April Update: As I anticipated below, the Washington Post did eliminate the position of ombudsman and replaced it with a down-scaled “reader representative.” The new rep is Doug Feaver, who was invited to take the part-time job and brought out of retirement by Post editor Fred Hiatt, author of some truly horrible Post editorials during the run-up to the Iraq War. Craig Silverman of Regret the Error recently interviewed Feaver for poynter.org. Unlike ombudspersons who work independently from a newspaper’s editors, Feaver conceded to Silverman that “people in the newsroom will always get a heads up about what he’s looking into.” While blowing the whistle on newsroom mistakes is not part of the new post’s mandate, at least Feaver won’t be harboring career ambitions. Maybe he’ll be a bit more independent as a result, or maybe I’m just trying to find a bright side in an otherwise gloomy development at the Post.
Though I don’t live in Washington, D.C., I’ve been a reader of the Washington Post for many years. I read it online and will buy the paper when I can find it in NYC, even though I’ve long been disappointed in some of its editorial stances, particularly over the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as articulated by Fred Hiatt, the newspaper’s editorial page editor. It was also a terrible move when in 2008 they let Dan Froomkin go from washingtonpost.com, where he’d long assembled White House Watch, a daily aggregation of news about the executive branch.
My latest disappointment with the top paper in the nation’s capitol is that, according to media reporter, Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian, they are evidently thinking of eliminating the post of ombudsman at the news organization. The ombudsman, or public editor as the job is described at the New York Times, is a key person who serves as a go-between readers and the management of a news outlet. They are often the only person in a news organization where readers concerned about errors and biased reporting can turn to for redress or clarification. Virtually all news orgs fill this position–from PBS to NPR to the Toledo Blade, to dozens of others–and do it in such a way that the ombudsman is insulated from lobbying and pressures from the newsroom, since it’s his/her job to call out editors and reporters when they make mistakes. At the Times, Margaret Sullivan currently holds the job of public editor. According to Jaffe, the contract for Patrick Pexton, the Post‘s current ombudsman, expires March 1, and Fred Hiatt is making no promises about replacing him:
“’We are in the process of thinking about whether we want to replace Pat with no changes in the role or do it differently,” . . . Hiatt wrote in an e-mail. “We have not made any decisions.’”
Sounds to me that the position of ombudsman is on its way out at the Washington Post, unless some public pressure is brought to bear on Hiatt over the next couple weeks. H/t Dan Froomkin, @froomkin, who tweeted about Jaffe’s column this morning.