Can The Post re­store its luster?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION - An­drew Alexan­der can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@wash­post.com. For daily up­dates, read the omblog at voices.wash­ing­ton­post.com/om­buds­man­blog/.

My fourth-floor of­fice looks out over the main en­trance to The Post. I of­ten glance across 15th Street and see tourists tak­ing pho­tos of the news­pa­per’s iconic name­plate. For so many, The Post has a rep­u­ta­tion for jour­nal­is­tic ex­cel­lence. Will it en­dure?

I’ve pon­dered that ques­tion while craft­ing this col­umn, my last as om­buds­man. So, too, have many of the tens of thou­sands who e-mailed or called dur­ing my two-year term as the read­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive. A dom­i­nant theme has been that The Post’s jour­nal­is­tic qual­ity has de­clined. It’s a view I share.

I’ve writ­ten be­fore that The Post on its worst days is bet­ter than most news­pa­pers on their best days. In print and on­line, it re­tains im­mense in­flu­ence through jour­nal­ism that can frame pub­lic dis­course. And it still pro­duces stun­ningly am­bi­tious work, such as last year’s “ Top Se­cret Amer­ica” project on the huge na­tional se­cu­rity buildup and the “ Hid­den Life of Guns” se­ries track­ing firearms used in crimes. Priced lower than most com­peti­tors, the news­pa­per is a bar­gain.

But it has be­come rid­dled with ty­pos, gram­mat­i­cal mis­takes and in­tol­er­a­ble “small” fac­tual er­rors that erode cred­i­bil­ity. Lo­cal news cov­er­age, once ro­bust, has with­ered. The Post of­ten trails the com­pe­ti­tion on sto­ries. The ex­ces­sive use of anony­mous sources has ex­panded into blogs. The once bro­ken sys­tem for pub­lish­ing corrections has been re­paired, but corrections of­ten still take too long to ap­pear. The list goes on.

Much of this is a re­sult of up­heaval, dis­rup­tion and nec­es­sary cost-cut­ting. Over the past few years, once-sep­a­rate print and on­line staffs have been com­bined. The tra­di­tional news­room struc­ture was blown up and re­con­fig­ured. New editors are in charge. Scores of staffers have been re­as­signed.

And stag­ger­ing fi­nan­cial losses have re­quired un­re­lent­ing ex­pense re­duc­tions to re­store prof­itabil­ity. The loss of news­room tal­ent, through forced buy­outs and vol­un­tary de­par­tures, has been breath­tak­ing. Some of the most re­spected Post jour­nal­ists have left, along with in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge and lead­er­ship so desperately needed dur­ing a pe­riod of rad­i­cal change.

The Post will con­tinue to face huge chal­lenges. Steadily de­clin­ing cir­cu­la­tion can be slowed but not re­versed. On­line rev­enue is in­creas­ing, but re­mains far be­low that of print. The growth in paid con­tent on mo­bile de­vices, such as iPads, will help. But short term, it may not gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient rev­enue to main­tain the same size news­room.

All this af­fects the jour­nal­ism. The Post is try­ing to pre­serve a dy­ing print prod­uct while build­ing a new dig­i­tal one. In the process, tra­di­tional stan­dards and prac­tices are be­ing tested. Eth­i­cal dilem­mas abound. Should celebrity pho­tos be used on the home­page to gin up traf­fic? Should The Post link to break­ing news­re­ports that it can’t in­de­pen­dently ver­ify? Such ques­tions have ex­posed a jour­nal­is­tic cul­ture clash in the news­room and cre­ated an iden­tity cri­sis as The Post strug­gles to rec­on­cile its print and on­line per­sonas.

It also has prompted read­ers, and many in the news­room, to won­der if The Post has lost its jour­nal­is­tic com­pass. It hasn’t.

Dur­ing my ten­ure, I’ve re­peat­edly scolded The Post for jour­nal­is­tic short­com­ings, some of them un­fath­omable. But I have never ques­tioned its com­mit­ment to re­spon­si­ble jour­nal­ism. That starts at the top with Post Co. chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive Don­ald E. Gra­ham, a revered fig­ure in the news room (de­servedly so) who­has re­spect and love for news­gath­er­ing.

The Post also un­der­stands that open­ing it­self to crit­i­cism can en­hance in­tegrity and cred­i­bil­ity. Each Satur­day, the Free for All page is filled with reader com­plaints about jour­nal­is­tic per­for­mance. The fol­low­ing day, the om­buds­man’s col­umn of­fers more crit­i­cism (and oc­ca­sional praise). Many read­ers are un­aware that the om­buds­man op­er­ates un­der a con­tract that guar­an­tees to­tal in­de­pen­dence. I re­port to no one.

The Post and its jour­nal­ism will sur­vive. But the ques­tion is: At what level of qual­ity?

That de­pends largely on those in the news­room. They are among the best in the busi­ness, yet many are dispirited by change and un­cer­tainty. Man­agers must in­spire. But ev­ery­one, from print vet­er­ans to dig­i­tal pro­duc­ers, must com­mit to cre­ate a new legacy of ex­cel­lence.

Read­ers also play a crit­i­cal role, de­mand­ing the best jour­nal­ism.

And the new om­buds­man, to be named soon, must serve as their strong ad­vo­cate and a dogged in­ter­nal critic.

Om­buds­men can­not com­mand change. As The Post’s Style­book says, “He is not God; he is not even one of the an­gels.”

Rather, the om­buds­man’s job is tomake those in the news­room “ think about their au­di­ences, their stan­dards and the qual­ity of their jour­nal­ism.”

In the end, it’s all about qual­ity.

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