The Washington Post says it’s ending the ombudsman’s job, formerly occupied by an independent full-time person, and replacing it with a “reader representative” post, staffed from inside the newspaper and reporting to the editor of the editorial pages. Publisher Katherine Weymouth writes, in part:
The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.
Beginning Monday, you may send questions or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers, in letters to the editor and online comments on Post articles.
In short, while we are not filling a position that was created decades ago for a different era, we remain faithful to the mission. We know that you, our readers, will hold us to that, as you should.
Faithful to the mission? Really?
First, an employee won’t be independent in any way that matters.
Second, the editorial pages of the Post have distinguished themselves — the op-ed columns in particular — as a bastion of mediocrity in recent years. The editor, who has no influence in the newsroom anyway, is hardly the right person to put in charge of this post — and in my own experience he’s been unwilling to correct even this blatant error in a Post editorial.
Finally, it’s not enough to say that media inside and outside the paper will hold it accountable if the organization isn’t really interested in being accountable.
(By the way, I can agree with Weymouth on at least this: The ombudsman’s traditional role makes no sense in a digital world. What does? Here’s what I told the New York Times, at the paper’s request, when it was considering how to move ahead imagining in this role.)
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In my view, the outgoing ombudsman didn’t do his job. He was unresponsive, or responded with a shrug of the shoulders, to the few items I brought to his attention. Do press critics think he did a good job?
Most recently, he punted on a bogus February 4 front-page story touting a non-existent plan to provide free government Wi-Fi for all. When an Ars Technica reporter brought it to his attention, he said, essentially, “Hey, FCC says it’s true, so there.” Trouble was, it wasn’t. (And the story still hasn’t been corrected.)
If the ombudsman isn’t going to do his or her job, why bother filling the position?