Outgoing Washington Post ombudsman: ‘My bet is that this position will disappear’

The Washington Post | Washingtonian | The Wrap
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron makes a good case against the newspaper hiring another ombudsman, Patrick Pexton reports. Pexton will end his two-year term at the end of February.

For one, he said, it is not as if The Post doesn’t come in for criticism, from all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age. … Secondly, Baron said, there is intense “competition for resources.” … He’s right again. It is likely that Baron will have to make further cuts in The Post’s newsroom. An ombudsman’s salary is like that of a senior editor’s. It’s a tempting target.

Baron was previously the editor of The Boston Globe, which doesn’t have an ombudsman.

I’m not sure an ombudsman focused as heavily as they have been on a weekly column makes sense any longer,” Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Harry Jaffe earlier this month.

And indeed, former Postie Sharon Waxman writes in The Wrap, digital news sites like hers “don’t have copy editors, much less ombudsmen. (Instead we have spell check!) In the age of declining budgets, an ombudsman may be a luxury, sad to say.”

Pexton writes that his Sunday column “takes 25 to 30 percent of my time every week.” And he spends a lot of time listening to readers, a group of people he says reporters and editors are often too exhausted by the demands of their job to respond to:

We prevent multiple home-subscription cancellations every day by just having a sympathetic ear. At $383 per year for a home delivery subscription, we’re earning our salaries in saved subscriptions alone.

Pexton also mentions he has an assistant, which probably makes the ombudsman line item a little more attractive to budget hawks. On Twitter, Jay Rosen and two other former Post employees booted around thoughts on Pexton’s column:




Pexton joined Jack Shafer for a chat last year about the necessity of the ombudsman role at newspapers; “Let Marcus Brauchli (or a deputy) explain the Washington Post’s screw ups to its readers, not an appointed spear-chucker,” Shafer suggested.

“I think an ombudsmen, on a good day,” Pexton said, “can have real impact on the newsroom, on leadership, and ultimately what appears and doesn’t appear in the paper.”

Related: What role should public editors play in today’s newsrooms? | One month in, Margaret Sullivan talks about the changing role of New York Times Public Editor

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  • buckguy

    In recent memory, whomever has had the WaPo ombubs position has been a defender of WaPo management rather than an actual ombud. I don’t think anyone will miss this slot. that he had an assistant for a nothing position suggests a lot of what’s wrong with the paper.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Siroky/1239859564 Mike Siroky

    And he has an assistant? Sorry, as a lifelong (35 years) newspaper guy, I always looked at the Ombudsman as an expeneisve add-on even in good years. Editors have to be more responsive. I have found, through the years, that real editors really respond. I know I did and I do. If reporters are not responding I get rid of them and get ones who will. Geez, the disonnect is so great already. Why have another layer of editor/columnist/apologist for the readers to deal with.

  • Clayton Burns

    I have never had much use for The Washington Post’s ombudsman. If the main function is to pat some people on the head to prevent them from canceling their subscriptions, I see little point in it.

    It is a strange thing that the Public Editor at The New York Times–surely a more interesting case–does not read the paper aggressively, but is satisfied to work over very laboriously the bad judgment of her reporter-test driver. We know bad judgment when we see it.

    As to how The NYT could have a public editor, but The Boston Globe not, it makes no sense to me.

    Today in The NYT’s front page story “Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain,” continued A11, we have “Composed of roughly 100 billion neurons…the human brain is so complex that…”.

    The Guardian: How many neurons are there in the human brain? It was a question that scientists thought they had nailed – and the answer was 100bn (give or take). If you went looking you would find that figure repeated widely in the neuroscience literature and beyond.

    But when a researcher in Brazil called Dr Suzana Herculano-Houzel started digging, she discovered that no one in the field could actually remember where the 100bn figure had come from – let alone how it had been arrived at. …

    “We found that on average the human brain has 86bn neurons. And not one [of the brains] that we looked at so far has the 100bn. Even though it may sound like a small difference the 14bn neurons amount to pretty much the number of neurons that a baboon brain has or almost half the number of neurons in the gorilla brain. So that’s a pretty large difference actually.” [END]

    So how do we account for the unqualified perseveration of the figure in the NYT, and still on the website? The Public Editor has to be a sharp reader, so that the number 100 billion would light up for her as if it were a car alarm.

    There was no reaction because she is sleeping on the job, and her assistant is not doing the general, world-wide media reading either.

    The Ombuds or Public Editor cannot be a sort of adjunct to the city desk who makes minor points about the externals of coverage, a subject on which I will have more to say in relation to The NYT. claytonburns@gmail.com