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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

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Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

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Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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December 11, 2003

Tough Guy Journalism More in Vogue in LA

Tim Rutten of the LA Times has big problems with the new ombudsman at the New York Times. Rutten's objections put public editor Daniel Okrent on the couch. "Narcissism" is the charge.

Tim Rutten, media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, did not wait long to announce that the experiment with a public editor at the New York Times was off track. Reacting to Daniel Okrent’s debut in the Times of 43rd Street, Rutten saw serious problems.

First problem: the Times “surrendered to fashion” when it created the public editor’s position. (Or: you should have more backbone, New York, like we in LA showed with the groping story during recall days. It wasn’t the popular thing to do. We did it anyway. And took the heat.) Okrent himself surrendered, according to Rutten, when he chose to include in his inaugural column—called “An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself”— information that introduced himself. Here’s the offending passage, in the critic’s eyes:

Draw a line from The Times’s editorials on the left side to William Safire’s column over on the right: you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action.

Rutten psychologizes Okrent’s reasons for revealing this stuff. He puts him on the critic’s couch. His Okrent is not stating in a confident and forthright manner, “Sure, I have my own politcs. And so do you.” Nothing like that. He’s confessing, in a more or less guilty way, to his own bias. “Confession of this sort may be good for the soul, as in the confessional, or for the psyche, as on the therapist’s couch,” Rutten wrote.

But it’s bad policy to release personal facts that really ought to be irrelevant. It gives ground to the crazies who populate talk show America. These people scream nonstop about political bias because it keeps them in an insulated world, griping about a press corps that will never conform to their ideology. Hunting bias is “appealing not only because it involves opinion rather than hard-won facts, but also because it suits our currently polarized politics and the culture of narcissism that dictates so much of our social thinking.”

Note that psychoanalytic term, narcissism. It’s doing two things. It’s a dig at Okrent for writing a self-involved column. And it dimisses a popular form of press criticism, bias talk, not as incorrect, but as infantile: I want news of the world to reflect me back to me; and I am going to scream, (and compile skewed statistics) until I get what I want. This is what Tim Rutten, the adult in the room, hears.

By telling us who he is, politically, Okrent agreed with the wingnuts that “who he is, politically” matters to his work as an editor. Rutten says: hold it there. Where-I-am-coming-from information should not matter if you are a journalist doing the job. And if you say it matters (or can’t hurt), then you have bought into what the bias crowd is selling. You may have lost your nerve. Either that or you are naive about how the information will be loaded into critics’ guns and fired at you.

The New York Times held one position about the ombudsman (or reader advocate) from 1967 until the summer of 2003. “Not needed, good editors already represent readers.” This year it changed its mind after Jason Blair happened and the Times took stock. (See PressThink on the Siegal Report.) Rutten liked the old policy:

Fairness, accuracy and consideration of the readers’ interests were the responsibility of every reporter and editor on the paper. To locate those obligations on a single set of shoulders in some way lifts them from everyone else’s. It was a sound argument then and it still is.

But as Tim Porter points out, “Responsibility to readers—and to the larger public trust—is not a zero-sum game.” Having one editor who thinks full time about that responsibility does not mean others will abandon it. Why should something crazy like that happen? The LA Times has copy editors. Does that lift from the shoulders of everyone else the responsibility for correct grammar, correct style, correct spelling, correct names and dates? No. Professional pride does not permit that kind of complacency, (just let the copy desk catch it) and it would not allow it in the case of the public editor.

In a professional newsroom, accuracy, fairness, serving readers, earning the public’s trust are everyone’s responsibility. At the Times of New York, they were basic standards the day before Okrent started his job, and they will no doubt remain basic—constitutional for Times journalists—for the 18 months he will be on the job. Tim Porter adds:

Acceptance of that responsibility—and the obligation of higher editorial standards and day-to-day newsroom work that accompanies it—is the first step toward lifting the shroud of mediocrity that hangs over too many newspapers, but editors and reporters and copy editors and other journalists aren’t always fair or accurate or considerate of readers, and then readers become confused or angry or frustrated with the newspaper. That’s when they need someone like Okrent to step up for them.

