Looking Back, One Year Later

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 24, 2006

After my first year as The Post's ombudsman, readers deserve a report on my job as their representative.

The Post stylebook says that "Ombudsmen provide . . . newsroom managers with another set of skeptical eyes to search out human error and incompetence and another set of ears to lend to the masses."

These eyes and ears have gotten tens of thousands of comments and complaints. The most important part of this job is dealing with readers. Most of the complaints handled (I can't address them all) have been resolved satisfactorily or I have disagreed with the reader. Comments are shared with Post editors and reporters.

The Post is lucky to have a legion of readers who are smart, mostly civil, and passionate about the paper staying strong and being right. Those who call and write me include members of Congress and Pentagon officials, men and women in the military, Ralph Nader, and many citizens who care about their local government and schools -- plus a regular correspondent in her 90s.

They call and write to compliment, criticize and point out errors. Experts and academics love to spot factual errors. English teachers find grammar horrors. Sports fans point out mistakes in box scores.

I'm often asked how I am treated at The Post. Generally, well. Human nature being what it is, journalists don't always cheerfully accept criticism or complaint. But I know no one at The Post who doesn't care deeply about good journalism and the paper's vitality.

Another FAQ: What do I think of The Post? It's a first-class newspaper. This country has very few newspapers to equal it. But if it were perfect, it wouldn't need an ombudsman; it is to The Post's credit that it has one.

In Howell's hierarchy of significance, news tips and compliments are always welcome, but readers who call or write about errors of fact get my immediate attention. Next are allegations of bias or that a story had important omissions. I talk to reporters and their editors and do my own research. The conclusions may end up in a column or go into my weekly staff newsletter, in which I report what readers are saying and what I think about it. Or I may have a chat with an editor or a reporter if something is awry. Readers usually hear how I've handled their comments.

Some readers mistakenly think that the ombudsman can force change on The Post, its editorial policy or what columnists write. My job is not to tell the editorial board what to write, and I wouldn't presume to tell David S. Broder what to say about politics. Columnists own their space. If they make a mistake, let me know, but the opinions are theirs alone.

As an independent contractor, I do not take part in newsroom decisions. But I do make frequent suggestions to editors and reporters, and most often I get a willing ear.

Allegations of bias are difficult. My mail reflects the partisan divide in the country, with conservatives and liberals frustrated and angry. Readers of dissimilar political persuasions will see the same set of facts differently and may read something into a story that isn't there.

The ease with which journalists can be attacked has left some reporters and editors unwilling to engage with readers. That's understandable when the attack is vicious or obscene. But engaging with readers helps journalists understand their audience.

This has been a tumultuous year for the news business, and it has left many Post staffers with a case of whiplash -- watching companies die and merge, seeing good journalists laid off or taking buyouts, dealing with bloggers and nasty e-mail. More than 70 staffers took The Post's early-retirement offer.

To look at the glass half empty, The Post will have fewer people reporting on what you need to know, and those who are doing it will have to work harder in three platforms -- print, the Web and radio -- with less space for news.

But to look at the glass half full, the contraction could make The Post crisper, more compact and more readable. A leading reason for canceling subscriptions is "no time to read." Reporters tend to want to write everything they know; I did it myself. Readers want to know only so much. The perfect length is a moving target. From the front page to the last page, The Post needs to be edited to respect readers' time.

My most harrowing experience this year was making a mistake last January in a column about the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The error won't be repeated here, but the backlash was obscene and stunning. Mercifully it went away fairly quickly. Journalists hate to make mistakes; I've never known one made deliberately.

The ombudsman should set an example in accuracy. I should have mentioned Rajiv Chandrasekaran, assistant managing editor for continuous news, in my Dec. 10 column on diversity. And I found out after the column that three Post sportswriters -- all black -- have blogs on washingtonpost.com: Tarik El Bashir, Ivan Carter and Michael Lee. Also, retirement columnist Martha Hamilton's middle initial is M.

Putting out a daily newspaper is a complex and amazing process, a minor miracle that some readers don't understand or appreciate. And readers' needs too often aren't taken into account by those putting out that newspaper. Writing on that will be one of my New Year's resolutions, coming next Sunday.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company