The Cleveland Plain Dealer no longer has a readers representative.
Ted Diadiun, the readers representative for ten years, announced this week he was leaving the position and would become part of the Plain Dealer‘s editorial board. “I believe the role of the Reader Rep has run its course,” he wrote.
In a Jan. 31 column, Diadiun argued that his role wasn’t necessary anymore because social media and online commenting have replaced his position over the years by offering readers an outlet to voice their complaints and concerns.
“Today, anyone who has something to say about the facts in a story or the way it was reported can do so immediately — and often get an immediate answer back from the reporter who wrote it and perhaps even the editor who assigned it,” he said.
The back and forth between reader and editorial that Diadium describes, however, leaves out the important role of an expert advocate for the people with complaints. Tarmu Tammerk, President of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), told iMediaEthics that it’s good that individual staff are engaging with readers about questions and criticisms. But Tammerk also argued that the readers representative helps centralize reader complaints and offers an independent perspective:
“It’s regrettable if media organizations give up the post of the reader representative,” Tammerk wrote. “This way, the paper loses a key link to the community. It’s bad for media accountability and bad for democracy.”
Tammerk wrote: “The role of reader representatives and ombudsman is not disappearing in the age of digital media. Yes, people can more easily criticize the paper on the social media, but this criticism remains very fragmented. You need a dedicated reader representative or an independent ombudsman to show systematically what the newspaper’s values are.”
Tammerk went on,
“Editors and reporters can and should respond to some of the criticism from readers, but it is the reader representative who can take a broader and independent view of how the paper works.”
Jeffrey Dvorkin, the former executive director for the Organization of News Ombudsmen, told iMediaEthics that ombudsmen and readers representatives help lend credibility to news outlets. He wrote by e-mail:
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“Social media are to ombuds as wholesale is to retail. Media organizations have to make tough choices in tough economic times. But credibility with the public is what journalism is all about. That’s more effectively accomplished with an in-house ombuds in my experience.”
In announcing his departure, the Plain Dealer’s Diadiun described his original role, as established back in 2005, as “a full-time editor in charge of responding to reader concerns on a regular basis, looking into questions of fairness and judgment, and explaining why we do what we do.”
Now that the readers representative job is over, any “larger journalism issues” outside of specific complaints will be dealt with by the paper’s editor George Rodrigue and the North East Ohio Media Group Vice President of Content Chris Quinn.
Cleveland alternative weekly newspaper Cleveland Scene, however, wrote that the Plain Dealer can’t expect social media and reader comments to replace a readers representative position.
“It just seems so obvious that in an evolving media landscape, a reader rep is much more vital, as a guide through and guard against potentially unethical (or at the very least unliked) policies and procedures and strategies,” Cleveland Scene argued.
Further, Cleveland Scene quoted Jay Rosen, NYU professor and media critic, explaining the extra level of having someone responsible for handling journalism ethics and reader issues is important.
“Precisely because it’s your own person, the ombudsman’s judgment matters —and stings — in a way that outside criticism never can,” Rosen is quoted as saying. “That’s why ‘we get criticized all the time on social media’ fails as an explanation or excuse.”
Media Matters reported that former Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton, who set up the readers representative role, said, “I still believe in the concept. If there was a way to keep it, I would have kept it.”
iMediaEthics has written to NEOMG’s Quinn for more information.