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Introducing the TSF Ombudsman

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We're always looking to improve, so this time we looked outside.

NOT PICTURED: V. Kennedy McMann
NOT PICTURED: V. Kennedy McMann
Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Here at The Short Fuse, we like to take the pulse of our readership from time to time. Most of the time, we like to think we understand our readership and your collective needs and wants as far as editorial content, but a recent story on The Short Fuse Dot Com has shown us that, despite our best efforts, we may need some help with that every now and again.

The term "Our readership" is not a monolithic thing; we understand that people have differing viewpoints, and we try to be as responsive as we can to all of them. But it does help to have an outsider's perspective every now and again, and so, after our last, somewhat contentious staff meeting, we've decided that it's time to take a fairly major step in the evolution of TSF.

We have decided to hire an ombudsman.

For those of you who are not familiar with what an ombudsman is or does, well, you're not alone. But basically, an ombudsman is a neutral party, not beholden to TSF or SBN, who is charged with representing the interests of the public - in this case, TSF readers - and addressing complaints of bias or shoddy reportage. The presence of an ombudsman connotes a degree of seriousness and responsibility that some feel have been lacking of late, and that we wish to maintain wherever possible.

Once we decided to do this, we then proceeded with an extensive vetting process. Our first candidate was former ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who generously took our call, only to laugh uproariously and say "A blog wants an ombudsman? What, did your mom refuse to bring you your Hot Pockets any more?" before hanging up and blocking our number.

Our next stop was Randy Cohen, who served as "The Ethicist" for the New York Times from 1999-2011. We figured he'd lend a similar air of gravitas to, and be a bit more relatable than, Lipsyte; after all, Cohen's background is as a humorist. When we reached out to him, he actually met with us! In person! Sadly, though, he couldn't take the job because he feared, as he put it, a "fatal degradation of his brand, which he's built up over the last 30 years", saying "don't you tools know I wrote for Letterman in his glory years?" as we parted ways.

So, given that, we decided to broaden our net a bit. We looked at local civic and spiritual officials; we looked at community leaders. We looked at authors. We looked EVERYWHERE.  We even looked in-house before realizing that enough lunatics already had enough control of this particular asylum.

And finally, just when we were about to give up, we found someone! Someone with the experience we needed, with the seriousness we demanded, and most importantly, with zero knowledge of what TSF is or does. Who better to tell us what we're doing wrong, right?

So, without further ado, I present to you an interview with TSF's new ombudsman, V. Kennedy McMann!

TSF: Welcome aboard! Tell us a little about yourself.
VKM:
Where to start? I guess we'll start with my education. I went to a small, private high school, and then when it came time to choose a college, I guess you could say Oberlin chose me. It was just such a perfect fit, and they supported my desire to obtain a degree in 19th century British parliamentary rhetoric and its application in today's world. Which I did, with honors.

While I was at school, I got a taste for the "ombudsman life" as the informal ombudsman of the Superior, Oberlin's campus newspaper. Whenever they needed any outside review or guidance, they came to me, and I of course obliged them, and I like to think I, through my efforts, made the Super (as we all called it, in a trenchant blast of irony) a better news source.

TSF: Very good. After college, then, how did your career take shape?
VKM:
Well, as mentioned, I really enjoyed...my friends and I called it "ombudsing", which we knew wasn't a word, but it was just so clever. Anyway, I decided that, despite my efforts at writing a master's thesis about William Wilberforce's views on maritime law and how those views shape the modern English media landscape, the ombudsman's song just kept ringing in my ears.

So I left the warm embrace of Oberlin, sadly but assuredly, and set off for the bright lights of Cincinnati, where I was able to get a part-time job at a neighborhood paper, editing the Police Beat. It was while I was editing the Beat that the assistant deputy editor called me into his...he called it an office, but it was really more of a cubicle, but let's not be churlish. Anyway, he said to me "VK, I like the work you've done overseeing the Police Beat section. Would you like more responsibility? A bigger section to edit?"

And I was completely frank with him. I said that in college, I was our paper's ombudsman, and that work really shaped who I am; I asked if the East Westwood Weekly Shouter had ever had an ombudsman before, and outlined what it was I thought an ombudsman could bring. He quickly agreed with me, and before I knew it, I was back leading the ombudsman life again!

TSF: Sounds like a pretty great gig. Is that where you come to us from?
VKM: No, no. That was just the first step. I was at the Shouter for two years, in which time I helped the editors of the Community Calendar realize that "yokels" was an inappropriate way to refer to the residents of the neighborhood. I also managed to broker a peace between angry East Westwoodians and the paper when the paper jokingly suggested that East Westwood was a bad name for a neighborhood, and that the neighborhood should be named North Southwood instead. Those were tense times, but if I may brag, my calm hand and steady tone helped ensure that neighborhood voices were heard, and the paper has since backed down on its "Publish funny stories on April 1" stance.

TSF: That's quite a win for you. What came next?
VKM:
Well, after two years and more successes than I can name, I either hit the lottery or got, as the sporting folk say, called up to the big majors. The editor of the Wichita Citizen-Review, the biggest newspaper in the biggest city in Kansas, was in Cincinnati, vacationing with his family at Kings Island; one fortuitous day, he had decided to stay in town as his family rode the roller coasters. He went to The Big Pourover, an artisan coffee boutique in East Westwood, picked up a copy of the Shouter, and saw my piece about the origins, history, and resolution of the North Southwood conflict. He liked my work so much that he called me right there and then, and offered me the ombudsman job at the WC-R.

