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| Home | Interview with Don Wycliff, ombudsman, The Chicago Tribune -- March 2005
September 30, 2014

Don Wycliff, 58, is public editor, or ombudsman, of the Chicago Tribune. He took that job in July 2000 after spending nine years as the Tribune's editorial page editor. During his tenure as editor, the Tribune editorial page won one Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for another. Wycliff also was a finalist for a Pulitzer in editorial writing in 1996. He won the ASNE Distinguished Writing Award for editorials in 1997. Wycliff came to the Tribune in September 1990 from the New York Times, where he wrote for the editorial page. Earlier at the Times, Wycliff worked as an editor in the 'Week in Review' section. Before the Times, he was a reporter or editor at several papers, including the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Wycliff has served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes and was chairman of the ASNE Writing Awards Committee in 2002. He earned a degree in political science from Notre Dame in 1969. He was named a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at that time and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1999 by the University of Portland in Oregon. He spoke with JournalismJobs.com about the role of a public editor.
Don Wycliff

JournalismJobs.com: With the public's trust of the media slipping, should more newspapers employ an ombudsman?

Don Wycliff: That's such an individual thing. Every newspaper ought to have somebody do what a public editor or ombudsman does, to explain the newspaper to the public at large. For so long, we have been content to do what we do and just let the public wonder if they have questions. We need to be more open and to be more accessible. We need to be more straightforward about how we made decisions on what to do. Whether it's called a public editor or an ombudsman, whether it's a full-time job if a newspaper can afford to do that, we ought to do it.

JournalismJobs.com: Why is that so important?

Don Wycliff: For a long time, I know at the New York Times, they said that's what an editor is supposed to do. That's simply not realistic. An editor can't do everything. That's why there are assistant editors and deputy editors and deputy managing editors. This is one more division of labor, something we in our business have never attacked, but is important to have -- customer service, if you want to put it in those terms. It's something we have to do now. We can't take our readers and subscribers for granted.

JournalismJobs.com: How do you decide what topics are worthy of addressing in your column?

Don Wycliff: They've got to be interesting to me. They've got to be things that are more than just pedestrian, something that I think readers might scratch their heads over. They've got to be kind of conundrums or riddles or sort of those unending questions that never really get answered. Where there's lots of gray. Those are things that interest people. Then you talk about how you weigh whatever factors there are that you weigh, so the readers have an assurance that the people at the newspaper in the stone building down the street aren't walking around thinking the answers to these questions are coming down from Mount Olympus. But they've got to be interesting questions.

JournalismJobs.com: How neutral can an ombudsman truly be if he is criticizing colleagues and the company that signs his paycheck?

Don Wycliff: Let me put it this way -- the reason my job here at the Tribune is called public editor is that I'm not supposed to be neutral in the strictest sense. When my job was created in 1991, the editor who appointed the first public editor wanted some involvement in the newsroom's practices and involvement in making it better, in terms of corrections and those sorts of things. You can't be neutral about that. You can't be neutral about the fact that you want the organization you are working for to be a better organization. I take the same stance about this company that journalists do about the government. It's their duty as patriots to expose the working of the government to the American people so they can make an intelligent decision. Even if at times the things they're exposing make government officials unhappy. If we do stupid things here, if we make questionable decisions, then I don't think I'm being disloyal to my organization by criticizing them. In fact, I'm doing just that.

JournalismJobs.com: How do newsroom staffers respond to your criticisms?

Don Wycliff: It varies. There are people who are entirely professional and recognize ours is a human business, and we make mistakes. Last year, the tide of dishonesty in the industry seemed to reach a crest with the Jack Kelley story. So we had that discussion in our newsroom, and some people came by my desk and said how glad they were that we have instituted a public editor position. That it says something about our commitment to quality and journalism. So there are people who take it in that spirit. And there are people who can't take any criticism. But that's human life, and I accept that. There are people who don't talk to me anymore because they're upset.

JournalismJobs.com: What do you do when that happens?

Don Wycliff: I don't do anything. I do the job that's required of me. When I get a reader complaint, I get the information. I send out a query letter like I do for everyone else, and then I wait for a response. I don't go around panting after people to like me. I already have people who like me.

JournalismJobs.com: How much editorial control do you have, and who oversees that?

Don Wycliff: Ninety-nine percent of the control is mine. Nobody tells me what to write. Once I've written a column, I send it along to the Op-ed page editor, my (line) editor. She reads it. If she sees holes in my reasoning, then she lets me know. Then I go into the newspaper like anybody else. I don't know that my boss (the newspaper's editor) reads everything I write before it gets into the paper. Some stories she may read before, some after. But if there's something in particular that I know she's concerned about, I make sure she sees it before it gets in the paper so she can weigh in. But she doesn't tell me what to write. Our arrangement here at the Tribune is different than some others. I report to the editor of the paper. Other ombudsmen report to the publisher. I've been lucky, I couldn't do my job without the support of the editor. She's been very good at it.

JournalismJobs.com: How do you think the public's understanding of how the media operates has changed over the past five years? Do you think there's a higher or lower understanding, and why do you think that is?

Don Wycliff: I'm going to say something dangerous. I think people are more knowledgeable of it. But it's a situation where a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, by various means. Mainly the Internet is how people come to know how we operate. Things like my columns, other ombudsman columns - I hope they're getting useful information from those. But I think people think they know more than they really do. It's like with lawyers. I can't read a few briefs and then opine expertly about the law. It's just not so. It's the same with our business. Every day is different. Every story is different. They may understand elements of the business. But unless you do this every day, you don't have a comprehensive understanding of it. Frankly, those of us who do what we do don't always have a comprehensive understanding of it.

JournalismJobs.com: How do you think newspaper staffs can better convey their missions to their readers? How much of that do you think is the newsroom staff's responsibility?

Don Wycliff: The principle responsibility of a newsroom staff is to put out a quality newspaper each day. You know the story about [U.S. District] Judge [Joan] Lefkow and the murder of her husband and mother. Well, probably next week, it will be appropriate for me to write a column about how we covered that story. So some people will get a glimpse into the newsroom - how resources were expensed, what guided us as we went along. I got some response coming off of my column today, about naming defendants in rape cases. And someone said, "Hey, you didn't expend that benefit of doubt to Matthew Hale (a white supremacist who was questioned in the Lefkow murders)." That's absolutely false, of course. But there's an interest there in the public for things to be explained. I'm the designated explainer here, and that's probably the best way to do it. Most people in a newsroom are doing what they are supposed to be doing -- giving information about government or organizations that the public needs to make decisions in a democracy.

JournalismJobs.com: What made you decide to become a public editor for the Tribune from editorial page editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team?

Don Wycliff: You do one thing for a period of time, and after a while you get tired. You want a challenge. After nine years as editorial page editor, I wanted something different. My predecessor was ready to retire. The editor at the time was posting that position in the newsroom. I applied because, first of all, it involved writing a column. I always wanted to write a column. And I guess I thought I had the temperament that the job required. You've got to put up with a lot of foolishness with people. I don't always do it graciously, but I try to. I thought it was a way to be helpful to the organization in a different kind of way, to use skills that weren't being used otherwise. I'm still figuring out how to do that best.

JournalismJobs.com: What's next for you?

Don Wycliff: I can't even think about it. I'm teaching a course at Notre Dame this semester on media criticism. I always thought that after I retire, I would become a teacher at the college level. I'll be frank with you -- I discovered teachers work a lot harder than I thought they did. It's tough, all that correcting papers and editing. But I think it's something I still want to do.

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