First Mover: Edward Schumacher-Matos

The outgoing Miami Herald ombudsman is jumping the print ship for National Public Radio

Adweek: You have quite a last name.

Edward Schumacher-Matos: It’s a mouthful, I know. I was born in Colombia and I came to this country when I was young.

AW: Being an ombudsman puts you in the unique position of being paid to critique your employer.

ESM: First and foremost you’re the representative for the listeners and whatever complaints or worries they have.

AW: We would imagine you risk alienating some of your colleagues.

ESM: You hope you don’t. What you are trying to do is you’re all trying to make coverage better. It’s just an extra set of eyes, another person on the outside looking at it independently to see if we’re doing the best we can do.

AW: Is it naïve to think reporters’ opinions don’t occasionally seep into or guide coverage of any given topic?

ESM: I don’t think people purposely put their opinion in a column; it’s just a set of tools you’re working with. It’s an unconscious thing oftentimes.

AW: How do you envision this job at NPR compared to the Herald?

ESM: It is a more involved, more intense thing. I was writing the Herald column every other week. This is weekly, it’s a national stage. It’s the huge debate around NPR and public media. It’s in Washington. It’s politically very sensitive. The audience is bigger, all those things.

AW: Would you have handled the Juan Williams or Vivian Schiller situations differently?

ESM: Those happened before my time, so I don’t want to get too much into it. I think everyone more or less agrees, inside and outside NPR, that some of these weren’t handled very well.

AW: Has the position of ombudsman changed at all because of those high-profile scandals?

ESM: No. Lisa [Shepard] did things her way and she was awfully good. She’s going to be a hard act to follow.

AW: What does one call a female ombudsman anyway?

ESM: [Laughs] You’d have to ask Lisa.

AW: Your favorite NPR show?

ESM: Gee, they’re all great. Honestly, they really are.

AW: You launched your own chain of Spanish-language dailies in Texas, just as newspaper advertising was tanking. How can we trust your judgment?

ESM: [Laughs.] Sometimes you learn the most from your failures. I’d do it all over again.

AW: You’ve worked for newspapers with some reputation of being biased one way or the other. How do you combat conspiracy theories of how newsrooms are run?

ESM: That’s one of the reasons you have an ombudsman. You have somebody who says, “I hear you complaining about that; let me take a look, and let me lay it all out for you.” Some people you’re just never going to convince. But one of the great things I love about this ombudsman job is that some issues don’t really have black-and-white answers.

AW: Well, and standards are always changing.

ESM: What’s right and wrong today—or the framing of different issues—will change over time. You’re not only trying to pass judgment on coverage, you’re trying to assess what do we, as a society, think is right and wrong? How is this going to ring with listeners at this point in our history, and how is it going to look 30 years from now? It’d be nice to say that there’s some absolute standard of right and wrong on these issues, but there isn’t.