Ombuzzard Pickings

OMBUDSMAN

February 13, 1994|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

It's two years now that I've been reader representative for news, or ombudsman -- or ombuzzard, as my Richmond counterpart, Jerry Finch, calls himself. Here's a review of what morsels this ombuzzard picks at and what he leaves alone at The Sun and The Evening Sun.

You learn things in this business when you talk with 7,740 people the first year and almost 7,000 the second year, hear about 1,400 messages a year and answer 1,100 to 1,200 letters a year. Most comments are negative. You ask the Lord for patience, ''and I want it now.''

Some readers hate snake pictures, others talk in malapropisms (during the earthquake, they mentioned ''the epic center,'' ''The San Bonanza Valley and ''Ricket's Scale''), and one said: ''The paper makes me itch, I mean all over.''

I've learned that if our readers didn't call with their often justified complaints, we would be in trouble. These readers care; they hope just as much as we do that The Sun (especially The Evening Sun) will become a better newspaper. They feel, for example, at times it's too slow on stories, too incomplete, too ready to draw blood and too sloppy with geography, the language, indexed stories, photo captions -- and I agree.

Here's some of what I do:

* Speak for myself, not for the paper, and freely, for which I am grateful. (How many Baltimore companies have ombudsmen?) As the readers' representative, I talk with almost 30 readers a day (some days 45), consider what they say and share constructive criticism with the staff and executives in a daily internal report. I also write a bi-weekly column here of criticisms, explanations and features.

* Explain many parts of the news process, such as the difference between news obituaries and paid death-notice ads, why there are no proofreaders any more (copy editors do that; proofreaders were dropped with Linotype machines), why the weekly legislative calendar isn't printed Sundays this year (editors offer it by fax, but feel printing it takes up too much space; I think it should be printed because many people don't have faxes).

* Help correct errors of fact or point out lapses in news judgment.

* Hear story tips and give good ones to reporters and editors, one of the best parts of the job.

* Criticize and defend the papers when I think either is justified. A colleague fears I've fallen victim to the Stockholm Syndrome, siding with ''the reader enemies'' (as hostages became sympathetic with the crooks in a Stockholm bank robbery). Like the paper, readers can be wrong. Of course, so can I.

* Explain some Sun services, such as selling papers up to a month old in our lobby Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to to 4:45 p.m. (Go to the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Central Branch for the current month and two previous months in paper form and before that on microfilm). Some other services are on temporary hold, such as selling prints of published photos and school tours of The Sun.

What I don't do on this job:

* Solve problems about the delivery of papers, billing, advertising, printing. That's like calling the eye doctor if you break your leg. I handle news (that includes comics, which we consider news, but then, life's a little strange). So I refer these non-news calls and letters to other departments. The customer-service number for delivery and billing is 539-1280.

* Speak for the editorial, opinion or letters pages. I can answer basic questions about the editorial process and pass along relevant comments, such as factual errors, but editorial writers are genetically better equipped to argue.

* Order changes to the paper's news policies or corrections. I comment on the paper daily, discuss matters with editors and reporters and may or may not affect policies, but I can't order policies changed. I recommend some corrections. Some get in, others enter the Baltimore atmosphere.

* Be a clipping service for readers who forgot to save that favorite story. When I have time, I do help such readers. My suggestion is to clip it when you read it.

* Answer every caller. There are often too many. The job requires checking and research, not just listening. Editors and reporters can also take calls and some do, although some prefer not to talk with readers unless there is a good story on the other end.

* Put up for long with sarcasm or people who can vent but can't listen or people who report their peeves without relating them to the newspaper. Only a few admit they call ''just to let off steam.''

I generally prefer people's facts to their opinions, unless their opinions, whatever they are, come built with facts. Finally, I can't figure out why the paper causes itching, unless it's that occasional snake picture.

D8 Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.

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