Letter from the Publisher: Listening to Readers

February 02, 1992|By MICHAEL J. DAVIES | MICHAEL J. DAVIES,Michael J. Davies is publisher of The Baltimore Sun.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer sometimes is angered by stories or editorials that appear in the morning or evening Sun. In fact, he is convinced the newspapers have a vendetta against him.

Adding to his unhappiness is the sense that there is no one at The Sun who will listen seriously to his complaints or do anything about them.

Other readers have problems with us from time to time, too. They call to point out factual errors or to complain that a particular story or headline was unfair. Sometimes, readers are upset that a photograph or story appeared at all or, less frequently, that a story should have been in the paper, but wasn't.

Newspapers can be difficult institutions with which to deal. Readers don't always know to whom a complaint should be addressed. Occasionally, news sources don't complain because they fear retribution of some kind.

Starting tomorrow, communicating with us should be a lot easier. Ernest F. Imhoff, who has been a reporter and an editor at The Evening Sun for almost 30 years, will begin work as the newspapers' first readers' representative, or ombudsman.

He will listen to complaints about news coverage, will investigate and, where appropriate, recommend some sort of remedial action. He also will write a column periodically on issues concerning news coverage.

He will not involve himself in questions concerning the opinions expressed on the editorial page or the op-ed page. He also will not deal with circulation or advertising problems. Readers should continue to call those departments directly. And, of course, readers can continue to deal directly with the newsrooms if they so wish.

His direct-line telephone number (332-6495) and a short message describing his responsibilities will be published each day on page two of both newspapers.

Each afternoon, Mr. Imhoff will distribute an internal memorandum to reporters, editors and executives describing the day's complaints and possible resolutions.

The ombudsman's column will be edited only for grammar and style. No one will edit his opinions or conclusions. He will report directly to John Carroll, the newspapers' editor, and to me.

Mr. Imhoff started work at The Evening Sun in 1963 as a reporter. He covered science, medicine, space and state government, among other things. He was later an assistant city editor, state editor, city editor and an assistant managing editor. Most recently he has been acting managing editor. He also has been a music reviewer for the paper.

An editor for whom I worked 25 years ago in Louisville, Ky., was frustrated that journalists too often bristled in the face of criticism. "We dish it out, but we can't take it," he used to say. His solution was to appoint an ombudsman, the first one in American journalism. (Sadly, there are still only about three dozen in the United States and Canada.)

The vast majority of stories, headlines and photographs in the morning and evening Sun are accurate, fair and appropriate. The Baltimore Sun's new readers' representative will make sure that those that fail to measure up will get attention.

The short-term result will be a better paper. I am convinced that the long-term result will be a stronger bond of trust between the newspapers and our readers.

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