Why I'm disappointed the Washington Post is hiring a "reader representative" instead of replacing its ombudsman
It’s not a good practice to judge a thing before it has occurred.
So I won’t say without exception that the Washington Post’s idea to convert its ombudsman job to a reader’s representative is totally bogus. But it sure seems that way.
According to a note posted by the newspaper’s publisher, Katherine Weymouth, “the world has changed” so the newspaper will hire a reader representative, who will be a Post employee and “write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time” to address reader concerns.
Ombudsmen (and women), are usually hired for a specific amount of time, with an independent contract and a regular column space in the newspaper. The idea is to create a position at the newspaper but not of the newspaper; a respected journalist who could independently challenge the newspaper to explain itself to the world regularly.
This setup gave ombudsmen them the freedom to challenge anyone at the newspaper, from the most successful reporter to, ahem, the publisher herself.
A reader representative with no set publication window who works for the newspaper sounds less like an independent challenger than a spin machine for his or her employer.
It’s easy for me to write this, I know, given that the Tampa Bay Times doesn’t have an ombudsman. But that’s exactly why I have always valued newspapers which do feature them; it’s an extra level of accountability few other major institutions in American business or media employs.
The Post's outgoing ombudsman Patrick Pexton, told an interviewer that the ombudsman can get answers from reporters who won't talk to readers. I confess, I wonder what he would have written about the dustup between the White House and star reporter Bob Woodward, who seemed to think a mild e-mail admonishment equaled a threat from the administration.
That these jobs have become an endangered species, may say more about where our industry is headed than anything else.