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From AJR,   February/March 2013  issue

A Disappointing Move by the Washington Post   

One of the first news outlets in the U.S. to appoint an ombudsman is eliminating the position. Mon., March 4, 2013.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

The Washington Post's decision to eliminate its ombudsman position is truly disappointing.

An ombudsman provides an excellent avenue for a news outlet to engage in a true conversation with its audience. Having an independent figure to hear readers' complaints, and then investigate and write about them, says eloquently that a news organization takes its responsibilities and its customers seriously.

At a time when the public holds the media in such low regard, you would think the position would be more popular than ever. But financial pressures have made newsroom ombudsmen an endangered species.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, told me recently that 14 news outlets had eliminated the position in the wake of the 2008 recession hit. Now we can add another casualty to the list. Dvorkin says that only about 20 U.S. media outlets employ ombudsmen.

The Post's decision is particularly poignant since the paper was one of the first in the United States to create the position. It did so in 1970, three years after the first news ombudsmen in the nation went to work at the Louisville Times and Courier-Journal.

It also comes at a time when Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times, is reinventing the position for the digital age--in a good way. Typically ombudsmen have written weekly columns. But news moves much more quickly than that these days. Controversies play out on the Internet in real time.

So Sullivan, a former editor of the Buffalo News who started on the job in September, blogs frequently, dealing with reader concerns and newspaper missteps as they arise.

Unlike the Post, the Times long resisted naming an ombudsman. It finally did so in 2003, after the paper was massive humiliated by the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal.

Back in 2010, then-Times Executive Editor Bill Keller considered killing the position. But he decided to retain it, on the grounds that it served an important service for the paper.

"It's a healthy check, and it's a good way of explaining to the readers what we do in a more systematic way," he told AJR's Alexis Gutter. However, he also made it clear that having a public editor was not his idea of a good time. "I'm not saying I enjoy it," Keller said. "It's like a colonoscopy or a root canal."

In announcing the decision to eliminate the position Friday, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth said she and the Post "remain faithful to the mission" of the ombudsman. She said the paper planned to appoint "a reader representative shortly to address our readers' concerns and questions."

She continued, "Unlike ombudsmen in the past, the reader representative will be a Post employee. The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate."

There are some significant differences there. Perhaps the essential strength of the Post's take on the ombudsman role has been its independence. Ombudsmen have not been staffers, but contract employees hired for a specific period of time. So they don't have to worry about how their criticism of the paper will affect their futures there. And they have had far more freedom than the typical employee.

Also, the regular column gives readers a regular stream of commentary on the paper, a stream that can be even more valuable when it's more frequent, a la Margaret Sullivan.

Weymouth's description of the new gig didn't impress NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, who said it sounded to him "like a public relations person."

There's no doubt that budget pressures on newspapers are extremely intense in the era of digital transformation. It's understandable that every job has to be scrutinized closely. But it's too bad that such a source of accountability so often ends up on the chocking block.

"The world has changed, and we at The Post must change with it," Weymouth said in her announcement. True enough. But at a time when journalism needs more transparency rather than less, this is hardly change we can believe in.

The Post's decision came as no shock. The final ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, warned us this was coming in a column posted on February 15. Pexton, whose last day on the job was February 28, wrote, "For cost-cutting reasons, for modern media-technology reasons and because The Post, like other news organizations, is financially weaker and hence even more sensitive to criticism, my bet is that this position will disappear."

But just because it was expected doesn't make it any less disheartening.