I found it curious that Rutten, who after all believes in accuracy, tried to concoct a professional vogue for reader advocates, a trend. “Ombudsmen are the flavor of the month in American journalism,” he says. But what month would that be? There are about 45 U.S. newspapers that employ an ombudsman, under a variety of titles. Their professional organization (ONO) has a whopping 85 members worldwide. There are about 1,500 daily newspapers in the United States. So the “wave” that is said to have swept over Bill Keller’s Times has so far taken in three percent of the newspaper press, from small towns to big cities. That’s in the 36 years since the first ombudsman (Louisville Courier Journal, 1967.) Why is Rutten warning about an oncoming fad when 97 percent of American newspapers have so far resisted that fad?

Because it’s the New York Times, silly. Instead of recognizing the singularity of Okrent’s position—first public editor at the most powerful newspaper in the most powerful country in the world—Rutten relied on “fad” and “narcissism,” which in the press fraternity are just forms of insult. Which explains why he’s willing to have a conversation of columns that goes like this:

Okrent: Hi, I am the new public editor. Let me introduce myself.
Rutten: Introduce your self? What a narcissist!

Whereas others might see it as simple politeness. Still others may find it refreshing that a journalist embarking on an experiment in openness says, “yes, I have a political mind and some definite leanings… here they are.” A good many Americans (and some who comment at PressThink) are ready for the disclosure ethic in political journalism— waiting for it. But not so they can pounce on bias, which they do not see as some punishable sin.

Rather, these new wave citizen-critics are accepting of human plurality, conscious of human perspective, confident that, if they know where you’re coming from, they can filter what you tell them accordingly. They think a good news organization is an intelligent filter on the world. They don’t believe in the view from nowhere. And they tend to react badly to news providers who say: no filter here, just news, facts, truth… the world. If newspapers were truly interested in young people, they would realize that a higher proportion of young people see things this way, especially those who cruise for news on the Net.

To this much larger “party” out there, which does not correspond to any known side in the culture wars or bias fights, journalists become realer and more believable, not when they claim to have the view from nowhere, not when they let biases show in their work, (who wants that?) but when they describe themselves in ways recognizably human. Which is all Okrent was doing in column one. The theory is not elaborate: disclosure improves credibility.

It is quite unwise of Rutten to sneer at this, since he and his colleagues are constantly relying on the logic of disclosure in pushing for the story to come out. Okrent wasn’t confessing to bias in describing himself a social liberal, a free-trader, and a centrist Democrat in foreign policy. Nor was he falling in love with his reflection in the New York Times. He was treating readers like adults.

Editor John Carroll’s column to readers after the groping stories, Dean Baquet’s speech in New Orleans on the same subject, and now Rutten’s column share in putting forward a tough guy tone in big city journalism. I suppose it’s in reaction to what is seen as too much coddling of readers, and the threat of cave-in to politically motivated critics. To me that is a bad read on the politics of being the press these days. But I do not pretend to understand the internal politics at the Los Angeles Times.

Rutten had one great idea. He quoted Matt Welch:

Welch found Okrent’s debut “disarmingly open and honest” and a “strategically brilliant way of disarming the bias issue.” The problem, said Welch “is that I don’t regard the Times as a fundamentally biased newspaper. The proof of its willingness to make needed change is not to have a smart, funny guy write an occasional column, but to have editors and reporters who admit their mistakes and who go out and ask people what they think of the paper’s work. That’s hard, but important.”

I agree with that.

Check the comments section where the discussion continues with Matt Welch, Tom Mangan, Len Witt, Jamie Gold, Stirling Newberry, Jay Rosen and others.

Tim Dunlop, an Australian writing from DC: “transparency of interest is more important than independence and objectivity.”

See also these PressThink posts:

Flagship Turns: A Public Editor for the Times of New York (Sep. 10)
The Siegal Report: A Trumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times. (Oct. 28)
A Public Editor for an Internet Public. (Nov. 25)

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, Part One. (Oct. 24)
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, Part Two. (Oct. 25)

LA Times Editor is Defiant: Don’t Like Our Investigations? Go Elsewhere.
(Oct. 13)
Exit, Voice and Loyalty and the Los Angeles Times. (Nov. 14)

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 11, 2003 11:40 PM   Print


Jay -- Thanks for the nice words. In Rutten's quasi-defense, I would say that the "fad" of ombudsmen is not at the actual hiring-an-ombudsman level, but at the Media-crit Establishment level; i.e., if you polled the 100 most influential journalism professors, media critics and ombudstypes, I would wager that around 95 would tell you that the ombudsman concept is a good one. Rutten doesn't think so, I don't think so ... and I can't off the top of my head think of a single other person who doesn't (I'm not considering myself a top-100 here).

