Should Student Newspapers Hire Ombudsmen?

Amid the recent controversy over the Diamondback scooter editorial cartoon, the start of the editor in chief’s letter to readers intrigued me.

Even before apologizing and explaining the process by which the cartoon was approved and published, EIC Marissa Lang admitted that she wished she had a middleman– a reader’s representative, a watchdog on the paper itself.  Or as we most frequently describe the position: an ombudsman.

As Lang wrote:

“Traditionally, newspapers have had ombudsmen- individuals hired to receive and investigate complaints from readers about the accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste of the content that appears in the publications’ pages.  Days like yesterday remind me why having someone to navigate the often-bumpy road between a newspaper and the community it serves can be necessary.  From the moment I woke up, I was bombarded with messages from readers, alumni, university employees, friends and coworkers expressing shock, disappointment and outrage about the editorial cartoon featured in that day’s paper.  But the Diamondback does not have an ombudsman. The Diamondback has not had an ombudsman since 2006.”

Most student newspapers have never had one.  For many campus publications with small, overworked staffs, arranging an ombudsman or other reader’s representative position is nothing but a pipe dream.

As one campus newspaper editor told me tongue-in-cheek via e-mail, “Sure, I’ll hire one and create guidelines for them, as soon as we actually are able to hire and retain more than two reporters who submit their stories on time and then finish a stylebook for the paper and then answer the 40,000 e-mails in our inbox– oh, and complete our homework and finally call my mom back.”

While maybe outlandish from a practical perspective, the idea itself definitely has merit. Especially when mega-controversies engulf college papers, there is often no conduit through which individuals can channel critiques– except for calls, e-mails, and letters to the editor to the very people being blasted.

Or worse, the angry hordes go to the school administration to register their disgust– sometimes to make a point but also because there must be confusion for some on where else to turn.

Enter the ombudsman– a respected student, journalism scholar or professional journalist with knowledge of student media and the time and demeanor to dissect controversies and a deluge of reader vitriol.

Who might be suitable to fill such a role? My top ten list, some obvious and others a bit quirkier:

 

Former editor in chief or section editor still in school

Immediate past editor in chief

University journalism professor

Local professional journalist, active or retired

Students in journalism ethics class, overseen by professor

Qualified alum of the school and paper

Editor in chief of student paper at a nearby school

Journalism student at university with no previous ties to paper

Representative of local or regional journalism organization

Impassioned journalism scholar who serves as a student press ombudsman on a national/international level

In respect to the latter, if anyone’s hiring, please sign me up. :-)

Comments
3 Responses to “Should Student Newspapers Hire Ombudsmen?”
  1. Cornell student says:

    I think the editor quoted anonymously who claims to not have the time to find an ombudsman is underestimating the value of employing an ombudsman.

    Especially at a student-run paper where reporters and editors are learning and experimenting in journalism, it is valuable to have a person with expertise and experience to provide feedback.

    The transparency of this process bolsters the paper’s overall integrity and promotes reader engagement in a constructive way.

    An example of a good ombudsman at a college newspaper is The Cornell Daily Sun’s “public editor,” Rob Tricchinelli:

    http://cornellsun.com/category/columns/op-ed-columns/public-editor

  2. Editors at The Post, at OhioU, have toyed with the idea of an ombudsman in the past but at the end of the day there are so few people who are qualified. Of those who are qualified, they are usually someone who is essential to daily coverage and not someone we can afford to have relegated to answering emails about our student senate coverage.

    In my opinion, a qualified editor-in-chief can play the same role an ombudsman, without having to deal with losing an extra staff member.

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