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.

Praising good work is important, he told me, and I intend to do that. But, he added: "Nobody is interested in an ombudsman who congratulates because people think they're sucking up."

The volume of daily reader e-mails and calls to the ombudsman is overwhelming and unrelenting. On a slow day, it's several hundred. When there's controversy -- an edgy cartoon, a snarky profile -- it can top a thousand.

I will look at each e-mail. My assistant, Jean Hwang, transcribes every call.

Many are ideological rants. But I've seen already that a heartening number are thoughtful, informed and sincere. Those will get my priority attention.

You can communicate with me in three ways. E-mail me at ombudsman@washpost.com. Leave a message on the ombudsman's line at 202-334-7582. Or write to me, care of The Post, at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Each day, I'll relay your questions and concerns directly to Post reporters and editors. The goal is to get answers and resolve complaints. Many issues you raise will be addressed in my Sunday column. In coming months, there will be more opportunities to interact through online forums on washingtonpost.com.

Finally, my background: I grew up in the small southwestern Ohio town of Urbana and hold a journalism degree from Ohio University. Until I was recruited by The Post, my entire career had been with the Atlanta-based Cox Newspapers chain. I joined a Cox paper in Dayton after college and in 1976 was sent to the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau. After years of reporting from Washington and more than 50 countries, I became an editor and news executive. For the past 12 years, I was Cox's Washington bureau chief, overseeing a staff of roughly 30 in the nation's capital and in more than a half dozen foreign and domestic bureaus.

Those trying to divine my political leanings will have trouble. I've been careful to avoid ideological affiliation and have always registered as an independent voter. My only public positions have been to promote the First Amendment and open government.

During my first weeks on the job, I've asked Post staffers and executives how best to succeed as ombudsman. National Editor Kevin Merida suggested that I be a "translator," explaining the news-gathering process to the public and conveying readers' concerns to the newsroom.

I think he's got it right. Let's start the conversation.

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