And I don't think Rutten's outsourcing-responsibility argument can be so easily dismissed. No, editorial responsiveness is not a zero-sum game, but I found it striking that when media-crit people were talking about What the NYT Needs To Do, many proposals began and ended with appointing an ombudsman. Ombudsmen cannot change the culture of newspapers; as often as not they *reflect* the culture of newspapers. If real reform is to happen at the Times, I doubt seriously that Okrent, much as I like the guy, will have anything significant to do with it.

Posted by: Matt Welch at December 12, 2003 4:46 AM | Permalink

Tim Rutten doesn't like the choice of ombudsman at the NY Times. It's not clear whether Rutten is more upset with the choice of Daniel Okrent, or with the choice of anyone. Conveniently, Rutten works for the LA Times, which has no such creature. No Okrent needed here. He observes readers can vote with their wallets ("We did it anyway. Took the heat.") Indeed, a palpable number of wallets did just that, not too far backalong.

In his column, Rutten dismisses Okrent's revelation of some political and moral positions as irrelevant, then goes on:

"Why does any of this matter?

"It doesn't, unless you believe that, unlike everybody else in America, Okrent holds some views more strongly than others and that, novelty of novelties, some of his affections are internally contradictory."

Huh? This guy's an Editor? I'm not sure I'm smart enough to follow that last sentence. Is he trying to assert that people are internally consistent? Or am I confused? Sorry, if that's it, he's full of (word of choice.)

You interpret Rutten: "...hold it there. Where-I-am-coming-from information should not matter if you are a journalist doing the job." True. And if every newspaper staff felt this way, none of them would have an ombudsman. And if they were right, none would need one. And it wouldn't help readers to vote with their wallets because every newspaper would (correctly) say the same thing. But newspapers don't all say the same thing. Maybe some of them can use an Okrent. Which ones?

"Why is Rutten warning about an oncoming fad ...? Because it's the New York Times, silly." If "the most powerful newspaper" decides to try a "public editor," where does that leave LAT? Do I smell paranoia?

What Okrent will actually do is another thing. Plausibly, NYT has more on-line subscribers than ink-on-paper readers. It's a national, a world newspaper. Locally, San Diego Union-Tribune does have an ombudsman. She spends approximately 100% of her time smoothing feathers ruffled by local coverage. Somehow I don't think that's the intent here.

Posted by: Glenn (not Reynolds) at December 12, 2003 6:03 AM | Permalink

Hi Jay:
Here is an edited version of something I wrote after Daniel Okrent's first column.

The Public Editor Concept at The New York Times Is Obsolete.

Installing Dan Okrent as its New York Times Pubic Editor is great; it’s a partial victory for public journalism, garnered from one of the movement’s greatest institutional critics.

However, there is just one problem. The concept of a reader advocate writing a bi-weekly column is obsolete. It would have been a great idea a year or two ago, but today in the age of weblogs it is simply an out-of-date concept.

Here is why: The New York Times has more than a million circulation weekdays and more than 1.5 million on Sundays. For perspective, Nashville, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City are all in that population range.

One man being the advocacy portal into The New York Times for more than a million readers is ludicrous. Even in his first column Okrent was trying to establish himself as a middle of the road guy, saying, “I'd rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore.”

I suppose that is admirable, but certainly some New York Times readers actually enjoy reading O'Reilly or Moore. If you are one of them, when you contact Okrent is he going to be listening and digesting what you say or will he be in the rat extermination mode. Besides, if he is advocating for well over a million readers, just how much time will he be able to give to any one person.

Maybe for once the New York Times leadership should listen to Jay Rosen with whom they have had philosophical arguments throughout the 1990s. With the public editor, the Times has finally begun to catch up with what Rosen was saying 10 years ago. Problem is Rosen is now saying stuff for the 21st Century, not the 20th Century.

He says Okrent should have a weblog.

Trouble is Okrent, and the way his job is framed, sounds analog in a digital world. What the Times needs is a Romenesko. Just as Romenesko has a weblog that is all about the media, The New York Times should have a similar weblog all about The New York Times. Any article about The New York Times gets posted, memos get posted, Times oriented interviews get posted, smart blog links get posted, and especially lively, thoughtful letters get posted almost instantly as they do at Romenesko. Plus the staff of the Times is encouraged to participate. Unfettered. Get it all out in the open.

