A New Ombudsman Checks In

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Early in my newspaper career nearly 40 years ago, I worked for a short-tempered editor who hated long-winded reader complaints. One day, when an irate caller said she might stop reading the paper, he turned the tables and threatened to cancel her subscription.

Ah, those were the days. Newspapers were fat and smug. Readers be damned.

No more.

Today, even great newspapers like The Washington Post are struggling to survive, fighting for every reader.

That's where I come in. As The Post's new ombudsman, I am its internal critic. My job is to represent the interests of readers, hold The Post to high standards and explain its inner workings to an often-suspicious public.

If I do my job well, readers will be empowered, and The Post will be more accountable, trusted and essential.

I've been guaranteed extraordinary independence for my two-year term. My contract ensures that I'm "not subject to the editorial control" that The Post exerts over its staff. That means I can take some hard shots at the newspaper without fear of being sacked.

Many U.S. newspapers have had an ombudsman, an awkward word of Scandinavian origin that means "representative." Some go by other titles, like "Readers' Advocate" or "Public Editor." Many have been eliminated as newsroom budgets have been slashed.

But The Post, the first U.S. paper to have a truly independent ombudsman, is among a handful standing fast. Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli should be applauded for encouraging this degree of unfettered scrutiny, especially at a time when The Post (but not its parent company) is losing money.

When I started work several weeks ago, my predecessor, Deborah Howell, had left some hand-me-downs on the ombudsman's desk: a military combat helmet, brass knuckles and a hand grenade (fake, I think). Her message: Get ready to rumble.

I'm told it's a thankless job. To readers, the ombudsman often is seen as an apologist for the paper. To the newsroom, the ombudsman is the dreaded investigator from internal affairs.

But that's what Ben Bradlee, then the executive editor, had in mind when he created the position in 1970. He wanted an honest broker who would listen to readers and scold the newsroom when necessary.

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