New York Times Names its First Ombudsman
Magazine editor Okrent appointed in wake of scandal
October 28, 2003
By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe
Implementing a major reform recommended after the paper was tainted by the Jayson Blair scandal, The New York Times announced yesterday that Daniel Okrent, the respected longtime magazine journalist, will become the paper's first public editor, or ombudsman.
In that role -- which he will fill for 18 months starting Dec. 1 -- Okrent will respond to readers' questions and complaints and, most notably, write periodic commentaries about journalistic issues and the Times's journalism. A Times statement said he will work ''outside of the reporting and editing structure'' of the paper.
In the statement, the Times executive editor, Bill Keller, said: ''We wanted the first occupant of this post to be someone smart, curious, rigorous, fair-minded and independent.'' Okrent, 55, a Time Inc. veteran who founded the New England Monthly magazine and who spends part of the year on Cape Cod, said in an interview that he took the job because of its manageable 18-month tenure and because ''it was The New York Times, which I've been reading every day for the last 37 years.''
He also acknowledged some trepidation about his new post, saying: ''It's intimidating, it's auspicious. It's a big deal.''
Because the ombudsman is often allowed to investigate and comment on problems at his or her paper, sometimes functioning like a police internal affairs officer, the job can be a sensitive one. And according to the rolls of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, only about three dozen US papers employ them.
Complicating Okrent's task is that prior to the Blair episode -- which led to the resignation in June of executive editor Howell Raines -- Times officials had long opposed the idea of an ombudsman.
Alex Jones, the former Times media writer who is now director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, said an ombudsman could be effective at the Times because ''the place was traumatized'' by the recent newsroom upheaval, and ''there's a real desire to make sure The New York Times's preeminence is preserved.''
Jones added that Okrent was heading into uncharted waters since ''there's never been anything quite like that there. . . . Whatever he says that is critical of the Times will be amplified tremendously by the enemies of the Times.''
Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc. and Okrent's former boss, said the Times's new hire ''may be a foreigner to that newsroom, [but] he is not a foreigner to all the issues that newsrooms confront. The words that come to mind are brilliant journalist, unmatched integrity, and insatiable curiousity.''
Okrent served as managing editor for Life magazine in the mid-1990s and was editor at large at Time Inc. from 1999 to 2001. From 1984 to 1989, he was the founding editor of the critically acclaimed and now defunct New England Monthly. He is best known in some circles as the founder of Rotisserie Baseball, a game that has ensnared legions of young and middle-age men playing out the fantasy of running their own baseball team. The author of the newly published ''Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,'' Okrent said he plans to continue writing books.
Okrent said he will spend a day or two each week inside the Times offices and asserted that in his job, ''integrity and fairness are the two key words.''
Asked if she had any advice for her incoming fellow ombudsman, Gina Lubrano, the readers representative at The San Diego Union-Tribune, said Okrent should ''listen to the readers and know what they're talking about. And he shouldn't ever expect to be invited to lunch by people in the newsroom.''