Washington Post Will Fill Vacant Reader Rep Role, But Not Revive Ombudsman

Former Ombuds Urge Return to “Truly Independent” Internal Reviewer; Hiatt Declines

After revealing this week that its reader representative had departed, The Washington Post confirmed Friday that there will be a replacement. But the paper made clear that it will not revive the popular ombudsman position that the reader representative supplanted last year.

“We will not bring the ombudsman back,” Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said in an email. “We will continue to have someone in a reader rep role.” He did not indicate when that person would be named.

Hiatt said that while ombudsmen have made valuable contributions to the paper in the past, “we are in an era when we have to make difficult choices.”

The decision comes as former Post ombudsmen and others who hold similar jobs elsewhere urge the paper to bring back the ombudsman job, citing the need for independent reviews.

“I think that's a mistake,” Patrick Pexton, the last Post ombudsman, said this week about the prospect of not reviving the ombudsman job. “I said so when I left in March. I understand the arguments against having an ombudsman, but I don't agree with them."

The newspaper allowed Pexton's contract to expire at the end of February 2013, ending the paper's decades-long tradition of employing an independent contracted ombudsman to critique the paper's reporting. Hiatt subsequently announced that the position would be replaced by a reader representative, a part-time position with less independence and more focus on reader views than internal investigation.

He named Doug Feaver, a former Post editor who had retired in 2006, to the position. But this week Hiatt confirmed to Media Matters that Feaver had left the paper earlier than he was scheduled.

As reader representative, Feaver reported to Hiatt and wrote columns that consisted mostly of reader comments about news issues, not the sort of commentaries on Post reporting that readers had come to expect from the paper's ombudsman.

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.”

This accountability was absent from Feaver's published works. Of his 28 blog posts since April 5, 2013, 26 consisted 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 first 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").

“I looked at almost all of his blog posts,” Pexton said. “Reading between the lines it seems his instructions probably included, or he chose himself, not to make any judgments and I think the key thing an ombudsman does is make judgments.”

Asked about Feaver's work at the paper earlier in the week, Hiatt said that in addition to his public platform, Feaver's job consisted of privately channeling reader questions and concerns to others at the paper ensuring they are responded to properly.

Pexton said bringing back the ombudsman position would have given the Post “a little bit more credibility, they'd have a go-to source for readers if they are upset or concerned. I think that in this era of engagement, having a full time person engage with readers and the staff is crucial, it makes you more responsive, it makes you more credible.”

Andy Alexander, another former Post ombudsman, agreed that Feaver's job description did not go far enough.

“What Doug did, even if he did it very well, was far different than what a truly independent ombudsman would do,” Alexander said. "Anyone who served in the role of Post ombudsman would tell you that its value was that you were truly independent and you were empowered to really cover the Post as a beat. You functioned as a reporter who independently investigated the Post. A truly independent ombudsman is empowered to go into the newsroom and investigate, it goes beyond saying what is on readers' minds.

Alexander pointed to new Post owner Jeff Bezos as someone who could make a difference, stating, “you have a new owner who has deep pockets. I would encourage them to re-instate the position of an independent ombudsman, I think that is the best way to represent the interests of readers.”

Asked Friday what he thought of the push for the ombudsman to return, Hiatt portrayed the position as a valuable asset, but nonetheless a luxury at a difficult time for the newspaper business.

“I understand why Andy, Pat and others feel the way they do. I think our readers gained a lot from their contributions,” Hiatt told Media Matters in an email. “But we are in an era when we have to make difficult choices. With two reporters inside the Post covering the media, including the Post, full time and many more critics writing about us from the outside, this seemed to us like one of the difficult decisions that make sense.”

Hiatt's suggestion that the decision was made at least in part for business reasons appears to contradict his statements in March 2013 that the termination of the ombudsman was “not a financial issue” but rather a deliberate move to reinvent the position for the benefit of readers.

It was not just former Post ombudsmen who urged a reinstatement of the job. Veterans of similar positions elsewhere also chimed in earlier this week, before Hiatt revealed his decision.

“I would love to see [the Post] go back to an ombudsman,” said Edward Schumacher-Matos, National Public Radio ombudsman and former ombudsman for The Miami Herald. He later added, "I just think that ombudsmen are important for helping build trust with the audience and for helping any good journalistic organization. Internally reviewing and questioning itself is good for the journalism and its good for the audience and for the business."

“Particularly for a paper the size and importance of the Post,” he noted. “I think it's especially helpful, a major organization with a large and important audience. It should want to do everything it can to engage that audience. For every organization, it should have its own independent internal critic.”

Arthur Brisbane, who served as public editor at The New York Times from 2010 to 2012, said such a job is still needed even in the age of growing online media commentary.

“My problem with that line of thinking is that the ombudsman is paid to be independent and fair-minded, and unfortunately I don't think you can say that about a lot of the critics and commentary out there,” Brisbane said. “Ombudsmen don't think about attracting readers, or they shouldn't, their job is to think about the facts and make reasonable judgment. If they were to ask me, I'd say continue some kind of position that is founded on some independence.”

For Deirdre Edgar, the four-year reader representative at the Los Angeles Times, an ombudsman is “vital” for the Post.

“As far as what the Post should do, I think it's vital to have a person - a journalist - who is available to listen to readers, whether they're an independent ombudsmen or a readers' representative,” she said via email. “My contact info runs in the paper every day and is onlatimes.com. If readers have a complaint, concern or question, they know they can contact me, and I think that's important to the credibility of the Times."  

Robert Seltzer, public editor at the San Antonio Express-News, agreed.

“I think it is very helpful especially in this day and age to let readers know that you take their concerns into consideration,” he said. “I would think the bigger the paper, the more important it is. You have that many more readers and therefore that many more concerns. The Washington Post is a national paper, in essence, and obviously covers significant issues on a daily basis, plus the readers have a right to know why a newspaper does what it does.”

Then there's Robert Lipsyte, the ESPN ombudsman and a former longtime New York Times reporter and editor. He said the Post and its new ownership would gain a lot by bringing back the ombudsman position.

“One wonders a little bit about The Washington Post now,” Lipsyte said, who later said, “I do not know where their heads are at, but it would be a great first step back to some sort of credibility. There is no question in the world that a responsible news organization should have some sort of independent oversight that really feels his or her responsibility is to the customer. Absolutely, otherwise it is just arrogant entitlement.”