Liz Spayd was more of a columnist than a true ombudsman, but the Huffington Post coverage points out why that role is still important: Not necessarily for accountability (since we all hold the newspapers we read accountable these days), but simply for getting answers:
by being in the newsroom, public editors and ombudsmen can often get responses from management on editorial decision-making that outside reporters and critics cannot
Sadly, almost no newspapers have ombudsmen any more. (A true ombudsman would be outside the newsroom reporting structure, reporting to the publisher or CEO, and with latitude to publish things that the editors might not want published. A public editor is accountable to the editor in chief.)
At any rate, the NYT is not exactly instilling confidence in the wake of its 2016 election coverage by eliminating this role. Many have rightly criticized the paper for spending far more time on Hillary’s emails than on, say, Trump’s Russian connections. Some of that is due to the nature of the news market (you write stories for what the audience wants, and the audience shares what it likes) but there is still an important role for an ombudsman or, failing that, a public editor. Not that Spayd was particularly good at the job, but she was something. And now she’s on her way out.
We need independent journalism more than ever. For all the great work it does, the Times is still fallible, often egregiously so, and it needs someone to hold its feet to the fire and demand answers.
I read that Annie Dillard, when composing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was living in the suburbs and raising a family. Strange, at first, to think that one could compose such solitude in the midst of bland civilization. Or dive that deep into nature among the streets and cul-de-sacs of a small town and all its busy-ness. But then I remember Thoreau, too, sought his solitude in a cabin but placed it close enough to town that he could still bring his laundry back to the landlady once a week, a fact that goes unmentioned in his book. And the Chinese poet-sages, who cultivated an air of reclusiveness such that one might almost think they were hermits: In fact they were bureaucrats working government jobs, raising families, living in the suburbs, and escaping to the hills whenever possible to contemplate, to drink with their literary friends, and to paint the landscape of their ideal world on rice paper scrolls. All that remains today are the scrolls. We chuckle at this hypocrisy until we realize: This too is a strategy of survival. The city has its own nature; why not the suburbs? To find a place of refuge in the exurban sprawl is no mean feat. We should all be able to concentrate our minds so.