March 4, 2013

A 43-year-old Washington Post tradition of self-investigation has ended with last week’s announcement that The Post would no longer have the position of ombudsman. Publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote this in a note to 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.” (Bolded text added to highlight an apparent invitation to the Erik Wemple Blog. Thank you, publisher.)

The graybeard perspective on the end of ombudsmanship at The Post is well represented in this piece (written before Weymouth’s announcement) by Joe Strupp of Media Matters for America, which quotes various former in-house WaPo watchdogs as saying this change would be a bad thing. Bad for readers, bad for accountability and bad for the industry.

The irony is that the elimination of the ombudsman shadows so many of the topics that have faced ombudsmen over the past decade: that is, the piecemeal dismantlement of The Washington Post. An non-exhaustive inventory of such cutbacks includes:

– Multiple buyouts that have removed productive and experienced journalists;

– The shuttering of domestic bureaus;

– The drastic downsizing of regional Metro bureaus;

– The elimination of a standalone business section;

– The elimination of a standalone book-review section;

– The ending of beat coverage of the Baltimore Orioles;

That’s how a great newspaper gets whittled down.

Some number of readers will decide that the departure of the ombuds-column is the tipping point toward the cancellation of their print subscriptions. Expect to see the result of those decisions in the company’s next quarterly report, which have become a cover-your-eyes document for Posties. Daily circulation dropped 8.6 percent last year, to an average of 471,800.

Last-Ever Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton suggested in a recent column that those numbers would be even worse if not for the labor of himself, his assistant and their predecessors. “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 wrote.

Perhaps in an attempt to plug that hole, Weymouth wrote that the paper will keep in place a “reader representative” who’ll stay on top of the public’s concerns, though this official won’t be writing a weekly column.

The wonderful symmetry of ombudding is, indeed, worth lamenting: Readers complain to a disinterested advocate; advocate investigates the complaints; advocate publishes a column on the matter, which lands on the doorsteps of the readers who submitted the complaints. As Post Executive Editor Marty Baron argued to Pexton, however, it’s often a redundant transaction, given the number of media reporters and critics who have often rendered their reports on the latest Washington Post slip-up before the ombudsman’s column reaches its audience.

So no: The Post doesn’t need to pay an experienced, in-house professional to opine on whether that blog post should have had better sourcing or whether that politics feature gave both sides of Washington’s partisan wars proper consideration. We already have thousands of people on those beats, their opinions landing in washingtonpost.com’s comments area, other sites and the pages of competing outlets.

Where The Post could use greater insight from an organizational mole, however, is on the more pressing question of whether it’s equipped to survive. Its highfalutin coverage of federal Washington notwithstanding, The Post runs on the same regional-news biz models that are driving its ilk into the ground in other cities. Like the Boston Globe, a paper that was bought for $1.1 billion in 1993 and today is for sale for what informed observers say will amount to one-tenth that amount. Like the papers of the Tribune Co. — e.g., the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun — which appear to be on the block following the company’s emergence from bankruptcy.

What is The Post doing to shore up revenue and circulation? What is it doing to break the death grip of the large regional metro-newspaper model? Answers to these questions are worthy of a weekly column.

Some of the topics that would be suitable for a Post “ombizman”:

– The Post is now making a very aggressive move into video. Why did that take so long?

– Why did The Post’s online revenue crater so severely a while back?

– Politico has leveraged its six-year-old brand to move into premium subscription information on Washington. Why hasn’t The Post done likewise with its 135-year-old brand?

– In recent months, BuzzFeed and the Atlantic have gotten into trouble for pushing the limits of web-advertising models. Why doesn’t The Post ever draw criticism for pushing the limits of web-advertising models?

The creation of an ombizman (a model, by the way, that would work not only for The Post but for other outlets as well) should not be read as a slam at the business side. Rather, in these times, the newsroom and the business strategists need to fashion products that can stop the graph lines from falling. Ombizman could hold them to account.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.