the Post's Ombudsman in residence at the time was ridiculously over the top. Marcano seems to be cut from the same cloth judging by his comments on Weintraub's blog.

Posted by: John at September 21, 2003 08:28 PM

Matt did not quote this ombudsdrivel from Marcano -- I can only assume out of concern for the digestion and blood pressure of his readers:

"I hope that The Bee considers that its credibility is worth more than the cost of one full-time employee."

I would have hoped that The Bee would consider that its credibility is worth more than the cost of one pissed off member of the political establishment.

Posted by: Floyd McWilliams at September 21, 2003 09:43 PM

I agree with Tagorda that the Bee shot itself inthe foot for the moment. But the long term war here is a bigger deal. Will big media (if you can call the Bee... and you can to some extent) permit blogging as we know and love it? As Emmanuelle might say, "J'en doute."

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at September 21, 2003 11:18 PM

The appropriate response is not to avoid Weintraub---because he will still likely provide useful information--but to instead boycott--as in, don't publicly discuss, don't link to, don't reference, don't provide comments to--the new Fly in The Jar weblog started by the editors of the Bee.

Alternatively, as Xrlq suggests (www.xrlq.com), include the "CLEARED BY SACBEE CENSORS" on any Weintraub link.

Posted by: Spooky at September 22, 2003 05:35 AM

Roger's right to wonder about the long-term effects. If the Bee can take its measures while benefiting from a journalist who's peaking as a result of the medium, things don't seem so bright for j-blogs.

Posted by: Robert Tagorda at September 22, 2003 02:42 PM

Ach -- It's a temporary bump in the road. Newspaper websites not somehow connected to Jeff Jarvis will probably continue to be the slowest adopters (for both good reasons and bad), but adopt they will continue to do. It's a dumb little story, nothing more, methinks.

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 22, 2003 08:12 PM
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od pressure of his readers:

"I hope that The Bee considers that its credibility is worth more than the cost of one full-time employee."

I would have hoped that The Bee would consider that its credibility is worth more than the cost of one pissed off member of the political establishment.

Posted by: Floyd McWilliams at September 21, 2003 09:43 PM

I agree with Tagorda that the Bee shot itself inthe foot for the moment. But the long term war here is a bigger deal. Will big media (if you can call the Bee... and you can to some extent) permit blogging as we know and love it? As Emmanuelle might say, "J'en doute."

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at September 21, 2003 11:18 PM

The appropriate response is not to avoid Weintraub---because he will still likely provide useful information--but to instead boycott--as in, don't publicly discuss, don't link to, don't reference, don't provide comments to--the new Fly in The Jar weblog started by the editors of the Bee.

Alternatively, as Xrlq suggests (www.xrlq.com), include the "CLEARED BY SACBEE CENSORS" on any Weintraub link.

Posted by: Spooky at September 22, 2003 05:35 AM

Roger's right to wonder about the long-term effects. If the Bee can take its measures while benefiting from a journalist who's peaking as a result of the medium, things don't seem so bright for j-blogs.

Posted by: Robert Tagorda at September 22, 2003 02:42 PM

Ach -- It's a temporary bump in the road. Newspaper websites not somehow connected to Jeff Jarvis will probably continue to be the slowest adopters (for both good reasons and bad), but adopt they will continue to do. It's a dumb little story, nothing more, methinks.

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 22, 2003 08:12 PM
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Posted by: Matt Welch at September 22, 2003 08:12 PM
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