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John X. Miller
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Front page can embrace sports
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John X. Miller
John X. Miller
Detroit Free Press
What does your job as public editor entail?
The overall responsibility is to connect the newsroom with readers, and make sure readers voices are consistently heard and incorporated into newsroom discussions and decisions.
That happens in several ways:
- Handle reader calls and complaints, then spend time communicating those concerns to the staff through "nooners" -- brown-bag lunch meetings, intra-office e-mail, logging of calls in our in-house computer system, and bulletins that spot trends in mistakes.
- Administer the correction process. I identify the errors that need correcting, identify who is responsible for individual corrections, make sure correction forms are filled out and filed, total the information monthly in a report that is distributed to the staff, and keep a tally of who is responsible for evaluation purposes.
- Conduct reader groups of adults and teens.
- Write a bi-weekly column that takes readers into the newsroom to explain how decisions are made, stories are reported, and what readers are saying about particular topics, such as comics.
- Work with other editors with training staff on issues that affect credibility, like diversity, content audit, and other staff development topics.
- Work with other newsroom departments and the Web operation to develop ways to talk with readers in ways that inform the coverage, the usefulness and directions of our editorial mission.
- Work with non-newsroom departments to raise visibility within the community of the newspaper.
How did you train for this position?
I was an executive editor for a 20,000-circulation newspaper for five years and a managing editor for 50,000-circulation newspaper for three years, so I've been talking with readers about problems and problem-solving for readers for a long time. Plus, in both those positions I was on the executive staffs of both those newspapers, so I had exposure to the business-side operations, so I understand how the total newspaper works.
When was the ombudsman's job created at your newspaper and why?
The ombudsman was the first position, but it has evolved since then. I'm not quite sure when it started but others have been in that job or that of reader representative. The public editor's job was created after discussions between Free Press executive editor Bob McGruder and myself in 1999. Joe Distelheim was the first ombudsman around 1985, followed by four others before me. Former Executive Editor Dave Lawrence created it.
How many calls, e-mails and faxes do you get during a week?
I get about 90 calls and about 15-20 e-mails.
What do you find is the most common complaint or concern of readers who contact you?
Errors in fact, like wrong names, numbers, misidentifications and misspellings.
How do you handle it when some newsroom colleagues disagree with what you've written?
If it's about an error in fact, that can be verified, then we publish the correction. If it's borderline, then I double check to make sure it's in the readers' interest to publish. If it is criticism of the newspaper, then I write it in a column, but with the opportunity from someone from the newspaper to comment. Now, there will be some disagreement on some things, but I ultimately come down on trying to edify the public, not vilify the newsroom.
Most newspapers don't have ombudsmen or reader representatives, but the in recent years there seems to be an upward trend. Why do you think this is happening?
It's happening because readers need a voice in what goes in newspapers. They don't generally. Listen in on any news meeting. That voice needs to be constant because it changes, and that change can be dramatic or subtle, but without listening to readers, newsroom will never know. Plus, media/newspaper credibility is so low with readers that media need to be proactive in closing that gap. If we don't work to close it and explain ourselves, who will do it? The marketplace? Academicians? We, the journalists, must be the stewards of the business.
How can newspapers better serve their readers?
By listening better, responding with stories that are important, relevant and inclusive, and by telling stories that investigate, edify, inform. Journalism is about all three. But we don't do all three equally well.
What advice you have for aspiring journalists?
Keeping learning about the craft of journalism, the media business, persevere when times get tough, give back to the business that has spawned you and strive for excellence in all those things.