Washington Post Replaces Ombudsman With Part-Time Employee Pulled From Retirement

The Washington Post's new reader representative, Doug Feaver, made clear when he was offered the position that he did not want it to be full time.

And it appears he is getting his wish, according to Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, who said Feaver, a former Post editor who has been retired since 2006, will likely spend just two or three days a week on the job and have no set weekly column.

Feaver replaces Patrick Pexton, who as Post ombudsman was hired on a two-year contract that allowed complete independence. The Post has had such an ombudsman for more than 40 years.

“Doug will be part time and we've agreed that he'll kind of feel his way and figure out after some time how part time,” Hiatt said Thursday, just hours after announcing Feaver had taken the job. “Right now, I'm sort of assuming it's two or three days a week. I've said to him 'If you find out it needs to be more, we're open to that, or if you find eventually we only need one person, I'm open to that,' I have huge confidence in Doug so I am kind of leaving it to him to figure out what's the best way to make the job work.”

Hiatt announced on Thursday that Feaver would be hired as a part-time employee and work with Alison Coglianese, a full-time staffer who had served as assistant to the Post ombudsman for years.

Hiatt says that concerns that a reader representative employed by the Post will have less independence than the paper's traditional ombudsman are misplaced. 

“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 said. “Nobody who knows him will doubt that he will be totally independent in his judgment and that he will hold us all properly accountable.”

Feaver said he happened to get the job somewhat by accident, explaining that he was visiting Hiatt on another subject a week ago and Hiatt asked him about the position.

“I was in to see Fred on an entirely unrelated matter and he said 'what would you think about this?' and I said 'that could be very interesting.' So that's how the conversation started,” Feaver, 73, said. “We were just talking, within the past week. I told him when we started talking I wasn't the least bit interested in a full-time job.”

Asked why, Feaver added: “I've been retired, officially retired for the last several years and it was very nice to be asked to come back and do something. But it wasn't going to get into another one of these 60-hour week situations that I did for a long time.”

Feaver worked at the Post from 1969 to 2006, serving in jobs that included reporting and editing for the Metro, Business and National staffs, as well as executive editor of washingtonpost.com.

When Hiatt first hinted several weeks ago that the ombudsman position might be eliminated after Pexton's two-year term was up, concerns were raised by Post critics and some former Post ombudsmen that the self-criticism of the paper would be negatively impacted.

Hiatt said he realized the change would spark criticism, but said he believed it was a better approach and claimed financial concerns were not part of the decision.

“When I started thinking about this it was not a financial issue, it doesn't come out of my budget,” Hiatt said. Instead, Hiatt says he saw the end of Pexton's term as a way to reinvent the role. He says the ombudsman's weekly column was no longer relevant and that the paper needed a new way to “focus this on serving readers and holding the paper accountable.”

Asked if the ombudsman position could have been kept but with more of an online emphasis, he said, "It could have and I should say in fairness Patrick Pexton had a blog. But I would say, generally for our ombudspeople over the last few terms, the column has been the priority."

Hiatt says that replacing the independent ombudsman with a reader representative responsible to the paper's editors was necessary to ensure that the employee would adhere to this shift in the “nature of the output.”

“In theory it could be but in practice with an independent ombudsman that means not only did I have no control over content but I had no control over the nature of the output. I felt that if we wanted to, if we had definite ideas about the priorities that were important it made sense to put ourselves in a position to enforce those priorities.”

So you would have more control over what the person would be looking at under the new approach?

"No, more of a control over the form of output, if I want to say 'I really want this to be more digital and less about a weekly column in print,' I can say that now. With an independent person, I could say it, but it wouldn't necessarily happen.  

He says that this could allow the paper's editors to exercise more control over the position's subject choices “in theory, but we won't and I think if we tried you would hear about that from many people in the newsroom very quickly.”

Asked about the editor's comments, former Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser called Hiatt's reasoning “both confusing and disturbing.”

“I think this is a real shame,” Overholser, who served as Post ombudsman from 1995 to 1998, said Thursday. "The Post is weakening a great institution and also thereby weakening itself." 

Andy Alexander, who served as Post ombudsman before Pexton, praised Hiatt's and Feaver's credibilty, but, he stressed, “the core issue is whether it was necessary to abandon a decades-old tradition of employing a truly independent Post ombudsman in order to achieve a greater digital focus. Let's be clear: the role of the ombudsman does need to evolve in the Digital Age. But why not simply write a job description for a new ombudsman that emphasizes digital priorities and then pick a candidate committed to faithfully following through? I think this could have been done without appearing to forsake the notion of independent oversight, which Post readers greatly value and appreciate.” 

Hiatt says that Feaver will still be able to offer the same independent criticism of the paper an ombudsman would, saying that the representative will have a “direct pipeline” to himself and other top editors at the paper in case other Post personnel refuse to cooperate.

For his part, Feaver is not concerned about his independence or his ability to properly critique the newspaper. “Well, I suppose we'll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said. “Internal criticism is a daily fact there and it doesn't hurt once in a while when it gets external. I'm sure there will be a time or two when somebody will be unhappy with me.”

Feaver said he knows “it is not an ombudsman” position and that he can be fired at any time, but says that does not worry him.

“I think a reader representative is a good title for what I see the job being. It is not an ombudsman. Readers have questions, but I also want to make sure that the impression is sent that the door is open to ask us about it and we'll try to get some answers,” he said. “We'll do a little blog and see where it goes.”

Although Feaver will report to publisher Katharine Weymouth, and Hiatt and executive editor Marty Baron “as needed,” Hiatt believes he can properly criticize the editorial page if needed.

“Other than the positions we take in editorials I think our practices, to the extent to which we meet or fall short of journalistic standards, are fair game,” he said “and I would expect Doug and Alison to respond to people's questions about the opinion side, which is one reason we didn't want it just with a reporting relationship to me.”

Hiatt said the decision to change to a reader representative was made by Weymouth, but with input from himself and Baron.

“It is sort of the way we've always done it, the publisher with advice from me and the executive editor,” Hiatt said. “Looking for somebody with good judgment and experience and knowledge of the news business, ideally on both the print and digital side, which Doug has, and somebody with stature to make clear that the publisher thinks this is an important position and that will enable him to get answers in the newsroom on behalf of readers.”