By Patrick Pexton
The Washington Post
It is possible that I’ll be The Washington Post’s last independent ombudsman and that this chair will empty at the conclusion of my two-year term Feb. 28. If so, that will end nearly 43 years of this publication having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative and critic.
Officially, no final decision has been made. Discussions are underway within The Post about how to respond to reader complaints and concerns without an independent ombudsman.
But I think the tea leaves are clear. 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.
Marty Baron, The Post’s new executive editor, astutely laid out the case for and against an ombudsman in a conversation with me this week.
On the pro side, he said, “There is value in having someone internally to whom readers can turn when they feel they’re not getting satisfaction from people in the news organization.” And, that someone, he added, should take his or her cues from the readers, and the subjects The Post covers, and not be just “a person who has an opinion on what we should be doing.”
Baron was stronger, however, in making his case against an ombudsman.
For one, he said, it is not as if The Post doesn’t come in for criticism, from all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age. “There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries,” he said.
He’s right; media critics, appointed and self-appointed, instantly and constantly bombard The Post, often unfairly, with withering criticism in tweets, blogs, you name it.
Secondly, Baron said, there is intense “competition for resources.” You can make a strong argument, he said, for every position in the newsroom, and “anytime you lose even one, you lose something important. But you have to decide what you’re going to give up.”
He’s right again. It is likely that Baron will have to make further cuts in The Post’s newsroom. An ombudsman’s salary is like that of a senior editor’s. It’s a tempting target.
But let me make the case for an ombudsman.
I am not, nor were my predecessors, totally focused on the Sunday column, or on writing what The Post should and should not do.
Despite Baron’s viewpoint, 80 percent of my columns and blog posts have indeed been prompted by reader ideas. Another 10 percent derive from reporters who come to me with a concern they can’t get surfaced through their editors. The rest come from me trying to make sense of a media world gone bonkers, where everything is free and no one can make a profit. I think that’s an appropriate mix.
The Sunday column takes 25 to 30 percent of my time every week. The rest of the time, I and my assistant, Alison Coglianese, are “engaged” — to use new-media speak — with readers. Nights, weekends and “days off,” we are still responding to and researching the incredible volume of reader complaints or concerns that arrive via e-mail, letter and the phone — an average of 5,000 e-mails alone per month.
We prevent multiple home-subscription cancellations every day by just having a sympathetic ear. At $383 per year for a home delivery subscription, we’re earning our salaries in saved subscriptions alone.
Now, in the utopian view of social media, reporters and editors would be responsive to every reader complaint instantly online, eliminating the need for a go-between like an ombudsman.
But in truth, reporters and editors have more demands on them than ever before to be faster, to write more, to tweet, blog, take photos, videos and all the rest. They’re exhausted all the time. And who gets neglected, besides their spouses and kids?
Readers, with their questions and complaints, who tell me they can rarely get a reporter or editor to return their phone call or e-mail.
An ombudsman, then, is often the newsroom’s backstop. I can get to the bottom of most problems and give a straight answer without fear or favor.
Can I say for certain that an ombudsman makes The Post more credible? No, I can’t point to any good study saying that. But people’s trust in the media is declining. Eliminating the ombudsman seems a shortsighted move.
This column was originally published in The Washington Post on Feb. 15, 2013.