Sacramento Bee ombudsman Tony Marcano, hired away from The New York Times just last year, calls it quits
It’s a job with a strange title and duties that inevitably invite animosity and conflict. Ombudsmen handle customer complaints and scrutinize the business that employs them. In the newspaper industry, that often translates into bluntly criticizing the work of reporters, editors and managers, all in plain view of several hundred thousand readers. “Journalists are remarkably defensive people,” explained Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio ombudsman and president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONB). “They tend to bristle at the thought of anyone questioning their deathless prose,” ONB Director and Orlando Sentinel Ombudsman Manning Pynn agreed. “Anytime somebody says something harsh about you, you’re going to resent it, and so it is kind of a lonely job in many ways. It’s difficult to do this job without offending people periodically … people who may be your colleagues and friends.”
Sacramento Bee Ombudsman Tony Marcano can relate.
Marcano occupies a second-floor office away from the main newsroom and staff and reports solely to the publisher, Janis Heaphy. By all indications, Marcano has indeed managed to periodically offend reporters and editors at the paper. A short 16 months ago, Marcano gave up a position as assistant metro editor at The New York Times and accepted the ombudsman slot at the Bee. “Tony has a sophisticated sense of media, and his extensive journalism background … has given him the solid foundation and perspective necessary to be an effective ombudsman,” Heaphy told the staff in a memo announcing that Marcano had been hired.
In a Bee article notifying readers of his arrival, Marcano said that he wanted “to lift the veil that pervades the business and shed a little light on how we do things.” It appears Marcano may have shed too much light at times, eventually singeing the egos of co-workers. Marcano explained that when he started the job, he was less than straightforward in his approach—in effect, holding back for fear of offending. His early columns, he said, were “wishy-washy” and inconsistent. “I discovered that the reason that they were inconsistent was because I wasn’t taking a firm stance on things, and the only way to make it more effective was to take a firm stance and suffer the consequences of it. And sometimes the consequences were people would get pretty angry.” Offsetting the negative reactions were others who agreed with him. “So, it wasn’t this kind of universal denunciation of what I had said; some people thought it was on the mark, and some people thought I was completely out in left field,” he said.
Marcano recently announced he was leaving the Bee, and the job of ombudsman, to return to the mainstream newsroom as an editor at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The veteran newsman implies he is tired of the outsider role and the tension that comes with it.
“I think I’m more effective in a newsroom than in this role. Or, at least, I’m more comfortable,” he said. His last ombudsman column is scheduled to run on November 7, after which he’ll depart for the East Coast. SN&R wanted to ask Bee reporters how they felt about Marcano’s tenure, but most wouldn’t talk.
One reporter at the Bee who was willing to speak on the record about the ombudsman was Deb Kollars. In his June 20 column this year, Marcano took to task a couple of long-term investigative projects that recently had been published by the daily. One of those projects was Kollars’ four-part series, “A Season of Sorrow,” about the Grant High School cheerleading squad and how it coped with the death of one of its members. Marcano opined that the purpose of the story was unclear. “Was it an illustration of how teenagers cope with tragedy? How schools can muster limited resources to help students come together in adverse circumstances?” he asked. “The newspaper needs to explain, in no uncertain terms, how any series is relevant to its readers’ lives, or what new information or lessons the series might provide. No reader should take it on faith that a series is worth reading just because the Bee spends weeks or months producing it and gives it a lot of space,” he wrote.
Marcano’s remarks hit a nerve with Kollars, a 20-year journalism veteran who had indeed spent months—three, to be exact—of work on the project. Kollars said she was confident the series was worth reading, and she cited reader response as proof. “I had hundreds and hundreds of readers who wrote and contacted me and understood exactly the point of that series [and] took away lots of riches,” she said. Exacerbating the friction with the ombudsman, she explained, was that Marcano had never talked to her before writing his cutting analysis. “I know if I were writing a piece about someone else’s work, particularly if it was critical, I would make it a point to talk to them. That’s just the kind of person I am,” she said. “That was just my one and only experience with our ombudsman, and I wish that there had been more experiences of a different kind,” she said.
Probed for her insights on how her co-workers viewed Marcano, Kollars said that was an “uncomfortable subject” she was reluctant to elaborate on. “What I can tell you is he got mixed reviews inside the newsroom. Some people liked his work and agreed with the issues he raised, and others didn’t care for it,” she said. “Please don’t make it out like I thought he was horrible. … He’s a nice guy, and I wish him well.”
Marcano’s most internally controversial column, reportedly generating a strong reaction all the way up the chain of command to Executive Editor Rick Rodriquez, was published less than two months ago. Marcano revealed to the Bee’s 289,000 readers that the paper had been beaten in its own backyard by the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times in timely coverage of the official report of the California Performance Review panel. “It was a huge scoop for the Times and the Chronicle. … The Bee was left spitting out the competitor’s dust,” Marcano wrote.
Draft copies of the report were obtained by the Chronicle and the Times—but not the Bee—several days before its formal release. Compounding the disgrace, according to Marcano, was that the Bee misled readers by implying that it also had obtained a copy of the report when, in fact, it hadn’t. A source allowed the Bee to look at the report and take notes, but the paper didn’t get its own copy until later. “A more complete description would have noted that the source allowed the Bee to view the report only after it had been leaked to other newspapers. But that would have required the Bee to admit that it had been beaten on what is ostensibly its own turf,” Marcano wrote. Marcano called the Bee’s misleading representation to readers “disingenuous—it unfairly diminished the accomplishments of the other newspapers and surreptitiously raised the Bee to a level of parity.”
A common theme running through several of Marcano’s columns addresses the detrimental effects that inevitably flow from the capital city’s lack of daily-newspaper competition. “Papers in one-newspaper towns tend to go in one of two directions—either they maintain the competitive drive that led to their survival, or they rest on their laurels and become little media outlets for coupons and comic strips,” Marcano wrote in a column last February. This absence of competitive motivation leads to bland, formulaic stories, according to Marcano. “It’s like a menu of broccoli appetizer followed by broccoli salad, broccoli soup and a broccoli entrée. You can cook it different ways, maybe put some cheese on it and say they’re different dishes. But it’s still all broccoli,” he wrote in March.
“In my mind, the Bee is a straightforward newspaper, and my preference is for papers that are a little bit edgier,” he told SN&R. Was the capital’s esteemed weekly an example? “Maybe not that edgy, but yeah,” he said.
The repetitive tediousness, he explained, was pervasive throughout the Bee’s corporate culture. “I don’t really know one way or the other if there’s some sort of concerted or deliberate effort to make the paper sound essentially the same, [and] I don’t know whether people are adapting themselves to what they see is the newspaper style or whether the newspaper demands that style. So, it’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg thing. I don’t know which came first,” he said.
Marcano also speculates that the Bee’s banality may stem from a legitimate fear of offending readers. “I’ve noticed that there are a lot of Bee readers who want the paper to reflect their sensibilities, more than what’s really going on in the world (to those folks, if it doesn’t meet their worldview, it isn’t news),” he wrote.
Marcano denied one report, attributed to an unnamed source at the Bee, who had claimed Marcano once referred to the paper’s senior editors as “hicks.” He does feel, however, that the paper doesn’t always take a particularly sophisticated tack on how it approaches stories. It’s an abstract concept that’s hard to explain, he said. “[They] don’t really go out on a limb very much … but that’s the paper’s style. And it’s not the way I would do things, but it works for them,” he said.
Veteran Bee federal court reporter Denny Walsh implied that Marcano may have had a point with the alleged hick comment, even if he didn’t make it. “Well we are hicks,” said Walsh. “Sacramento is a hick town.”