Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton
For a new ombudsman, a flood of e-mail and calls
Welcome to complaint central; take a number.
That's how I feel after a week on the job as The Post's new ombudsman. My predecessor, Andrew Alexander, told me to expect this, but it's not the same thing as actually listening to the dozens of daily phone calls and sifting through the hundreds of e-mails from Post readers.
Here's what I learned in just one week: Post readers are discerning and demanding, know a thing or two about grammar, and often are just plain frustrated and angry, mostly at mistakes in print and online.
They care about what The Post covers, what it doesn't cover and why. They care about accurate locations and identifications in captions and stories, about data in graphics. They care about tone in writing. They care about national and local politics, culture, and sports. And they call and write from all over the country now because they're reading The Post online; I talked with people in the past week from Washington state, Wisconsin, New York, West Virginia and all points of the compass.
Complaints about coverage, and errors, dominated my voice messages and e-mail.
Post readers are avidly following the union fight in Wisconsin - the details and the likelihood that this battle could spread to other state capitals. If the Wisconsin story wasn't on the front page or prominently displayed online, readers complained, and some said a blog post or a wire story wasn't good enough; they wanted The Post's own reporters covering it every day.
At first I thought this might be a campaign - unions are well-organized nationally and in this region, where government workers predominate. I did get a lot of e-mail that obviously was coordinated. But way beyond that were the personal e-mails and calls of readers worried that what happened in Wisconsin could happen to them. They are fearful. Most see it as a turning point in labor history and in the ability to negotiate for middle-class wages.
On the local front, the same-sex marriage bill moving through the Maryland General Assembly was the subject of a lot of my mail. Most people I heard from are supportive of gay marriage and of The Post's coverage. But social conservatives are not. These calls and e-mails were not rants; they were sincere arguments by people of faith who are troubled by the scope and leanings of Post coverage. This comment from a Maryland reader was representative: "The Post is not even close to being fair on this topic. Marriage should be between a man and a woman. It angers me every time you run prominent articles slanted in favor of something that I think is unnatural. If you keep doing this, you may lose a customer."
Apart from coverage issues, it is mistakes in The Post that dominate the e-mail and phone messages. I can hear the frustration, especially from print subscribers. They say exactly how many years they've subscribed, and that they finally called or wrote because of the increasing frequency of errors. Most important, they say the mistakes lead to a steady drip-by-drip erosion of their confidence in The Post.
Here are two examples: In a March 4 Business story by Peter Whoriskey about state governments understating their pension liabilities, the accompanying graphic put the dollar figures for each state in millions instead of billions. Whoriskey got it right in the story, but the graphic didn't. This may be a typo, but it is a thousand-fold difference, as readers pointed out, and it goes to the central point of the story.
The Post printed a correction the next day, although not the full, corrected chart. The interactive online version of the chart was correct. But corrections never compensate totally for the original error.
Readers were also annoyed by a confusing layout on the front page of the Metro section on March 6. Next to a story about the "East Coast rapist" was a stand-alone photograph of a smiling man applying for a summer job at Six Flags America in Prince George's County. Separating the story from the photo was only a thin rule, or line, and the rapist story and the photograph looked as if they were related. Readers said they had to look twice and read the caption under the photograph to understand that the photo was not of the rapist.
I received about 15 such specific complaints last week; in only two did I think the reader was mistaken.
Editors and reporters are more pressed for time than ever. They're writing and editing not only stories for the print edition but also stories, blog posts and updates for the Web and mobile applications. But sloppiness angers, and loses, readers.
Patrick Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.