TSF: Wow, the big time! How did that suit you?

VKM:
At first, it was wonderful. There were many issues between Wichita's media and its citizenry, which points to a wonderful, engaged readership but also to a paper that needed the steady hand of an ombudsman to right the ship. In my first six months, I was able to point to flaws in the paper's coverage of many issues of interest to Wichitans, including ones you may have heard of: in 2004 alone, there was the great homeless-resettlement debate, the property-tax allotment miscommunication, and the biggest one of all, the "martial law mistake", in which someone at the paper jokingly declared martial law in Kansas.

The paper tried to pass that one off as a joke similar to Reagan's declaration that "we begin bombing (Russia) in five minutes" in 1984; it was left to me to point out that Reagan spoke those words on a radio microphone he thought was off, while the WC-R actually set their words in print. It took them a while to understand the distinction; that controversy roiled for a few months.

Over the next two years, there were many more cases where the WC-R's reporting wasn't up to snuff. To bullet point a few:

- Potholegate, where the city decided to fill potholes with sand and cigarette butts to save money. The WC-R called it a "brave and courageous" example of "not just thinking outside the box, but taking the box outside, vomiting in it, and throwing it at your neighbor's baby". 
- The library card forgeries. When confronted with evidence that non-Wichitans were forging library cards and checking out the Wichita City Library's entire stock of 50 Shades books, the WC-R chose to focus not on the fraudulent ID/security risk aspect of the story but of the "civic good" that was done by "removing that boring mom porn from our midst", which I suggested was missing the point a bit.
- Insufficient reportage surrounding the city's decision to flouridate ponds and streams. What the WC-R chose not to report on, and what was most of interest to the community, was that the city's drinking water supply was not going to be flouridated. The paper kept insisting that "by swimming in our many ponds and streams, and by occasionally opening one's mouth, the citizens of Wichita can get just as much flouride protection as in a full tube of Crest - just by going swimming!". It was left to me to explain to them why this was actually a bad idea.
- There was also the time the paper reported that businesses in town were only going to be open on alternate Tuesdays from 1.30 to 4, calling it a great way to ease downtown traffic congestion, without presenting any alternative traffic-calming schemes.

Hopefully you see what I was up against. the WC-R was, as I called it, a "target-rich environment", and I was ombudsing myself to death there for a while.

TSF: Sounds like you were very busy.
VKM:
Yes, I was. And in my time there, I must say, I made my share of...I don't like to call them "enemies", but let's just say there were some people - powerful people - at the paper who didn't want me to succeed. With every successful ombudsman's column, they restricted my brief more and more; at first, I was free to cover everything, but then, once my work started resonating with the community, my world became more and more restrictive.

First, it was politics; I was not allowed to discuss anything that the paper reported on regarding the Wichita City Council or its decisions. Then, schools; once I exposed how the paper's staff was taking meetings with Amalgamated School Lunch and how those meetings influenced the C-R's coverage of the school lunch scandal, that was the beginning of the end.

After that and the flouride incidents, I was not allowed to opine on how the paper covered local news at all. Then, one day, I came in to my office to discover that my entire ombudsman's world had been reduced to one aspect of the WC-R's reportage: local traffic.

As you can imagine, this restricted my job almost unbearably; there wasn't much reporting on traffic in the paper, because, let's face it, who goes to a newspaper for traffic information? Regardless, I soldiered on as best I could for two more months, during which I was able to help bridge the gap between the community and the paper resulting from the WC-R's endorsement of mandatory five-minute red lights at all intersections. I had initially taken that as a victory after the alternate-Tuesday traffic scheme I mentioned earlier, but that incident was full of the proverbial writing on the wall for me.

I was called into the C-R's offices and told, politely but firmly, that my services were no longer needed, and asked to resign, so they could "save a few bucks" on a severance package. I protested, and said that what I'd discovered in my time as ombudsman showed me that my ombudsman's skills were needed more than ever, but to no avail; at the end of that day, I resigned. When my email resignation was received, it was returned with the notation "You'll never work as an ombudsman again", which I thought was a joke, maybe a last bit of hazing, but sadly, was not.

TSF: Really?
VKM:
Really. After leaving the WC-R, I took some "me time", but then the ombudsman's call sounded for me again; I started looking, first throughout the midwest, then nationwide. It seemed that the C-R's threat was real, though, because I couldn't get very many media outlets to respond - and those that did respond tended to respond in the "we've heard about you - thanks but no thanks" vein. And then, one wonderful day, I found The Short Fuse; in five minutes of skimming this...whatever this place is (junior high school newsletter? Neighborhood bulletin? It's really hard to tell from the "writing"), I was instantly able to realize that "journalistic standards" are to TSF what "just one more" is to an alcoholic, and I offered my services.

TSF: And we accepted, and the rest...well, we'll see.
VKM
: We shall indeed. Your readers can rest assured that I bring only the highest standards of ethics and will always hold the TSF staff's collective feet to the fire; by the time our partnership has concluded, TSF will be the most shining example of excellence it possibly can be. I guarantee it.

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We at TSF welcome VK, we think, and we look forward to a regular series of columns. Look for the first of a regular series of Ombudsman columns in the next few weeks.