The Dorchester Reporter has hired a temporary ombudsman tasked to “review” the weekly Boston newspaper‘s reporting on a specific election because the editor’s wife and daughter-in-law of the owner, Linda Dorcena Forry, is a candidate.
This move was made in order to protect the newspaper against charges of “political bias or impropriety, or the appearance thereof” during the “special election to replace state Sen. Jack Hart,” a column from “publisher and editor of the Reporter newspaper group” Bill Forry said.
Michael Jonas, who told iMediaEthics that he is a first-time ombudsman, will also handle “reader feedback” and have a “regular column” in addition to his content review for the Reporter. Jonas said in an email to iMediaEthics that his “focus will be on the Reporter’s coverage of the special election for state Senate, not the paper’s overall news coverage.”
But, will this temporary move really fix the troubling conflict of interest the Reporter faces? What happens if Dorcena Forry, whose husband’s family owns the newspaper, is elected and the ombudsman’s position ends? And what about all the years the newspaper hasn’t had an ombudsman, despite Dorcena Forry’s position as a state representative for close to eight years?
The ombudsman announcement in the Reporter explained the hire is to help the paper protect its “integrity” and is “uncommon at community newspapers.” Further, the announcement noted that the paper hired an ombudsman in 2004-2005 when Forry’s wife ran for her current office in a “special election.” The paper’s 2004-2005 hiring of Dave Connolly as ombudsman was the “first time” the Reporter had an ombudsman and that Connolly “was- at the time- a staff reporter for the Brockton Enterprise, a daily that did not cover our turf,” according to an email from Forry to iMediaEthics.
“Neither I nor my father, Associate Publisher Ed Forry, nor any other family member will influence coverage, write, editorialize, supervise, or otherwise have an impact on our newspapers’ reporting of the campaign. I will continue to contribute to the Reporter newspapers editorials and stories that do not pertain directly to the campaign.”
Those promises were re-iterated in Forry’s first column, published Feb. 20.
iMediaEthics found the hiring of a temporary ombudsman — somewhat akin to a special prosecutor — to be an unusual announcement, and the Organization of News Ombudsmen‘s executive director Jeffrey Dvorkin told iMediaEthics by email that he’s never “heard of an arrangement like this, but it sounds like an interesting experiment.”
“Who knows, if it works out, and the readers like it, perhaps the newspaper will hire a full time ombuds!” Dvorkin added.
But, iMediaEthics thinks there isn’t a prayer of a chance of that happening. The Dorchester Reporter doesn’t have an ombudsman full-time, Forry said to iMediaEthics, because their current editorial controls are good enough. “We don’t employ a permanent ombudsman, in part because we have good checks/balances in place with our regular associate editor, Tom Mulvoy (former Boston Globe managinge ditor), handling the ed pages week to week and dealing with edits to political stories.” And, he said “I don’t cover politics at all given my wife’s job.”
He may not, but his employees do.
Then why have a temporary ombudsman? Forry said that “with a competitive primary, the ombudsman is an extra that we feel is important for our readers and our reputation.” That’s good. But, he adds that the ombudsman is “an extra cost” the newspaper doesn’t “want to carry full time.”
So, paying extra for their reputation is situational, like when his wife is again running for a political office? But doesn’t her continuing work in politics between elections make for an ongoing conflict of interest?
So what does Linda Dorcena Forry’s political opponent think of all of this? iMediaEthics reached out to her opponent, Nick Collins, several times but the campaign hasn’t responded with an on-the-record comment. Since the Dorchester Reporter’s ombudsman announcement, two more candidates have thrown their hats in the ring — blogger Maureen Dahill and Joseph Ureneck. Dahill runs a blog called “Caught in Southie,” and her candidacy was featured in a blogpost “The rumors are true.”
In that post, Dahill included eight tidbits to describe herself “in a nutshell” including her age, her children, her job as “Lead Stylist at Rue La La,” and her academic degrees. Later, in a Feb. 24 post, Dahill expained “Why I’m running.”
Referring to Dorchester Reporter sister newspapers the Mattapan Reporter, Boston Irish Reporter and Boston Haitian Reporter, Bill Forry told iMediaEthics that Jonas “will monitor all of our papers” for his columns in “the weeklies (unless he sees a need to pubish them in the monthlies.)” Jonas added in an email last month that he will write as necessary, explaining:
“I will have an introductory column in next week’s issue of the Reporter. Beyond that, there is no set schedule for how often I will write. Certainly if a significant issue arises I will plan to address it in the next issue of the paper. If no huge issues come up, I will likely try to write a couple of times anyway during the course of what will be pretty abbreviated campaign — the primary is April 30; the general election is May 28 (and so far there are only Democratic candidates in the race).”
Jonas feels his new employer is “going the extra mile to try to assure readers that the paper’s coverage of the race will be fair, given the unusual circumstance that his wife is a candidate.”
iMediaEthics asked Jonas if his contract includes a clause preventing him from being fired during his time as ombudsman. Forry said:
“I am not operating under a formal contract. We have a verbal agreement that I will serve in this role at least through the primary election on April 30. If state Rep. Forry — the wife of Dorchester Reporter publisher and editor Bill Forry — should win the Democratic primary, I’ll continue through the general election on May 28. (We haven’t decided whether I will continue on to May 28 if she loses the primary.) Bill has assured me that I’ll be given space to write as often as I want, and I have been promised my column will not go through him but will be handled by Associate Editor Tom Mulvoy, and that there will be no editing beyond basic copy editing.”
iMediaEthics covered a similar case a couple of years ago. In 2011, Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz resigned as her husband, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown ran for re-election. She previously had taken leaves when her husband was up for office, but decided to break from the newspaper because of the conflict of interest. Schultz explained at the time:
“In recent weeks, it has become painfully clear that my independence, professionally and personally, is possible only if I’m no longer writing for the newspaper that covers my husband’s senate race on a daily basis. It’s time for me to move on.”