[OUTLOOK]Seeing ourselves as others see us

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[OUTLOOK]Seeing ourselves as others see us

Success crowned the first meeting of the Ombudsman Committee, if success is defined as an interesting lunch.

This newspaper wants to get to know its readers a little better. To that end, we organized a panel -- Koreans and Westerners, subscribers and not -- to meet monthly for lunch and a conversation about the newspaper's coverage, and about media issues in Korea generally. We named it the Ombudsman Committee.

"Ombudsman" is a Swedish word. It refers to a government official appointed to receive and investigate complaints by citizens about public officials. Many U.S. newspapers appoint an ombudsman to stand between the reader and the paper, answering readers' queries and complaints while also passing their views to newspaper management.

That was the idea behind our Ombudsman Committee. Tell us what you like about the paper, what you don't like, what you don't understand. Should we add more sports news? Is the cultural coverage interesting and helpful? Is there enough about politics -- or too much?

We met over a Chinese meal at a downtown hotel. I brought along a few editors and reporters from our staff, thinking that they might like to hear from the readers, and that the readers would be interested to put faces on the people who produce the newspaper.

Most of our ombudsmen were complimentary and kind -- they were getting a free lunch, after all. But it didn't take long for suggestions for improvement to emerge.

No. 1 on many minds was the pagination. Why are the weather map and TV schedule on Page 2? Shouldn't this prime display space be used for prime news, instead of the horoscope?

We in the newsroom have asked ourselves this more than once. If there is an answer, it is that an eight-page paper has no ideal arrangement. The only likely alternative, if we are to keep business news together, would be to transpose the Page 2 tables with the Page 7 editorials. The present pagination looks ahead a year or so, to the time when we will be a 12-page paper and will need Page 2 for additional national news. Rather than move the editorials to Page 2 and then move them again next year, it seems more stable to anchor them on the inside back page, where many U.S. papers put them.

Sonia Reid Strawn, a professor of English at Ewha Womans University, reminded us that our Western readers are not necessarily transients or people serving temporary assignments. She came to Korea in 1967 and speaks fluent Korean. She does not need for our paper to be a "window into Korea" for those isolated by the language barrier. She would like us to penetrate deeper into Korea and fill the gaps she finds in the Korean press.

That's what we want from our readers -- a challenge to grow.

Suzannah Oh, another longtime resident of Korea, was interested in articles translated from the Korean JoongAng Ilbo. A translator herself, she regularly spots infelicities and inaccuracies.

For poor translation, we can only apologize and promise to improve. A couple of points may be noted, however. The editorials and columns on the opinion page are intended to be accurate translations, but news stories undergo a second, "cultural" translation.

There are substantial differences between the way journalism is practiced in Korea and in Western countries. An example is the "lead" of a story, or the first paragraph. In Korean papers, the lead tends to establish the authority of the story: "A meeting, convened at the direction of President Kim Dae-jung and presided over by Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, was held at the Unification Ministry yesterday." A Western newspaper's lead will get to the point of the meeting: It was decided to ship rice to North Korea.

Sometimes the cultural translation explains things that every Korean knows, but foreigners don't: What is Chuseok? Some-times, it asks a question that the Korean reporter did not ask: the American side's version of the "subway incident," when, accor-ding to Korean papers, three U.S. GIs, without provocation, at-tacked a group of Koreans. Thus, our translators edit, supply added material and sometimes reorganize stories. Translating is an important part of their job, but so is journalism -- not that it excuses infelicities and inaccuracies.

We were prepared for criticisms of the pagination and translation. but Moon Chang-surk's comment surprised us. Our J-Style page, the back page, usually draws the most praise of anything in the paper. Readers like its unpredictable variety of serious and light topics, examined in some depth. Mr. Moon, however, finds that unpredictable variety jarring. One day it's about suspicious deaths in the army, the next it's about teenagers' fads. To Mr. Moon, a public relations specialist at Doosan and therefore professionally aware of image and presentation, it seems a jumble, at war with itself.

I can't promise corrective action soon. Again, it's an eight-page paper. Longer, more thoughtful material must go somewhere or be left out of the paper. In our 12-page paper next year, maybe it can be the anchor of Page 2, with the TV listings on Page 10. I'm looking forward to next year, aren't you?

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the Ombudsman Com-mittee meetings in the coming months. I will learn a lot, and so will you, for the Ombudsman panelists will speak for themselves, in columns on this page.


Hal Piper is editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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