Exclusive: Washington Post Reader Representative Departs, Replacement Unclear

Less than a year after taking the newly created post of reader representative at The Washington Post, Doug Feaver has left the paper, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt confirmed Wednesday.

Feaver, who had served in other positions at the Post but retired in 2006, took the part-time job in March 2013. That announcement came one month after the paper had eliminated its ombudsman position, a mainstay at the paper for more than 40 years. 

The Post's elimination of the ombudsman drew criticism at the time from former holders of the position and other media observers, who said that the ombudsman served a vital purpose as the only independent communication between readers and the newsroom.

Unlike the ombudsmen, who worked on two year contracts, the reader representative was a paid staff member who served at the pleasure of the editorial page editor.

In an email to Media Matters, Hiatt confirmed the departure of Feaver, saying that the reader representative had agreed to work for one year but had “moved the departure date up a bit for personal reasons.”

Hiatt added that the Post is still considering whether or how Feaver will be replaced, saying that Feaver's deputy, Alison Coglianese “may assume the role.”

Feaver, who had served in other positions at the Post prior to his appointment, took the job in March 2013, one month after the paper had eliminated the popular ombudsman position. Feaver's last column ran December 5.

Feaver's appointment drew criticism at the time because it followed the elimination of the ombudsman, a contracted position that was given more independence to critique the paper.

At the time of Feaver's appointment, Hiatt promised that Feaver would be able to fill the ombudsman's shoes.

“While it's true Doug doesn't have the two-year contract that we traditionally gave ombudsman, to me that's not the main difference,” Hiatt told Media Matters at the time. “Nobody who knows him will doubt that he will be totally independent in his judgment and that he will hold us all properly accountable.”

But a review of Feaver's work for the past nine months finds few direct criticisms or reviews of the Post's reporting.

Of his 28 blog posts since April 5, 2013, 26 consisted simply of Feaver aggregating reader comments from Post articles and columns without additional commentary. The other two consisted of a piece declaring the paper free of any conflict of interest regarding the Post's Jerusalem correspondent and Feaver's initial post chronicling the initial inquiries he had received in his position (“the biggest issue to come to my attention was the disappearing print button on the article pages of washingtonpost.com").

Asked about Feaver's work at the paper, Hiatt said that much of the reader representative's role does not show up in print or online.   

“A primary part of the job is responding to reader questions and complaints, directing them to the right person (whether in the newsroom or elsewhere in the company) and making sure they get responded to appropriately,” said Hiatt. “Doug chose to use the public platform mostly, as you say, to distill reader comments on hot topics. Whether that's the most useful thing going forward is one of the questions we are asking.”

Feaver could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Coglianese also did not comment. It is unclear exactly when Feaver departed, but his last column ran December 5.

When the ombudsman position was eliminated almost a year ago, in February 2013, heavy criticism was directed at the Post, including from several former Post ombudsmen.

“Certainly, the role of the ombudsman can and should evolve in the Digital Age,” former Post ombudsman Andy Alexander said at the time. “It makes sense to continue to use new platforms to converse with readers. But there is a huge difference between an ombudsman who merely reflects what readers are saying, as opposed to an ombudsman who has the independence and authority to ask uncomfortable questions of reporters and editors and then publicly hold the newsroom to account.”

Michael Getler, who served as Post ombudsman from 2000 to 2005 and is currently ombudsman for PBS, offered similar concerns at the time

“I think Post reporters and editors will also come to miss it in terms of helping keep standards high,” Getler said when the ombudsman was eliminated. “And I know our small band of news ombudsman will miss it because the Post has always been a mainstay.”