The Post’s last om­buds­man?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Pa­trick B. Pex­ton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@wash­

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 last 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.

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