Narda Zacchino, associate editor and a vice president of the Los Angeles Times, has been appointed to a newly created position as readers' representative. In that post, she will respond to readers' inquiries and complaints about the newspaper's coverage, as well as help explain journalistic practices to the public.
"We need a better way to listen to our readers. We report, write, edit and present the news for them. So we need to be more engaged with them," said Michael Parks, The Times' editor and executive vice president.
He added that he wanted readers to better understand "how we do our work" and to feel that the newspaper is being held accountable to professional ideals and standards. "We want to be--every day in every story--factual, truthful and fair. Unfortunately, we are not always so," Parks noted.
Zacchino, 51, has held various reporting and editing jobs at The Times since 1970, including supervising the Sacramento bureau, the Orange County edition, feature sections and regional coverage. She also founded and serves as co-chair of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
An increasing number of newspapers across the country have created similar positions, partly in response to polls that show the public has strong misgivings about the media's credibility, experts said.
Geoffrey Cowan, the dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said a readers' representative, sometimes called an ombudsman, "helps the readers understand the context of decision-making of the paper, and helps the paper understand and become accountable to readers' concerns."
Cowan commended The Times for the move, but cautioned that the paper must "be willing to accept criticism that may not always be entirely welcome."
In addition to responding to readers' concerns about coverage, Zacchino will write an in-house newsletter for the staff about such issues. Zacchino said she also will write an occasional column in The Times on how news and editorial decisions are made, ranging from endorsements for the U.S. Senate to why a local charity event was not covered.
"I have come to believe that a lot of readers don't understand what goes into gathering news for a story or the whole process of getting a story into a paper," explained Zacchino, who is former chairwoman of the diversity committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Readers develop "a loyalty and bond" to a newspaper, Zacchino said, and the paper should "let them know we care what they think and say about us." Her new job, she said, is "a step to try to bring us a little closer to the people for whom we exist."
Readers can write to Zacchino at Readers' Representative, the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. In addition, they can leave a message at 877-554-4000 (toll free), or communicate by fax, at 213-237-3535, or by e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Organization of News Ombudsmen, known as ONO, has 65 members worldwide, including 31 U.S. newspapers.
Gina Lubrano, vice president of the 20-year-old organization, described the acronym ONO as apt. That is the reaction she said she often receives when she approaches a reporter or editor about a complaint.
Lubrano, who has been readers' representative at the San Diego Union-Tribune for seven years, offered this observation about the job: "You are very much caught in the middle. Sometimes readers disagree with you. Some times staff members disagree with you."