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The grey lady blogs!

by henrycopeland
Monday, October 27th, 2003

The New York Times has hired its first fulltime blogger, Daniel Okrent.

Most newspapers would call the new guy an ombudsman. And even though the NYT folks are calling Okrent “a public editor,” he’s a b-l-o-g-g-e-r.

Okrent won’t be edited. He has no newspaper experience. “He will be given an unfettered opportunity to address readers’ comments about The Times’s coverage, to raise questions of his own and to write about such matters, in commentaries that will be published in the newspaper as often as he sees fit.”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the paper’s publisher, says “Working at its best, it’s a highway with two-way traffic.”

Here’s my question:

“Dear Mr. Ombudsman and Mr. Sulzberger,

Isn’t an $120,000-a-year ombudsman/public editor an anachronism, now that the paper has 750 bloggers scrutinizing its pages and publishing their thoughts 24/7 for free?

Yours truly,


I’m mystified. What purpose does an official critic serve today? What kind of two-way street has 18 wheelers going in one direction and a lone tricycle (occasionally!) going the other?

With hundreds of questions being raised daily on blogs, would it be it be better to let reporters and editors who create the news answer these questions themselves?

Perhaps reposing questions and underwriting/packaging official criticism in a finite space make it easier to ignore the gushers of unofficial criticism, even to ignore the relativism and indeterminancy that undergird journalism? Perhaps there are other rationales. I’ll say it again: I am mystified.

This is another tiny slice of the history of the sister concepts of “public” and “publish,” I think. For hundreds of years, the definitions of “public” and “publish” have been evolving. In the earliest days, the public space was the town common or church steps, and to publish (make public) was to post a notice in that space, where any and all would likely see it. As towns grew into cities and public spaces evolved, multiplied and subdivided, the only entities who could effectively “publish” were those with printing presses and the financial wherewithal to distribute their publications. Later, print publishers were joined in this monopoly by broadcasters with expensive equipment and licenses.

Late in this media history, the “ombudsman” was invented by publishers who had become embarrassed by their monopoly over the public space.

But now, the public space, the space most anyone and everyone can see and have in common, is once again public — anyone can publish. Thanks to the Internet and spontaneous networks among millions of bloggers, the public space is much larger and more porous, and traditional publishers are just one current in a sea of information.

The ombudsman can be hung up in some museum of artifacts with the buggy whip. Sorry, Mr. Okrent.

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