I like Mike Tharp. But he may be a bit loony. He asked me to do something that is going out of style, big-time. He asked me to become the ombudsman for the Sun-Star.
What the heck is that? Of Nordic origin, the word ombudsman referred to someone appointed to provide a check on government activity in the interests of the citizen. It has since been modified to include businesses, universities, nonprofits and, yes, newspapers.
Newspaper ombudsmen are often called "public editors" or "readers' advocate" or "readers' representative." There is even an official group for newspaper ombudsmen, "The Organization of News Ombudsmen" or ONO pronounced "Oh, No!"
So why is Tharp loony? He's like a salmon swimming upstream. Newspaper ombudsmen are dropping like flies. In the last few months, at least 10 major newspapers have dropped the role. Last August, the flagship of the McClatchy chain, The Sacramento Bee, discontinued theirs. The Sun-Star is owned by the same folks.
At last count there are about three dozen ombudsmen for about 1,500 daily newspapers.
Furthermore, Advertising Age, in its Mediaworks section on Jan 19, 2009, published an article, "Is the Newspaper Ombudsman more or less obsolete?" That article lists five solid reasons why the position should die away. One of those cites a blog by Jim Romenesko, the most popular journalism Web site in the country. Tharp's columns have twice appeared on that site.
And that's not all. Ombudsmen are usually experienced senior journalists. I don't know beans about running a newspaper.
Ombudsmen usually have advanced degrees in journalism. My degrees are a bachelor's degree in computer science and an associate's degree in photography.
So just why did Mike Tharp ask me to do this? I really don't know. I've only known him a few months, but as I said I do like him. We have some things in common.
Perhaps it's because I wrote him a private e-mail when he tried to tell his readers that the American media were unbiased. I told him that was pure BS and gave him some research to go along with my claim. Funny, he never did really agree, but did pass my comments along to his editors. I compromised and agreed that perhaps he and the Sun-Star are not nearly as biased as other media.
I don't have a job description -- just Mike's promise that the copy editors will not change any content I write. They will edit spelling, punctuation and grammar only. That will probably keep them pretty busy at that.
I'll be talking with readers, blogging with online readers, talking with reporters, photographers and staff and poking around here and there. Most likely, there will be polls and surveys. Readers will definitely be involved. Satisfied readers as well as unhappy ones.
At times, I may irritate some of the Sun-Star staff. I will probably even tick off Tharp now and then. If I don't, I'm probably not doing my job.
The goal as Mike explained it, is to "keep us straight" and "make us better." Seems like a good goal to me.
Will I always side with complainers and against the Sun-Star? Heck, no. There have been plenty of times I thought the Sun-Star got it right. But certainly not always.
By the way, after I wrote the first part of this column, I did confirm that Tharp is loony. A year or so ago, the Sun-Star was preparing for an article on Taser guns. Mike volunteered to get zapped with 50,000 volts. Now that's loony.
Tom Frazier was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force from 1960 to late 1981. He's a member of the Merced Camera Club and has been active in that club and the San Joaquin Camera Club Councils for many years. Now fully retired, he's active in volunteer work for the Kiwanis Club of Castle-Atwater, the Merced Theatre, Playhouse Merced and Leadership Merced. Sun Dog can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org