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ESPN's newest watchdogs


Last week ESPN and The Poynter Institute announced plans to participate in The Poynter Review Project, a process in which a group of Poynter faculty will review ESPN content across all platforms and publicly comment on ESPN's efforts. Like previous ESPN ombudsmen, Poynter will hold an 18-month tenure in the position. spoke with Poynter President Dr. Karen B. Dunlap and Ethics Group Leader Kelly McBride on the new partnership: How did this partnership come about?

Dunlap: Over its 35 years Poynter has worked with a number of organizations. Often, it's one faculty member working with an organization. The way this evolved was [ESPN executive vice president] John Walsh contacted us -- we had done some work with him a few years before -- and he told us that the ombudsman's term was nearing an end and he wanted to talk about an ombudsman arrangement. This is something we had been thinking about because we've been approached by other organizations from time to time. So we continued to talk for at least two months until we reached an agreement. Why did Poynter want this assignment?

Dunlap: At the heart of our work is talking about values in journalism. Last year we began to talk more about the importance of talking to the public and not just talking to journalists. An organization [ESPN] of this size reaching so many people, who come for reasons other than just journalism, presents an opportunity for us to talk about values to that audience and also to raise issues of value for all types of news, information and entertainment presentation.

McBride: I think the reason Poynter agreed to this is it offers three opportunities: One, is to help ESPN get better, and if we didn't really believe they genuinely embraced the idea of critique for the sake of self improvement, I don't think we would do it. The second thing is to develop teaching material. ESPN is this massive organization in that they are out there in so many different ways. They have so many arms on this octopus and our job is to understand where journalism is going. Because of its incredible resources, ESPN is definitely at the forefront of some interesting business opportunities. This will give us an opportunity to understand those opportunities. The third reason is for us to develop some expertise ourselves. Have you been assured by ESPN that you will have complete independence?

Dunlap: We will follow pretty much the track of the other ombudsmen. That is, we will work with an editor ['s executive editor Patrick Stiegman] who we understand is very much understanding of the independence that is expected. We feel we'll have the level of independence we need.

McBride: Yes. How many staffers at Poynter will be involved this partnership?

Dunlap: The three listed in the press release [McBride, Regina McCombs and Butch Ward] are the ones who are directly involved. Also, Poynter Dean [Stephen Buckley] will be helping to guide it. Are there specifics areas at ESPN you believe Poynter can be really valuable on?

Dunlap: Our experience with other organizations is when you begin something like this, you will be faced with the thing you expect the least. So there have been recent areas of ESPN that have come into coverage but I don't think we would go into that thinking this is where we will be spending our time. In 18 months I don't think we can predict what we will be focusing on.

McBride: Definitely discussing perceived and real conflicts of interest, and developing a method for searching for alternatives that allows them to serve their core audience and uphold a set of values while pursuing business opportunities. What is really interesting about that is the rest of the world of journalism is suddenly in the same boat. If you are going to develop new streams in revenue in a traditional newsroom, it is going to look a lot like what ESPN is doing... Some conflicts go deeper than others but the principles are the same. How did you approach the length of the tenure, which had been 18 months for previous ombudsmen?

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Dunlap: That seems about the right time. That was the term for previous ombudsmen. You want to be able to fully get involved, get your feet wet, and understand it. But I think there are some advantages not to have an ombudsman for too long.

McBride: I think it is a good length for an experiment. There is nothing to say if it is not doing great that we won't extend it. And there is nothing to say if it's going horribly, we won't end it early. ESPN and Poynter go into this knowing we are both grown-up organizations. One of the things that surprised previous ombudsmen was how much the sports blogosphere wrote about the position and the individuals in the position. How do you look at people critiquing your own critique, including this space?

Dunlap: I look forward to it. That's part of the world today. We already do that in other parts of our work. You look at back channels and we expect to be critiqued. We value that.

McBride: I'm used to it. I've caught a lot of flak for hot button issues in the past. Essentially the work that I do as the head of ethics at Poynter involves similar type of writing. I have found myself on the receiving end of a couple of dozen volleys of criticism, from fellow journalists to bloggers to a certain group of people who might follow a personality. It comes with the territory. It is part of the fun. How would you analyze the previous ESPN ombudsmen?

Dunlap: I wouldn't. I think ESPN did good work in getting ombudsmen. They were good people. I would leave it at that.

McBride: All I've done is read their work, but I have not talked to them. So I'm probably not comfortable offering a critique of them right now. Regarding the writing of the column, will it be one person or a joint byline?

Dunlap: There will be sequential voices, so the first phase will largely be Kelly McBride and she will be engaging a lot with Regina, whose background is television. So Regina's voice will be included. Then later on it will be Butch's voices. We talked about the importance of having people able to adjust to a specific voice.

