Local TV OmbudsmenNot Yet Extinct

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.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.