Doug Feaver has no illusions about his new job.
“My primary mission is to respond to readers,” says the Washington Post’s new reader representative.
In other words, he is not an ombudsman.
“This is different — I’m not [charged with] holding the newsroom accountable,” he said in a recent phone interview, adding that “if there were some very difficult subjects that come up, or some obvious matter, I would try to explain how it happened and do the reporting with who is involved, but I wouldn’t be doing what the previous ombudsman was doing.”
Feaver started his career at the Post in 1969 and held many roles over the course of 36 years, including washingtonpost.com executive editor. He at one point wrote the Post’s dot.comments blog, which highlighted reader feedback and discussion.
That blog ended in 2010 and Feaver was enjoying his retirement when longtime colleague and current Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt reached out to ask if he’d take the reader representative job.
“He approached me on this one and said, ‘You know, we’re getting a lot of reader comments; I wondered if you’d be interesting in taking a look at that and seeing if something can be done with this?’ ” Feaver said.
The job, which is part-time, was introduced by Post publisher Katharine Weymouth at the same time she announced the paper would no longer employ a full-time, independent ombudsman. (As for being pulled out of retirement, Fever half-jokingly told me that “my job is a half day job, which is probably a little bit more than I want.”)
Weymouth’s announcement was criticized by those who saw the Post abandoning an important aspect of accountability. Feaver said he’s aware of such concerns, but isn’t bothered by them. “My ego isn’t distressed by it,” he said.
But should the Post have an ombudsman as well as someone who just responds to readers?
“I’m going to duck that one if you don’t mind,” he said.
Feaver works with a full-time assistant who filters through voicemails and reader emails to find ones that relate to the Post’s journalism. He said it’s important to ensure readers get a response.
“There is no question that we need to be talking with the people who look at our website or look at the printed newspaper — we need to communicate with these folks,” he said.
I asked if he sees himself as an internal advocate for readers, or if he’s there to simply offer factual responses to questions about the Post’s journalism.
“I guess I’m a bit of an advocate for readers because I also regard myself as the responder to all those different questions, an explainer of what journalism is about,” he said.
Now, about that first blog post. Feaver’s first entry was about a topic that at least one media critic deemed highly pedestrian: the disappearance of the print button from the Post’s article pages. Feaver said he took it up because “so many” readers asked about it: “I got a ton of phone calls and emails saying, ‘Where the hell is the print button?’ So I thought it was worth writing about.”
In short order, the button was back on the Post’s site. Feaver said the episode calls attention to one of his standard operating procedures: people in the newsroom will always get a heads up about what he’s looking into.
In the case of the print button, the Post design team knew Feaver had received complaints and was going to blog about them. (His second post curated reader response to a Post story Feaver deemed “terrific.”)
Feaver says he won’t hesitate to bring reader questions and concerns to the relevant people at the Post. So far, he said, “nothing has come up where it seemed to me that I needed to go and review with a reporter or an editor to find out what the hell went wrong here.” But, he added, “I certainly would have no problem doing that.”
Would he also be willing to suggest a change if he felt the paper could do better?
“You know, that’s very hard to answer,” he said, adding that “if things need to be recommended I will follow and feel free to do that, but I’m saying that as a generality. … I will be reluctant to say that, you know, there’s a problem there.”
Before ringing off to get back to the email queue, Feaver again said it’s too early to know exactly how things will play out.
“We’re really in the first five minutes,” he said.