Cyberspace’s first ombudsman

Former LA Times newsman takes on role as reader representative at MSNBC

This column appeared July 1, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

Online news has its first ombudsman. But to hear him tell it, the view from cyberspace doesn’t differ from terra firma as much as he’d expected.

“The thing that has surprised me most is that the kinds of concerns readers have on the Web track pretty closely with their concerns in traditional media,” says Dan Fisher, who began his job as ombudsman for MSNBC in mid-April.

The idea for an ombudsman originated with MSNBC editor-in-chief Merrill Brown, who wanted to send the message that MSNBC is a news organization concerned about serious journalism, Fisher says.

They couldn’t have made a more stellar choice than Fisher, who worked 27 years at the Los Angeles Times as a reporter, editor and bureau chief in Moscow, London, Warsaw and Jerusalem. He left the Times to become managing editor of Microsoft Sidewalk and then served five years as editor-in-chief of the MSN MoneyCentral Web site before retiring and joining the ranks of the self-employed.

So the man knows something about the Web, and journalism, and credibility.The arrangement he struck with Brown goes like this: Fisher is on contract with MSNBC, but he’s an independent free agent and free to cross swords with the company’s powers that be. He writes a column that appears on the site every week or so, and no one can change its content without his assent.

His dual roles are to serve as a reader’s representative and as an internal critic interacting with the site’s staff, all with an eye toward improving the news operation’s journalism. He works out of his home, a 20-minute commute to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., where he pops in a couple of times a week to talk with staffers, use the office facilities and check the mountains of e-mail the site receives from its 9 million monthly visitors.

Fisher’s first column appeared May 2 and tackled the subject of whether MSNBC was biased in its selection of opinion columnists commenting on President Bush’s first 100 days in office. (His conclusion? The site should have held off publishing a critical piece until a companion column from a conservative point of view was available.)

Overwhelmingly, political bias is the No. 1 concern that users have expressed in the roughly 600-700 e-mails Fisher has received to date. In a June 13 column, Distinguishing opinion from news, he took the site to task for not being more painstaking in separating news and opinion links on its home page.

“My colleagues tell me that perceived bias, real or imagined, in the political arena is by far the top complaint of readers,” says Fisher, who has joined the 50-member Organization of News Ombudsmen, which consists of reader representatives in print, broadcast — and now one online outfit.

“The second tier of complaints has to do with typographical, grammatical and factual errors,” he says. “Other comments range all over the map, from complaints about popup ads to responses to topics in the news, like protecting the privacy of the Bush girls.”

Differences in cyberspace

The top concerns expressed by online users — about balanced reporting, accuracy and fairness — frankly surprised Fisher. “One reason I was intrigued by the job offer was that online media should raise some different kinds of questions than what one would see in traditional media,” he says. “And there’s some element of that. I’m working on a piece now that has to do with live votes on the site, something that wouldn’t come up in print. But I’ve been surprised that the issues so far haven’t been all that different.”

Speed is one issue that Fisher thinks will crop up on his watch. “The stories in MSNBC may change 10-15 times in the course of a day, and some of the early versions are pretty sketchy. You and I may be used to that kind of updating that you see from the wire services or from radio news, but I’m not sure how readers will react if they see those incomplete reports and they only check in once a week.”

Fisher says he’s impressed with the breadth of interactive elements on MSNBC, including the options offered users to see video or hear audio clips attached to stories. “I don’t see many comments about those, which surprises me,” he says. “I suspect most people make use of multimedia at work, where they have fast connections.”

Fisher has conducted live chats with MSNBC users on two occasions: The first drew about 60 participants and last week’s second chat considerably more.

As for other forms of interactivity — say, users who expect to interact directly with reporters or editors — Fisher says readers haven’t raised the subject very often. “We do get occasional complaints that bylines on our partners’ stories aren’t linked, but we’re not in a position to provide hot links to reporters in other newsrooms,” he says.

