OVER THE past 27 years, Kate Parry has worked at both Twin Cities dailies in a variety of capacities, ranging from restaurant critic to senior editor. In December 2004, she took on a new role as the Strib’s ombudswoman, which has her fielding 50-some phone calls and dozens more e-mails from readers each day.
In addition to reporting reader feedback at the daily news meeting, Parry works to educate the paper’s audience about news processes. (In February, she sponsored a headline-writing contest in which the winner got to spend a night at the copy desk.) She’s made an extra effort to reach out to readers in north Minneapolis, reinstated a follow-up survey that’s sent to sources to spot-check accuracy after stories have been published (watch out, Jayson Blair wannabes), and is in the process of forming a reader group she can quickly query when questions arise about news coverage—or the comics page.
What’s on your voice mail right now?
Today people are very upset about the language in Doonesbury. [Garry Trudeau] uses the phrase “Turd Blossom,” which is a little nickname President Bush has for Karl Rove. There are readers who simply don’t want a word like turd in the newspaper.
What are some of the strangest calls you’ve received?
I had a woman contact me to tell me what [zodiac] sign she was and what her boyfriend’s sign was and did I think it would work out for them. I’m not the ombudsman of the zodiac. I had a lady call me up one day and say, “I’ve got a big brick of silver, what should I do with it?” She just wanted advice.
You’ve said you’re outraged by New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s jail sentence. What are its larger implications?
It sends the signal to people who work in government, or to the public, that if you talk to a journalist about something that might be wrong in government, the journalist would have to be willing to go to jail to prevent you from being revealed as the source of that information. [That] has a horrifying, chilling effect on the free flow of information in this country.
Why do you believe a federal shield law is so important?
Most people in the public don’t have the time to search records or interview and cultivate sources to get the information they need about their government to know whether they want to employ those particular officials the next time there’s an election. They turn to journalists to do that. We’re trained to do it, and that’s the function we serve on behalf of the public. You can’t do that very well if you can’t carefully use anonymous sources. I’m not a big fan of using a lot of anonymous sources, but once in a while it’s the only way to get information that’s crucial to the public good.
You recently had to call a foul on sports pooh-bah Sid Hartman when he lent his name to a scholarship and fundraising campaign for the University of Minnesota’s athletic program—an organization he covers. How did you learn of the conflict?
It was in the newspaper, actually, in this brief item that ran in the sports section. A member of the staff who thought it was unethical said, “Did you see this?” And I took one look at it and was stunned and began trying to figure out what was going on.
Did you take some heat for your opinion?
I could not have envisioned there would be a week in my life when I’d end up in both Joe Soucheray’s and Sid Hartman’s columns. I have a pretty thick skin. We kind of laughed about it.
What’s the value of the newspaper critiquing itself?
There aren’t many businesses that put out a product from the ground up every single day of the year, and put their names on it, and if they make a mistake publish a correction the next day for the whole world to see. We think that publishing those corrections helps build our credibility.