Eliminating The Washington Post Ombudsman Will Save The Paper Criticism, But Not Credibility

Patrick Pexton, the last Washington Post ombudsman.

On Friday, the Washington Post announced a change that may sound procedural, but has enormous implications: after 42 years, the paper will no longer employ an ombudsman to examine the operations and stances of the paper from an independent perspective (Disclosure: the last ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, was a colleague and editor when I started out at National Journal, and remains a friend). Instead, publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote in a note to readers:

We will appoint a reader representative shortly to address our readers’ concerns and questions. 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.

On the face of it, this structure seems like a problem for two reasons. A reader representative is not the same thing as a person who represents the best interests of the Post, and who tries to discern what those interests might be for readers, reporters, editors, and the business side in concert. Reader concerns are only one part of that constellation—though of course they’re an important one—and readers’ concerns may not grow out of an understanding of what it takes to report a news story. Readers’ interests may run counter to journalistic ethics or to quality journalism, as is the case with readers Pexton wrote about in a recent column, who want coverage of homosexuality to give equal weight to discredited ideas about gay people. And readers aren’t the only or most informed critics of most papers: a good ombudsman weighed criticism from media analysts and ethics groups as well as reader concerns. Replacing the ombudsman with a reader representative feels diminishing, a step down to an emphasis on the local reaction to the paper rather than a continued emphasis on the Post’s national reputation.

And even on that scale, this is a worrisome development. How can someone who is employed by the Washington Post itself be expected to truly represent reader concerns against the priorities of the people who sign his or her paycheck? Even if the job is being scaled down to focus on reader concerns, readers should feel more confident if their advocate is financially independent of the paper. And reporters who are criticized by readers should worry about whether they will get a fair hearing against those criticisms given that the person weighing them needs to please their employer as well, and is representing readers, who in turn represent dollars, to the publisher. It’s also notable that Weymouth, rather than Post editor Marty Baron, made the announcement of this change in policy, which seems more about customer service than journalistic integrity. This is a tangled set of incentives rather than one set up to produce firewalls and genuine independence, much less trust from the readers this new position is meant to represent.

In a feature on the decision at NPR, Edward Schumacher-Matos argued that, while it’s not surprising that news organizations, like individuals, might dislike hearing criticism, the best ones embrace ombudsmen as a way of enhancing their own credibility, and as a way of protecting themselves from backlash against free speech. He explained:

Curiously, while the American news media cowers and pulls back, unable to believe in itself, the increasingly free press in so many other parts of the word are adding ombudsmen and improving standards. Even in some places without a long tradition of free press, there is a growing recognition of the link between good public information, on the one hand, and economic development and democracy, on the other, as shown in studies by the World Bank and others.

I am on the board of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen and have watched with delight as the number of ombudsmen has taken off in countries such as India, Bangladesh and South Africa. According to Stephen Pritchard, the president of ONO, Colombia now has 14 ombudsmen working just in television — each with a weekly half-hour show—and Mexican television has five. When Lord Justice Leveson issued his report last November on the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain, he cited having an independent ombudsman as a “best practice” to respond to public complaints.

In other words, the Post’s choice to ditch the ombudsman position doesn’t just make the Post look journalistically anxious. It makes the paper look parochial. And if the Post wants to restore its reputation as a nationally and internationally important news organization, it would do well to look past its own organizational anxieties to international norms for excellence.