Washington Post Ombudsman Signs Off

Andrew Alexander photo.pngAndrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s ombudsman for the past two years, signs off today in a column that expresses great admiration for the institution he has served—and frustration at its failures, which add up to what readers and he agreed he has been a drop in quality. He writes:

I’ve written before that The Post on its worst days is better than most newspapers on their best days. In print and online, it retains immense influence through journalism that can frame public discourse. And it still produces stunningly ambitious work, such as last year’s “Top Secret America” project on the huge national security buildup and the “Hidden Life of Guns” series tracking firearms used in crimes. Priced lower than most competitors, the newspaper is a bargain.

But it has become riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable “small” factual errors that erode credibility. Local news coverage, once robust, has withered. The Post often trails the competition on stories. The excessive use of anonymous sources has expanded into blogs. The once-broken system for publishing corrections has been repaired, but corrections often still take too long to appear. The list goes on.

It’s obvious that the Post newsroom, on all too many occasions, has either paid insufficient attention to his advice or has ignored it entirely. Perhaps that’s unsurprising. Ombudsmen are never popular inside the organizations they serve, because their job is to hold the insiders accountable.

And never mind the newspaper’s editorial pages, the quality of which has plummeted in recent years. The edit pages have never been part of Alexander’s purview, but they need a reader’s representative vastly more than the news pages, which, as Alexander notes, are still more than capable of doing extraordinarily important journalism.

I had several encounters with Alexander during his tenure. He has been unfailingly gracious, even when we have disagreed on several issues, and when he quoted me he did so accurately and in context—something I cannot say happens consistently..

The ombudsman job at the Washington Post is almost entirely thankless. I can’t imagine why anyone would want it. Alexander Alexander deserves credit for his tenure.

(Photo from Post website)

8 thoughts on “Washington Post Ombudsman Signs Off”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Dan. But, let’s not assume that everything Alexander writes here is accurate. When you lose institutional memory, some try to rewrite history. Alexander gets it wrong here: “The Post is trying to preserve a dying print product while building a new digital one.”

    Actually, The Post had a thriving Web staff and product that news organizations were trying to emulate in the early 2000s. That organization was slowly dismantled as cost-cutting efforts came front-and-center. Smart Web staffers were let go as the print folks won out and became the dominant force in the organization. Perhaps it would have been smarter to merge the newspaper into the online operation.

    1. Steve, good point. I agree with you but the print people won out over the online folks that the Post, a development that has not done the paper any favors. But the print people are smart enough to know that their future is online whether they like it or not. I can’t read their minds, of course, but it sure looks to me as though they’re trying to create a digital product with more print–edition attributes then web–like ones.

  2. I disagree on what ails Post content. Typos, grammatical and factual errors are minor compared to the poor quality of content.

    – Articles seeming to provide a “balanced” perspective in presenting two sides of a picture are often fundamentally out of balance, in that they present two points of view without indicating that one point of view may have more flaws or be held by a very small minority, or at best burying the difference in the article. The false balance obvious bias are apparent.

    – Articles often fail to ask important questions, or fail tp provide qualifiers. The “Top Secret America” series is a good example. They did not ask or attempt to find out how many of contractors with clearances are actually doing top secret or secret work!

  3. Dan, which is the worse Post job? Ombudsman or the writer of columns based on reader comments?

    I write this as a longtime DC resident and reader of the Post, not as a professional journalist. I think the typos, grammar, and fact errors are important. I expect you all don’t see many of them because I find them mostly in the Metro section. I understand that section gets the least-experienced reporters. They have good reporting — I think the section lacks sufficient editing.

    Here are recurring (“riddled” is too strong a word, I think) Metro issues that set people howling in the comments or in neighborhood news groups — or to the ombudsman:

    — Confusing DC’s four quadrants (NW, NE, SE, SW). People who have been here a while don’t do that.

    — Compelling stories that leave out one or more of who, what, why (if known), where, when, or how (if known).

    — Referring to the area in DC east of the Anacostia River as Anacostia, when in fact Anacostia is a small neighborhood within that area.

    — Stories of the down-and-out accompanied by photo galleries showing their new homes, new cars, wide-screen TVs, and teenagers on cell phones.

    — Stories announcing that the police have released a photo or sketch of a crime suspect, but not including that photo or sketch as part of the story.

    There’s more, but you get the idea. Most of us are not professional journalists — this all just seems like common sense to us. It’s a good paper, with good local journalism. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be tightened up.

  4. Here it is February 17th, and to date there hasn’t been a peep out of the Post about a replacement for Alexander. This seems strange, considering that they had plenty of advance notice about his departure date. Makes me wonder whether or not they’re just tired of the entire position, but beyond that, with one exception (Geneva Overholser) the Post’s ombudsmen haven’t been nearly as pointed at the ones in the NY Times.

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