The state of the ombudsman in 2015
New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan is part of a dying breed.
Sullivan, who joined the Times in 2012, is one of only a handful of public editors, or ombudsmen, still working in the American press.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a University of Toronto journalism professor who spent six and a half years as NPR's ombudsman, predicts that close to 20 such editors still exist in the States.
And the trendline is pointing down.
"American media organizations are so determined to try to think of how to monetize their products that I think they're losing sight of the need to connect in a really effective way with their publics," he said.
Other countries and regions, however, have been steadily embracing the public editor position, and Dvorkin said that membership in the Organization of News Ombudsmen (for which he previously served as executive director) has risen by 20 percent over the last five to six years, pointing to growth in Canada, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.
"Other countries have a more direct sense of the value of independent journalism in a way that I think is being lost in the U.S.," he said.
Every news organization has some sort of mechanism for responding to reader comments and legal complaints. But very few still employ staffers devoted to offering their thoughts to the larger public on a regular basis.
Daniel Okrent, who served as The New York Times' first public editor, made reference to a "downgrading" of the position, based mostly on financial constraints.
"At a time when newsrooms are shrinking and news holes are shrinking, the idea of paying someone to criticize a newspaper is perceived by management as more and more obtuse," he said.
The position is often the first to go when news executives are trying to trim their budgets.
"Do we really want to be spending scarce resources on an in-house critic?" New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen asked, hypothetically. "There's the sense that media criticism rains down on us from all sides. Isn't it better to let outsiders handle it?"
Buzzfeed editor in chief Ben Smith has often said as much—that the instant Twitter critics make a formal ombudsman unneccessary for the company.
But while hordes on social media platforms like Twitter have come to essentially crowdsource the position, and to provide ombudsmen like Sullivan with instant feedback and tips worth pursuing, Dvorkin said that it's also become an out for news companies.
"I think some media organizations have used the Internet as an excuse to let go their ombudsmen," he said.
Sullivan, who has become known for her ability to quickly pick up on the Internet outrage storm that brews daily on Twitter, and to weigh in when needed, said that the social media masses can't do the same job.
"Social media and crowdsourcing are very valuable for pointing out mistakes, bias, and other problems, but what they can't usually accomplish is getting answers or responses from within," she said. "That's important in holding decision-makers accountable."
Sullivan regularly interviews and gets answers from her colleagues, including executive editor Dean Baquet, editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal and foreign editor Joseph Kahn. Those interviews are much harder to come by for outside media reporters (like this one).
While the social media landscape looks far different in 2015 than in 2005, Okrent said that he received his fair share of digital commentary from readers.
"God knows I was getting flooded with emails every day," he said.
Sullivan's approach differs from his own, Okrent said, in the importance she places on social media as a platform.
"She clearly sees digital as the key arena for her commentary," Okrent said.
At the national level, Sullivan is joined by Elizabeth Jensen, a former media reporter who was recently hired as NPR's next ombudsman, replacing Edward Schumacher-Matos.
Schumacher-Matos' term as ombudsman actually ended in August, but he kept on until the public media organization was able to find someone to its liking.
ESPN has also employed an ombudsman in the past, but the role may be in flux.
Robert Lipsyte, ESPN's fifth ombudsman, wrote his last entry for the company in December.
Asked about the efforts to find his successor, an ESPN spokesperson told Capital: "We are in the early stages of defining the ombudsman role and considering candidates."
PBS employs Michael Getler as an "independent internal critic" within the public broadcaster.
But, overall, the ranks have thinned, and some companies, like The Washington Post, have eliminated the position in favor of a reader representative, a position that doesn't provide the same oversight capabilities as an ombudsman.
"I think the loss of a public-facing, independent ombudsman is a net loss in accountability for the publication," said Patrick Pexton, the Post's last ombudsman (he left in 2013).
The Post hired Pexton's former assistant, Alison Coglianese, as its reader representative, in February 2014.
"She is hard-working and very conscientious and is talking and responding to readers all day long," Pexton said. "But she is not as unfettered as I was to make public judgments because she does not have the guarantee of independence that I had in my contract with the Post."
(Dvorkin said that Marty Baron has eliminated ombudsmen positions at both the Post, which he now edits, and The Boston Globe, which he previously edited, and called Baron "not ombuds-friendly.")
Sullivan and Jensen, two of the remaining public-facing editors, made a pitch for the role.
"I don't think every news organization needs an ombudsman, but those that do choose to have them are going the extra mile for their viewers or listeners or readers," Sullivan said. "It's helpful for transparency, for looking at the organization's own inevitable mistakes and for protecting journalistic integrity—or at least I hope that's the case."
Jensen, who started her three-year term as NPR ombudsman Monday, told Capital: "Having an independent voice whose role is to maintain transparency and accountability at a news organization seems to me as important as ever."
Many major media companies rely on internal mechanisms for addressing some of the issues normally handled by ombudsmen.
Some examples: A general counsel handles complaints and potentially litigious claims for The Atlantic; The Wall Street Journal has a five-person ethics and standards team; and Reuters has assigned an editor, Brian Moss, to engage "directly with readers on all manner of issues," a spokesperson said.
Bloomberg News has recruited directly from the ranks of past ombudsmen. In September 2013, the news service created a new position, independent senior editor, for former New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt.
Sullivan, who edited The Buffalo News before joining the Times, is the paper's fifth public editor. The position was created as a reassurance to Times readers in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagariasm scandal, one of the worst in the industry's history.
But while Sullivan's position seems etched in stone at the Times, Okrent said that nothing is certain.
"There's a risk every time someone leaves the job," he said. "I know that there have been internal discussions about it. ... But they've stuck with it."
The question, Okrent said, is one of resources. Ombudsmen command high salaries, and the Times recently underwent a round of cost-cutting measures that saw north of 100 employees leave the company.
"If I had to choose between a City Hall bureau chief and a public editor, I don't know how I'd decide," he said.