About those content partners: Some readers may be surprised to learn that under the contract arrangement MSNBC signs with partners like Newsweek, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, MSNBC is not permitted to change even a comma in the original story — not even the headline that appears on the story page. “That’s pretty standard in these kinds of arrangements,” he says.

Indeed, MSNBC’s persona as a news portal is largely shaped by its content partners, some of whom actually produce the pages on MSNBC’s site. “When you have several different content partners, it raises the question of what happens when they don’t all have the same kinds of rules and regulations regarding how to go about things,” says Fisher, who will tackle the subject in an upcoming column.

The site’s corporate partnerships raises the potential for conflicts of interest, though Fisher rightly notes that the issue is no different than MSNBC reporting on Microsoft or NBC. “Merrill Brown has been very clear and specific in stating that the site will show no favoritism at all. If they make news, we’ll report it,” he says. “I do hear from some readers who don’t much care for our choice of partners. They think that the Washington Post or Newsweek are at the forefront of a liberal media elite and the fact that MSNBC is in cahoots with these folks is evidence that we’re not credible.

“On the other end, we’re now hearing more from people saying, ‘You’re not doing reporting on this lunatic we have in the White House, and you’re in pockets of the corporations.’ So as far as I can tell it’s a no-win proposition,” he says chuckling, then adding: “It reminds us we have to be very careful that our reporting is even-handed and our opinion pages balanced.”

Tinkering with content

In addition to interacting with readers, Fisher raises issues on a case-by-case basis with the site’s staff — MSNBC has about 65 editors and reporters out of a total of 200 in the company. “If the issue is of sufficient gravity, I’ll probably do a column about it,” he says. “If not, then I’ll leave it to an e-mail or a conversation.”

Fisher says he intervened to get the site to change the wording on a live vote (one of those unscientific reader surveys) about the first family that raised the appearance of bias. And he suggested an edit, which was made, on a business story on Web outages that mentioned a competitor of Microsoft but didn’t say the problem was common and had occurred at Microsoft sites as well.

“A lot of what I come across are small, inadvertent slips due to the speed involved in getting things onto the site,” he says.

Fisher pulls back the curtain so the public can get a glimpse of the inner workings of a news operation, though he cautions that if he writes too many explanatory columns, “you wind up looking like a mouthpiece for the organization.” Still, it’s an enormously valuable service. For example, in his second column we learn:

“At one time, for example, MSNBC.com also had a separate copy desk, experienced in catching just the kind of ‘minor’ errors that so annoy readers. However, requiring that all articles be funneled through this one group turned into a bottleneck, recalls senior news producer Reed Price. The copy desk was disbanded and editors for each section of the site were made responsible for devising their own systems of back-reading articles. Now, while MSNBC.com strives to have at least two different sets of editorial eyes on every news story before publication, even that doesn’t always happen.”

Harbinger of things to come?

Despite his trailblazer status, Fisher makes no grand pronouncements about the significance of his appointment for the online news industry.

“MSNBC is only 5 years old, so for us, it was partly an effort to establish a reputation as a serious news organization,” he says. “The appointment of an ombudsman is an indication that we’re trying to do serious journalism, and a recognition that this is a new medium and it will be interesting to see where the issues take us.”

Fisher has few predictions about whether other online sites will follow MSNBC’s lead. “Will Yahoo, or perhaps ABC, appoint an ombudsman? I don’t know. It’s still a controversial position in traditional media. Time will tell if it proves itself.”

As for online journalism, Fisher reminds us that the public’s perception may differ from the journalist’s. “In the public’s mind, when you say online news, they include a lot of things that you and I probably would not. The Internet is the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park, which is fascinating and entertaining but not always about credible journalism.”

Fisher is optimistic about where the medium is taking us. “I hope news organizations increase their commitment to the online medium. I’d love to see more original journalism on the Web, and I think we will, but it may wind up being less word and more sound and video. Convergence seems to be our destiny, and that will yield a very original kind of experience for the consumer of online news.”

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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