Local TV Ombudsmen Not Yet Extinct

NBC Owned Stations sees value in internal local news sounding board

Amid a few recent high-profile ombudsman hirings and firings,
what appears to be the lone person holding that title in local
television quietly goes about his second year on the job. Kevin
Keeshan, former KGO San Francisco news director, was tapped last year
to be ombudsman for NBC News—assigned to the 10 NBC-owned stations
to uphold the network news division’s journalistic standards.

Matt Goldberg, assistant news director at KNT V San Jose, says he
speaks to Keeshan, who is based in New York, almost every day about
everything from hidden-camera laws to interview approaches to scripts.
“He’s part of the process from the beginning to the middle to the end,” says
Goldberg, who oversees KNT V’s 14-person investigative team. “Every
member of our team has Kevin on speed dial, if necessary.”

Keeshan, 57, spent close to 20 years in the newsroom of ABC-owned
KGO, where his boss was Valari Staab, who is now president of the NBC
station group. Neither Keeshan nor his manager, David McCormack, NBC
News standards and practices VP, would agree to be interviewed for this
story; those close to Keeshan say he prefers a low profile. In a statement
announcing his hiring, McCormack called Keeshan “an invaluable extra set
of eyes and ears for the news directors at our local stations,” hired to “help
develop young journalists as they progress in their careers.”

Keeshan has his hands full nurturing the NBC group’s investigative
teams; WRC Washington, KNT V San Jose and WVIT Hartford
are among the stations with recently launched gumshoe units. Besides
training the local newsrooms on standards and practices, Keeshan is
described as a sounding board and conduit by those who have worked
with him in that capacity. Keeshan also brings a sterling news reputation.
“He’s a very serious news guy,” says one former NBC colleague who
requested anonymity. “He’s got a long track record in news.”

Several industry watchers, inside NBC and out, describe Keeshan’s role
as similar to a group news VP, since for some, an ombudsman calls to mind
a public advocate fielding viewer and advertiser complaints. Either way, the
ombudsman title in local TV is exceedingly rare. WJAR Providence—a former
NBC-owned station acquired by Media General in 2006—previously
had what was likely the only station ombudsman in Paul Giacobbe. A veteran
investigative reporter, Giacobbe was paid $6,000 annually and aired
segments addressing viewer concerns. He was let go by WJAR last year.

A much higher-profile media outlet more recently scrapped its ombudsman.
The Washington Post, which had employed one for 43 years,
ended the position on March 1, replacing it with what the paper calls a
“reader representative.”

One television giant that continues to see value in the position is ESPN,
which in late April appointed Robert Lipsyte, a vastly respected
author and print/broadcast reporter, as the fifth ombudsman in its
history. In a statement, ESPN executive VP John Walsh described
the longtime New York Times reporter and columnist as an “ombudsman
in the digital age” with a “multiplatform focus.”

Smaller in Number, Greater in Need

There are 21 working ombudsmen in U.S. media, according to
Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News
Ombudsmen and a former one for NPR. That is 38% fewer than
it was five years ago, while the number has grown around the rest
of the world. “The big ones have diminished, no question about
that,” says Dvorkin, who adds that he is “delighted” that NBC
saw fit to tap an ombudsman for its local stations.

With social media playing such a giant part in how news—
and, at times, misinformation—is disseminated, some industry
watchers say there’s never been a greater need for an internal
watchdog. Several sets of eyes scrutinize content before it goes
live on TV, notes Steve Schwaid, VP of digital strategies at consulting
firm CJ&N and a former news director at major-market
stations. Little, Schwaid adds, stands between a reporter and
their Twitter dispatches. “I think the need for that role is magnified in
the social media world,” Schwaid says. “You need someone to make sure
the quality on social media is equal to that put on television.”

While he has never held an ombudsman title, Schwaid upheld standards
and practices for stations when he was senior VP of news at NBCUniversal
several years ago. Like Dvorkin, Schwaid applauds NBC for employing a fulltimer
in the role. “It’s good to have somebody at that level, talking about what
works at one station and making sure it’s shared with the others,” he says.
“And there’s real value in having a news voice at the table in corporate.”

comments to
and follow him
on Twitter: