A Daunting Challenge Awaits NPR Ombudsman

As I think about the post I've just recently accepted — that of NPR's ombudsman — the one word that leaps to mind is daunting.

Daunting because overnight, I've gone from being an editor, who worked with reporters and producers to shape stories and programs, to becoming the representative for more than 25 million NPR listeners and the many others who use our Web site.

My mission is to listen to your concerns, criticisms, and compliments about National Public Radio's shows and to communicate those issues to the NPR staff. My commitment to you is to take your concerns seriously, to attempt to get answers to your questions, responses to your comments and to write a column based on those conversations and the reporting I do after we've talked.

From Sweden to Louisville to NPR

In preparing to become NPR's second ombudsman, I've been reading about the origins of my new and exotically titled job.

The first ombudsman made his debut in 1809 when the Swedish parliament decided to create an office to ensure that citizens were treated fairly by their government. More than 150 years later, two well-respected journalists — Ben Bagdikian, a Washington Post editor turned educator and media critic, and A. H. Raskin, a legendary labor reporter at The New York Times — advocated in separate essays that newspapers create an ombudsman post.

In 1967, the two Louisville newspapers, The Times and the Courier-Journal, appointed the first ombudsman at an American newspaper. Today, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) — that's pronounced "oh no"— there are fewer than 40 of us here in the U. S., almost all at newspapers and another 60 scattered around the world.

The Road to Becoming Ombudsman

What qualifies me to be NPR's ombudsman? I've been a reporter and editor for 37 years, most of the time toiling in the newsroom trenches of The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun and NPR. I've covered business and economics, labor, City Council and the mayor in Philadelphia, federal courts, state courts and the FBI. While covering those beats, I also produced a stream of investigative stories, designed to shine the bright spotlight of a news organization on issues of public importance and to inspire public officials to do the right thing.

At The Inquirer in the late 1970's, I co-authored a series of stories that disclosed a pattern of criminal violence by Philadelphia police and led the U. S. Justice Department to investigate allegations of beatings, threats of violence and civil rights violations by the Philadelphia police. Later, from 1989 until 1991, I was The Inquirer's city editor. Before joining The Sun, I spent almost two years as the assistant to the publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, operating on the theory that in an era when newspaper economics were undergoing revolutionary change, one could become a more effective editor by understanding the business of newspapering.

At The Sun, I served as metro editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief from 1993 through 2004. As editor, I supervised all of The Sun's news coverage — from foreign and national news to sports, features and business. Every week, usually early on Thursday mornings, I recused myself from the hurly burly of hard news and spent a pleasurable, self-indulgent hour editing book editor Mike Pakenham's weekly column. Those editing sessions were a joyful respite for an English major from Trinity College, who once dreamed of becoming an English professor.

In introducing myself, let me also disclose a few strongly held beliefs:

Here at NPR, over the last two and half years — working as managing editor for national news and vice president for news — I've learned about the magical craft of radio. I've learned how the richness of the human voice can touch the heart long before it's absorbed and understood by the mind.

As an evacuee from the world of newspapers, I also have learned what a special niche NPR occupies as a bastion of excellent journalism in a world in which bastions of excellence are rapidly disappearing. It seems like an everyday occurrence that topnotch news organizations — from the Boston Globe to the San Jose Mercury News to NBC News — declare that because of business pressures, they are going to have to drastically reduce their news staffs, eroding the foundation of their franchises while they struggle to offset declines in advertising revenue.

I also fervently believe in NPR's commitment to produce stories, brimming with the sounds of faroff people and places, that at their best will mesmerize our listeners and transport them across the world whether the destination is Shanghai, Kabul, Baghdad or Budapest or closer to home, here in the U. S.

In the weeks to come, I'll be reading your e-mail and letters, talking with you on the telephone and listening to what you have to say about NPR. Based on my conversations with Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's first ombudsman, who held the job for more than six years, I'll be doing a lot of listening.

Given the volume of audience inquiries, it's not likely that listeners will get customized responses to their e-mails, phone calls or letters. But I can guarantee that every communication will be read — by me and my assistant, Chantal de la Rionda.

I plan to follow up on your concerns the way a beat reporter pursues a story: First, by trying to master the subject in question. I'll try to find the best sources, here at NPR or elsewhere, who can address the listener issue. I'll interview the participants in a piece in question — reporters, editors, producers and other relevant people in the editorial chain of command. I'll check my facts and make sure that I understand both sides of any controversial issue. With all that in hand, as NPR's agent for the audience, I'll try to provide answers to your questions and, when the occasion warrants, use that material in a column on our Web site.

Ultimate Goal: Better Journalism

In assuming the ombudsman's mantle, I'm acutely aware that some listeners may view me as a reflexive defender of NPR, someone who may disregard evidence of journalistic missteps in order to vindicate the reputation of the network Having been the top editor in NPR's newsroom, I can understand why some listeners might be skeptical of my ability to fairly judge the work of old colleagues.

Others — particularly staffers whose work I'll be scrutinizing from a new perspective — may be tempted to see me as an in-house critic, whose mission is to dissect their work in order to prosecute journalistic malfeasance.

In fact, the ombudsman's office is completely independent of NPR's staff and management. I report directly to NPR's president Kevin Klose and, through him, to the NPR board of directors, most of whom manage member stations across the nation. That reporting relationship gives the ombudsman the freedom — indeed the mandate — to call them as he sees them.

My hope is that my communications with NPR's audience will lead not only to a better understanding of NPR's journalism but also — in cases when we make a mistake — better journalism at NPR.

Based on the communications I've been reading in recent days, I plan to be writing about some of these topics in the months ahead:

- The use and misuse of anonymous sources

- How NPR can attract a younger audience

- Investigative reporting

- The growth of digital media

- Covering the Middle East

- The art of the interview

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