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Ombudsman

Find space to preserve Stripes’ independence

By ERNIE GATES | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: April 12, 2012

Stars and Stripes readers deserve to have confidence that the newsroom and the Department of Defense live by this plain command in Stripes’ formal operating directive: “There shall be a free flow of news and information to its readership without news management or censorship.”

That’s why the search should continue for an alternative to relocating Stripes’ central office and newsroom into the same building as the next step up in its chain of command — Defense Media Activity at Fort Meade, Md.

In fact, the search should expand, both in its time frame and in the scope of its review of alternative office space.

As things stand, planning continues for a move to Fort Meade in October, shortly before Stripes’ lease is up at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, in response to objections to the move and questions in Congress, DMA has surveyed DOD space within the National Capital Region — essentially the commuting zone around Washington. Among the locations considered were Fort Belvoir and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia, Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and even elsewhere on Fort Meade.

“There was no space to move Stripes to,” DMA Director Mel Russell told me.

Contrary to Stripes’ publisher, editorial director, many staff members and the publisher’s advisory board, plus the country’s leading journalism associations, Russell doesn’t believe co-locating in the heart of command-centered media operations poses much actual risk to Stripes’ independence. “Their concern about oversight of editorial is unwarranted,” he told me. “There are protections built in — to include you as ombudsman. The possibility would exist anywhere. It’s not increased.”

But he said he understands the argument that proximity could create the wrong perception, and that perception matters. “Had we found other DOD space, we’d have considered moving them there,” he said.

So explore government space in the National Capital Region beyond DOD.

Yes, if non-DOD space were found, Stripes would become a paying tenant of another part of the federal government, so the rental savings wouldn’t come back to the defense budget. But other idle, government-owned or government-leased space would be put to good use, which would still benefit taxpayers.

And don’t rush the search. Check the longer horizon across government space in the region. Downsizing, reuse and consolidation are themes across the federal budget these days. What’s going to become available by October 2013?

Recognizing that moving Stripes’ operations will be complex and that the staff would have to make significant adjustments in commuting and other arrangements, DMA checked the prospect of a short extension of Stripes’ private lease. Russell said the lessor wanted a one-year extension.

Sounds like time to bargain for something in between — and buy time for a more thorough exploration of costs, benefits, risks and alternatives.

For example, no one at Stripes opposes the idea of saving taxpayers money by moving out of private space and into either government-owned space or underused space already under longer-term government lease. But the savings DOD would get from moving Stripes to Fort Meade needs a closer look. Russell’s estimate — and DOD’s — is $1 million a year. That’s more than the Stripes lease and associated costs, so the basis for that number isn’t clear. Nor is the cost of the actual relocation counted against the savings.

Moving Stripes anywhere will be complicated, especially to ensure there is no interruption in its print or Web service, which Russell intends to guarantee by thorough planning and preparation. At the new DMA building, Russell has assigned most of one floor to Stars and Stripes, with a separate entrance, systems firewall and other accommodations to reinforce that it is apart from the command-centered media in the rest of the facility. Teams from Stripes and DMA have been working to see how to reconfigure the space as a newsroom with appropriate workstations and to sort out issues such as IT systems, phones and the special requirements of Stripes’ one-of-a-kind archive. Some of that work would translate to new space other than at Fort Meade.

But this relocation is about more than workstations, new commutes and saving some rent. As Publisher Max Lederer has said, he has plans for cost savings to meet the DOD target without jeopardizing Stripes’ reputation for independence.

Maintaining that reputation is a unique challenge for Stripes, considering that it formally reports through a chain of command in the DOD, which is also its primary subject. Moving the newsroom’s decision-makers to the main operations facility of command-centered media gives readers reason to doubt Stripes’ independence, when leaders at DMA and up the chain should give readers reasons to trust it.

There has been some rustling in Congress since Russell presented this relocation to the Stripes staff in February. Especially notably, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, expressing concern.

Levin’s staff said Wednesday that he had not yet received a response, but DOD has replied to a similar query from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. That reply counts on $1 million in savings, says no other DOD space is available and rejects the argument that Stripes’ independence will be threatened by moving in with DMA.

That’s essentially Russell’s case, so it appears the DMA director has backing upstairs at the Pentagon.

That leaves Congress, which has stood up for Stripes’ independence before. Russell himself told me last week, “The Hill is still looking at it. It’s not a dead issue on the Hill.”

Blumenthal wrote to Panetta after hearing objections from Reid MacCluggage, chairman of Stars and Stripes Publisher’s Advisory Board.

“It appears to be a hasty decision,” MacCluggage said Wednesday. “They ought to go back and do their due diligence. Extend the lease so a thorough examination can be done.”

Washington works in mysterious ways, so let’s hope that the lag in the reply to Chairman Levin is a hint that something along those lines may be in motion.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

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