Suddenly rather than a passive audience, The New York Times has a audience which is a living part of the newspaper.

Maybe in the best of worlds the Times has an Okrent, who is doing the writing, and a Romenesko, who is doing the aggregating. Suddenly rather that one voice trying to come from the middle every two weeks, we have dozens, hundreds, or more coming from everywhere every day. Of course, that's where you need a Romenesko to help sort things out and make it easy for the site visitors to grasp.

The New York Times must come to understand that its collective audience knows more than any one person, no matter how smart he or she might be. Now the question is whether the leadership at the New York Times will wait 10 more years to acknowledge that reality.

Posted by: Leonard Witt at December 12, 2003 10:19 AM | Permalink

I got the sense that the largest challenge facing Rutten was that he had this space to fill in his column and didn't want to sound like the echo chorus of the blogosphere and academe, so he took a contrarian stance for contrariness's sake. Nothing in the column felt especially persuasive beyond "well, he's got a point."

Posted by: tom mangan at December 12, 2003 10:22 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Rosen:

No commas before parentheses.

Posted by: William Whitworth at December 12, 2003 12:55 PM | Permalink

Since I enjoy the rare opportunity to stick up for the L.A. Times, let me say that I think Tom's guess is wrong -- Rutten told me several months ago that he believed the ombudsman concept is a bad idea & that he would eventually write something about it, so this isn't just contrarianism for c'ism's sake.

And the L.A. Times *does* have a reader's representative (at least did so as of two months ago, last I checked); she just doesn't have a regular column.

Posted by: Matt Welch at December 12, 2003 12:59 PM | Permalink

Yes, the L.A. Times has a readers' rep. As a note that's printed every day on Page A2 says, "If you believe that we have made an error, or you have questions about The Times' journalistic standards and practices, you may contact Jamie Gold, readers' representative." The note includes my e-mail address, street address and phone number. We average 400 comments a week from readers.

Posted by: Jamie Gold at December 12, 2003 3:06 PM | Permalink

Jamie, I'm curious - if a readers' rep doesn't have a regular column - and someone contacts you with questions about an unfair LATimes article, that you _agree_ was unfair - what happens? do you write a special column, or is it handled in some other way?

Posted by: Anna at December 12, 2003 3:48 PM | Permalink

My office (there's also an assistant readers' rep) takes such comments directly to editors and reporters. If it's a factual inaccuracy or if it's something in an article that might mislead readers, an item runs on Page A2 in the 'for the record' space. Occasionally an editor's note runs, if the nature of the error requires more. I also distribute to the staff a weekly report on what readers have said so others here are aware of what readers find unfair or biased.

Posted by: Jamie Gold at December 12, 2003 4:23 PM | Permalink

Jamie: Thanks for checking out PressThink. What was your response to Rutten's column?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 12, 2003 4:45 PM | Permalink

The concept of a public editor is really an attempt to centralize an inherently decentralized activity, ie. being the public. What the NYT should do is pretty simple - add comments at the bottom of every article with a karma system to allow for community moderation (they have boards but most people don't like message boards). I would also suggest that the NYT host blogs and post blog posts that link to the article in question next to that article. You could devise systems to avoid troll posts.

The New York Times leadership, as most management does, overestimates its own value. The value of the New York Times is the brand, the quality of the management, and the influence of the readership. I read the Times because everybody reads the Times.

By pretending that there's no community value to the paper, that it's primarily a broadcasted source of community information, the Times editors are woefully underestimating the potential of the institution they control.

Posted by: MattS at December 12, 2003 6:57 PM | Permalink

I am "just" a reader of the Times. I am not in the "top 100" anything and I had never even heard the term media-crit until I reader this column.

As a reader I can tell you that the quote that ends Rutten's column is laughable - that "we" were all one big happy family and now (wipe tear away here) that has been lost forever. Puhleez.

In my experience as a "lowly" reader, I found The Times to be rude, arrogant and hostile when confront with the concerns of its readers. Contrast that with my experience with Okrent (and Allan Siegal) last week and you can understand why I, for one, am very happy that Okrent is at his post if for no other reason that there is at least one person at The Times willing to listen to the readers.

Power to the people!

