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New York Times Names First Ombudsman

BY Admin  October 27, 2003 at 12:00 PM EST

Okrent, a former editor of Life magazine, will oversee coverage, review reader complaints and write a regular column in the newspaper, according to a New York Times article Monday.

He joins the 152-year-old newspaper as its first ever ombudsman upon the recommendation of an independent committee, led by Allan Siegal, in July. The so-called Siegal committee was charged with conducting an internal review of newsroom policies and how reporter Jayson Blair managed to fabricate and plagiarize at least three dozen stories for the Times.

Blair resigned in May after his activities were exposed. But, the scandal tarnished the paper’s reputation as the nation’s preeminent news source, leading to the resignations of the Times’ two senior editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, in June.

“What we wanted for the first occupant of this post was someone smart, curious, rigorous, fair-minded and independent,” Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, said in an e-mail to the staff.

“We wanted someone with the reporting skills to figure out how decisions get made at the paper, the judgment to reach conclusions about whether and where we go astray, and the writing skills to explain all of this to our readers,” Keller said.

Okrent, 55, will fill the independent “public editor” position for an 18-month term, starting Dec. 1.

He will write columns for the paper’s Week in Review section on Sundays, evaluating the Times’ news coverage and addressing readers’ concerns.

Okrent will work outside the management structure of the newspaper’s newsroom and its editorial page, giving him the unrestricted opportunity to address readers’ comments about the Times’ coverage, and to raise questions of his own, Keller said in the Times article.

Keller and the paper’s other senior editors will not edit or review Okrent’s commentaries, although his copy will be checked for grammar and style, according to the Times.

Okrent said he expected to write a column every other week — more often if needed.

Though Okrent’s only experience in a newspaper newsroom was a brief stint as a copy boy at The Detroit Free Press, he said his lack of such experience would not prove a hindrance to assessing Times’ coverage.

“I really need to maintain the position of someone who gets the newspaper outside his door, fresh and new. I want to experience it as a reader,” Okrent said in an interview.

Unlike ombudsmen at some newspapers, Okrent said, he would not be “writing memos to the staff.” “I’m determined to remain separate from the staff, to be a reader of the newspaper.”

Okrent was a founder of New England Monthly in 1984 and was its editor until 1989. He worked as assistant managing editor of Life magazine from 1991 to 1992, its managing editor until 1996, and then served as the editor of Time Inc.’s new media operations from 1996 to 1999.

Okrent is also the author of several books, most recently, “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.” He said after his 18-month stint ends, he would return to writing nonfiction books.

In September, the Times also appointed Siegal, who led the independent committee following the plagiarism scandal, to be the newspaper’s standards editor, a new masthead-level position to review the paper’s editorial standards.

Siegal, 63, will also retain his current title of assistant managing editor.