AJR  Features :     * WEB ONLY    
From AJR,   December/January 2009

A “Tempting” Opportunity   

Online Exclusive »   Andrew Alexander looks forward to his new gig as Washington Post ombudsman.

By Lindsay Kalter
Lindsay Kalter (lindsay.kalter@gmail.com) is an Ann Arbor-based writer.     

As Andrew Alexander makes the transition from Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers to Washington Post ombudsman, he wants to make one thing clear – he sees his new position as an exciting opportunity, not a backup plan.

The Washington Post announced on December 3 that Alexander would be succeeding Deborah Howell as its ombudsman. That news came one day after Cox revealed the impending demise of its Washington bureau. But Alexander assures those who are curious about the timing that his decision to change jobs is unrelated to the bureau's shuttering.

"I want to perish the thought that I was in some way stepping off a sinking ship," says the 60-year-old Alexander, who has been with the bureau since 1976.

He says Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt approached him about the position in August, about a month before Cox executives came to a final decision about the bureau's future. The bureau, which opened in 1974, is slated to close next April.

Alexander's reason for accepting the job is simple: "It's just too tempting not to."

After more than 30 years in the business, the opportunity to take the position of ombudsman at a large newspaper during such a dynamic time in the field was too good to pass up, he says.

"We have so many challenges as an industry, and the Post has so many challenges as a newspaper," he says. "It just seemed like a terrific opportunity."

Alexander, an Ohio native with a journalism degree from Ohio University, became foreign editor of the bureau in 1989. He continued on to become deputy bureau chief in 1994 and bureau chief in 1997. Before he began his stint in D.C., he was a reporter for the Melbourne Herald in Australia and the Dayton Journal Herald in Ohio.

In his two-year term as ombudsman, Alexander says he plans to be more active on the Web than his predecessors, embracing features like online chats. But, he says, it is too early to know exactly what his goals will be once he assumes his position on February 2.

"I need to get in the paper and really understand it," he says. "The first month is going to be learning. It's a very big, complex, ambitious operation. "

Hiatt says several candidates surfaced in the search for a new ombudsman, a joint effort that also included Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli. Hiatt adds that when he approached Alexander about the position, he did not expect him to be interested in leaving his perch at Cox.

"I had no reason to think he was particularly looking for work," Hiatt says. "It just occurred to me that he had the perfect mix of qualities. To my delight, and a little to my surprise, he was interested in talking further about it."

Hiatt says Alexander, who has been a strong advocate for open government, seemed like a good fit for the job because of his understanding of the journalism business and his staunch commitment to the First Amendment.

Alexander serves on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He also is a member of the board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and cochairman of its Freedom of Information Committee.

"He is somebody who could come into the role of ombudsman and understand what it is reporters and editors are up against day by day, and have the ability to explain the newspaper to readers," Hiatt says. "He's someone who can have a certain empathy for the difficulties of the job, but also a real commitment to fairness and quality."

With an increased focus on online content, Hiatt says the Post also needs an ombudsman who can address the changing standards of news distribution in a multiplatform world.

"It'll be great to have an ombudsmen who can be watching that process with the eye of a practiced, responsible journalist," he says, "and also speaking to readers and viewers about what we're doing and why certain changes are happening."