Posted by: Robert Cox at December 12, 2003 11:31 PM | Permalink


Posted by: Robert Cox at December 12, 2003 11:32 PM | Permalink

Fitting a lot into very few words - covering press room governance, media bias and the idea of professionalism and closing with a simple ethic that can help fix this.

Colour me impressed.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry at December 13, 2003 11:36 AM | Permalink

Matt Welch says that by "surrendered to fashion" Tim Rutten meant an intellectual fad, fashion in elite opinion about what's needed today in journalism. Rutten disagrees with the fashionable view that ombudsmen are needed. So does Matt.

Fair enough. But Matt: disputing "fashionable" opinion without actually arguing with it, or adequately paraphrasing it, is just lame. Meaning, newspaper column writing at a low standard. The journalist turned critic likes this device-- "well, the fashionable view is..." (followed by sneer using pet turn of phrase) because it can make you seem stubbornly independent-minded at zero cost. It's debate by dismissal. Cheap.

Why engage what is only fashionable? By definition it will be gone soon. Thus, the appeal of that device to Rutten, who wanted to write an "against the grain" column without doing any real work in the grain... intellectually speaking. He wanted to and he did.

The other sorry effect of trying to win an argument by calling the other view fashionable is that you overlook the real reasons people have for holding the very opinion you detest. In this case, first stop for intelligent argument about the public editor at the NYT is the Siegal Report itself. All the evidence for why a public editor make sense is in there, the original recommendation too.

Ritten wanted to disagree with the Siegal Report's recommendation (to create Okrent's job) without spending any time with the reasons, which cover more than 80 pages. As I said, he's cheap. Let's take his biggest and best argument against the ombudsman: editors already do that job! The Siegal Report shows--nay, it proves--that all those reader-minded editors at W43rd did not protect the reader, not only with Blair, but in allowing indefensible practices to creep up, like the toe touch I wrote about here:

The point is there's evidence--and difficult history--behind the argument for Okrent's position... a lot. Doesn't mean it's "right." Could be a lot of complacent thinking attached to it too, or weak reasoning. You should write about it, Matt.

But you might agree with me: You cannot say anything meaningful about an intellectual fashion by calling it "fashionable." Rutten wanted to disagree, and do no work. That's why he borrows in 2003 Abe Rosenthal's ideas from 1973. Cheap.

My take on the Siegal report:

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 13, 2003 5:26 PM | Permalink

Glenn: I have read that sentence from Rutten ten times: ("Why does any of this matter?)

"It doesn't, unless you believe that, unlike everybody else in America, Okrent holds some views more strongly than others and that, novelty of novelties, some of his affections are internally contradictory."

Like you, I am unable to find a way it makes sense. If anyone *can* make it scan, let us know.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at December 13, 2003 6:27 PM | Permalink

Any paper that employs Krugman and Dowd has an immediate credibility problem. These two tell more outright lies than Blair ever did. Ombudsman for who? The America hating leftists? All this is absolutely meaningless. Let Lucianne Goldberg be the ombudsman. That would be meaningful.

Sam Propes
Deer Park, Texas

Posted by: Sam Propes at December 14, 2003 12:20 PM | Permalink

Hey, I said "quasi-defense," not "defense" ...

My criticisms of the O-concept ( go beyond fashion, but I think fashion is fair game for the arguing (as I blather on about here: I'll take you up on your suggestion when I get back from Europe.

Posted by: Matt Welch at December 14, 2003 2:39 PM | Permalink

Re your question of my response to the column. Didn't have time to read it. Too busy shouldering responsibility for hundreds and hundreds of reporters and editors.

Kidding. I'll just say that my being here hasn't taken pressure off anyone else -- though it has added some, I know.

Posted by: Jamie Gold at December 15, 2003 12:27 PM | Permalink

"Why does any of this matter?..." My day job involves logic design. Arguably there's too many negations there for humans to process easily. I can give two explanations, neither helpful.
Rational: Rutten had something to say that was so intricate he confused himself. This is no fun and leads nowhere.
Irrational: (always more interesting) Rutten had something to say but it looked unpalatable without a few layers of obfuscation. I tried to optimize out some complexity and ended up with Rutten accusing Okrent of uniqueness not only in being biased, but internally inconsistent in his bias, and furthermore having the chutzpah to admit it. This is fun, but not a good argument.
Any better ideas out there?

Posted by: Glenn (not Reynolds) at December 17, 2003 2:30 PM | Permalink

From the Intro