Washington Post’s new ombud replacement ‘sounds like a customer relations person’

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth announced Friday that the newspaper would not appoint a new ombudsman, because “The world has changed, and we at The Post must change with it.”

The paper will instead appoint a “reader representative” to answer communications from readers. “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,” Weymouth wrote.

How’d that go over?

The new job “sounds like a customer relations person,” NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos writes.

As often as not, I disagree with complaints. But by taking them seriously, even those made by advocates, I find that it disarms the critics, or at the very least wins their appreciation. Listeners, readers and viewers want above all to know that someone with independent power in the organization is actually listening to them and acting on their complaints.

One, moreover, would be foolish not to listen to an audience as smart as NPR’s, and even extremist advocates can be right. Receiving a pro forma response to a complaint, or having your complaint read on air, is a far cry from having someone believable actually investigate your complaint and get to the truth. The online stories cited by Weymouth are at least a public response, which is good, but the stories sound as if they could be written by the public relations department. If they are that way, it is unlikely to win much credibility among readers.

Philip Seib remembers his dad’s turn as Post ombudsman:

My father, Charles B. Seib, was the Post’s ombudsman from 1974 until 1979. He had had a long career in journalism, culminating with his being managing editor of Washington’s other major paper, the Evening Star. When he came to the Post, he became the only employee of the paper with a contract that guaranteed him independence. He signed on for a five-year term and if the higher-ups at the paper wanted to get rid of him before that time, they would be obligated to pay him for the remainder of his term. He wrote a weekly column, “The News Business,” that was syndicated nationally, and he wrote internal memos — often several each day — critiquing the Post’s product. He was always accessible to the public. At times, he got into tussles with the Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham (the current publisher’s grandmother), but they always ended amicably. Somewhere I have a nice note that Mrs. Graham sent to my father; she had complained about his saying kind things about the New York Times, but they soon worked out their differences.

• “Presumably the first task for the new reader representative will be to field all the complaints about the elimination of the ombudsman,” a commenter on Weymouth’s piece writes.

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  • buckguy

    The Post hasn’t been serious about it’s ombudspersons. The previous ones have basically towed the management line. I’m not surprised that Weymouth, who appears to have gotten her MBA from a cereaal box, would frame it this way.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnHamer John Hamer

    Anyone want to try forming a news council in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to act as an “outside ombudsman”? Here’s a model: http://wanewscouncil.org. If we can do it in Seattle, surely they can do it in D.C. Lots of savvy people there who care deeply about high-quality, accurate, ethical journalism, right? If you need help, call the WNC office: 206.262.9793.