Former Washington Post Ombudsmen: Cutting Position Would Be A “Big Mistake.”

Former Washington Post ombudsmen are speaking out against the paper's contemplation of eliminating that position, stating that it serves a vital purpose as the only independent communication between readers and the newsroom.

The ombudsman, which is a contracted job with a defined term, has been a Post staple since 1970, making it among the longest-existing reader representative positions at a major daily newspaper.

But Post officials say that the paper may cut the job when the current term of Ombudsman Patrick Pexton ends on March 1, 2013.

“We haven't decided what we are going to do after Pat leaves,” Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, told Media Matters in an email. “I think it's important that the Post continue to be accountable and to offer readers a way to ask questions or lodge complaints and be confident they will be heard. I'm not sure that having an ombudsman whose primary focus is on writing a weekly column is the best way to achieve that goal.”

Hiatt has recently offered similar comments to Politico and the Washingtonian.

The proposed shift did not sit well with several former Post ombudsmen, who stressed the paper's tradition of using the position to interact with readers and feared that the paper would try to save money by dropping the position.

Andy Alexander, who held the job before Pexton, said eliminating the ombudsman would be a “terrible loss for Post readers.”

“And I'm afraid it would be widely interpreted, fairly or unfairly, as The Post using financial pressures or other reasons as a pretense to get rid of an internal critic,” Alexander, currently a visiting professional at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, said in an email. “From the outset, the role has been to provide readers with access to an independent agent empowered to investigate charges that The Post has not lived up to its high journalistic standards.”

“Certainly, the role of the ombudsman can and should evolve in the Digital Age,” Alexander added. “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.”

Asked about criticism of the Post from former ombudsmen concerned that the paper might eliminate the position, Hiatt said, “I value their opinion, of course, but I hope they'll wait to see what we do before forming final judgments. I also think the media world is quite different from what it was when the Post began hiring ombudsmen.” 

Michael Getler, who served as Post ombudsman from 2000 to 2005 and is currently ombudsman for PBS, also said he hoped the Post would preserve the position.

“I hope that doing away with the ombudsman position does not come to pass,” he said. "The Post, especially, has been the gold standard for this position for more than 40 years in terms of providing true independence for an ombudsman to address issues of substantive editorial concern to readers and to hold the paper to its own high standards. It has given readers a place unlike any other to see their observations addressed independently."

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

As a contracted employee with independent editorial freedom and a defined term, the ombudsman is able to freely review and critique the work of the paper, say veterans of the position.

Such critiques include highlighting conflicts of interest held by Post staffers, criticizing offensive language from the paper's reporters, and pointing to flaws in the paper's reporting.

Geneva Overholser, who served as Post ombudsman from 1995 to 1998, said she hoped that if changes are made to the position, it will still provide the interaction with the media that readers have come to expect.

“The Post has been a leader in ombudsmanship,” she said. “And the paper and its readers have benefited again and again from having this position. If Fred [Hiatt] thinks the weekly column is a problem, there are lots of possible adjustments that could enliven the role.”

“It will be interesting to see what options Hiatt is considering. If the paper is mainly doing this to save money it will be a real shame and a big mistake,” she added.

For Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism who served as Post ombudsman in 1972, the lack of an ombudsman would be “unfortunate.”

“The ombudsman is not only a useful function, but I think more people read the criticism than read the news itself,” he told Media Matters by phone. “If you make a mistake, or people think you did, you can explain to people and increase their confidence in the paper and they know that you listened to the readers.”

Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and a former NPR ombudsman, said the Post would be taking a “step backward” if they dropped the position.

“It would be a step backward I think in the role of public accountability for a major media organization,” he said in an interview. "The Post has a long and quite glorious tradition of great ombudsmen and for them to sever that path, break that connection, would be, I think, a mistake."

“The ombudsman does three things, in my experience... making the newsroom accountable to the public, helping management understand that there is not a choice between great journalism and corporate reputation, but most importantly the public has a great hunger to connect with journalism and journalists.”