McBride: What we do know is I will be primarily responsible for the actual writing. That's so the column has a consistent voice. We will see what makes sense when Regina appears, whether that is a double byline or as a contributor. How frequent will Poynter file ombudsmen-like columns?

Dunlap: The general rule is it is a monthly column. But there is also the stipulation of when things come up, we might decide to write something additionally. How long should this column be?

McBride: Shorter is better. That's how I look at length. Not because I am lazy (laughs). Right now what we are talking about is one column a month and perhaps two smaller installments where we look at issues that have come up. I really believe you could write something every day about decisions that are made at ESPN and not run out of material. But I don't want to exhaust myself or my readers on one issue. I don't want to write book chapters. Have you considered using social media as part of your charter with ESPN, to speed up the metabolism of responses if the situation warrants it?

Dunlap: That's a good question. That did not come up in our conversations [with ESPN] but the people who are involved, particularly Kelly and Regina, spend a whole lot of time talking about social media in journalism. In working with the ESPN editor, they might decide to do something like that. But that is not something we discussed.

McBride: Yes. I have, and we still have to talk about that. I use social media all the time in my work here at Poynter. It makes complete sense but we have not talked about how. I don't think it is whether we will use social media, it is how we will use it. How would you characterize your staff regarding its consumption of ESPN products. Are they voracious consumers of ESPN and its different platforms? Mild consumers? How familiar is your group with ESPN's content?

Dunlap: I prefer you ask them [individually]. I would say some are extensive users and some less so.

McBride: I think we consume it as fans. We have a lot of sports nuts here at Poynter. I think we consume it that way. I don't know that we have consumed it for professional use but I have used them in my teaching material. I think it is a hard question to answer. Do people consume ESPN? Obviously, yes. You can hardly be a sports fan and not consume ESPN. Do they consume ESPN religiously? Some people, yes. Are we going to be consuming it a lot more? Definitely. Does everyone here read the New York Times every week? Probably. Does everybody here watch every episode of SportsCenter? Probably not. How will you morph between the many ESPN platforms?

Dunlap: We look at this very clearly as multimedia and that is one reason it appealed to us. We were not going into this just to review one platform. We want to be multi-media in our approach. How that plays out, I'm not sure. The volume of e-mails previous ombudsmen received was enormous. It speaks to the passion of sports fans. Did part of your discussions with ESPN involve the logistics of handling an ombudsmen mailbag?

Dunlap: This was important to us. We are not going in with the obligation to address the huge volume of correspondent that comes into [ESPN]. We will have access to the mailbag and dip into it readily to get a sense of where people are. We also will depend on some at ESPN to bring to our attention the biggest strains of conversation that we ought to pay attention to. We want to get a general sense of what is happening but we don't have the capacity to try to respond or even understand everything that comes in.

The reason is it is called the Poynter Review system is we tried not to be ombudsman, and a big difference is what you just said: Ombudsman typically exchange with the audience, including in the mail. We don't plan to engage that. It's not our plan to be the typical ombudsman.

McBride: We're not the complaint department. There is an important distinction there. But by looking at the mailbag and by monitoring other interactions that ESPN has -- the comments, what is going on in social media and other forms of feedback including ratings number --- I think we'll get a picture of what the audience is concerned with. We will dip into the mailbag but we will not systemically go through it and answer every one. That would be impossible. Something every ombudsman must face is just how valued their suggestions or critique is within that organization. I don't ask this pejoratively but simply directly. Why do you believe ESPN will follow your suggestions?

Dunlap: There are number of outstanding journalists at ESPN, and therefore there are journalists who are concerned about values and how they present themselves. Number two, the statement by John Walsh is one that he has said repeatedly: They want greater transparency, they want greater accountability, so we take them at face value.

But I think this is important: The measure of success for us is not how much they adapt to what we say. The measure of success is engaging the conversation both with them and the larger public. They are accountable to the degree they decide to follow the suggestions we say and I believe they will. I don' think it's a check-off of how many things we suggest they do. I think the measure is a good and useful conversation, both for that organization and the greater public.

McBride: Well, I don't necessarily. I don't think they would have pursued us if they did not want the rigor we bring to a process like this. But I fully recognize that there may be things where they nod their heads at and ignore. And I say this because many times I have been hired to go into organization as a consultant or trainer, do an evaluation and say what needs to be done, and I know it never gets done. So I guess I am not naive in thinking that every improvement or thing I suggest will be adopted. I suspect some will and won't.

Some things they'll have good intentions but they will never get around to doing. The ultimate goal is to impact an organization in a complete and thorough way but you can come short of that goal and still do a really good job. I think they are genuine about their interest in Poynter doing this work because they are having it done publicly. A lot of people hire us privately to do this type of review. But they are doing this publicly. So why would you set yourself up if you were not at least open to the possibility?