Ask the Ombudsman
Tuesday, May 5, 2009; 11:00 AM
Ombudsman Andy Alexander was online Tuesday, May 5, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the dramatic changes taking place at The Post and how to maintain journalistic standards in print and on-line.
Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.
Andy Alexander: Welcome to the first of what will be regular online chats about The Post. Before we get started, I should mention that we've launched a new ombudsman's "Omblog" on washingtonpost.com. It will be updated frequently. I'll be raising issues, and inviting your feedback, about The Post's journalism.
OK, let's tackle your questions.
Greenville, S.C.: Andy -- Do you consider it your job to be an intermediary between the paper and its readers, or an apologist for the paper and its reporters?
Andy Alexander: I view myself as the internal critic of The Washington Post, as well as an advocate for readers. As newspapers (including The Post) struggle for survival, I think it's critically important to give voice to reader concerns and to hold The Post to its own high standards. In the end, it yields better journalism and makes The Post - both print and online - more credible.
It might interest you to know that I am not on the staff of The Post. Rather, I am an independent contractor with a fixed term (two years, with an option to extend my mutual agreement). My contract affords me extraordinary independence. In fact, I don't really have a "boss" at the Post. And as mentioned in my first column, it would be extraordinarily hard to fire me.
When I began my term, I sent a note to The Post's staff that made it clear that I don't consider myself an oracle. Rather, I told them, "I see myself as a veteran reporter and editor - like so many in the newsroom - who cares passionately about journalism and isn't afraid to raise uncomfortable issues in pursuit of excellence."
Oviedo, Fla.: The ombud you follow was brutally honest -- her take on the over-reliance of Obama photos vs. McCain photos was brilliant. It changed how I think about news and the Post. From you -- I am not feeling the eager desire to knock the door down. Are you aggressive enough? Can you man up and step into her shoes?
Andy Alexander: I'm a fan of Deborah Howell, who also is a long-time friend. I thought she did a very good job as ombudsman. As she warned me repeatedly before I agreed to replace her, it's a tough undertaking. Readers often think you're in the tank for The Post. And The Post staff views you as the evil interrogator from internal affairs. It's not a job for the emotionally insecure.
Readers will have to judge whether I'm tough enough. My goals are to be fair, accurate and to call them as I see them. So far, I think I've taken some pretty hard shots at The Post. My column on the Post's terrible record on responding to correction requests got the immediate attention of the paper's top editors and the situation has been addressed. I've criticized The Post for not disclosing its internal "Ethics & Standards" policies, and I've also taken The Post to task for not explaining the rationale behind the many changes taking place in the paper.
Rolla, Mo.: How do you view someone like me, who has never subscribed to the Post, even pre-online content, and only am a reader because of it's online availability? The Web site didn't cause me to cancel or forego a subscription. Am I just seen as "no harm, no foul"?
Andy Alexander: I view you as another valued reader. To me, it doesn't matter if you read the print product or washingtonpost.com. You're part of The Post's audience.
Boston, Mass.: Andy, the Supreme Court will get a lot of coverage in the coming months, and I for one find so much of the terminology reporters use in SCOTUS stories to be offensive to the readers' brains. Reporters know that "Activist" and "Constructionist" are both hollow terms, so why use them? "Litmus Test" is just dull.
And finally, on a court where the range of political thought stretches from far right to Rockefeller Republican, can we get rid of the silly "Conservative/Liberal" tags?
Andy Alexander: I agree that The Post needs to be very careful in using these terms. They mean different things to different readers. If reporters and editors think they must use shorthand labels, I'd hope they offer some description so readers understand precisely what they mean.
To me, this extends to using these terms to describe politicians and even think tanks.
As an aside, I also think reporters and editors need to be careful of presumed knowledge about terms and even acronyms. Years ago, when I was a foreign editor, my correspondent in Jerusalem wrote frequently about the "intifada," the term used for the Palestinian uprising. Those who followed the situation closely knew precisely what it meant. But one day a reader called and said: "I'm embarrased to say this, but I read this term in every story and I don't have the foggiest idea what it means." It taught me a vluable lesson: Don't presume.
Washington, D.C. : You wrote on Sunday about the survey that found more "favorable" stories about Obama -- as if that was a reflection of bias in the press corps. Couldn't it be a reflection of reality? I'm guessing that writing that Obama is making people feel more optimistic and has a high approval rating would be coded a "positive" story -- but writing that Bush had a credibility problem and a low approval would be coded a "negative" story. But wouldn't you consider both "fair"? Doesn't this kind of thinking put pressure on reporters to write negative stories about positive events and positive stories about negative events, just to be "balanced"? What good is that?
washingtonpost.com: A Column Feeds Perceptions of Bias (Post, May 3)
Andy Alexander: Good question. I'm not suggesting that coverage needs to be measured so that it's precisely 50-50. And the Pew study that I referenced explained some of the reasons that President Obama is enjoying favorable press. For example, he came to office with a sizable electoral majority (unlike President's Clinton or George W. Bush). Also, he's had a very activist agenda in response to extremely challenging issues confronting the nation.
My advice to reporters covering Obama is simple: be critical, be accurate and be fair. That means asking the tough questions and paying attention to what's being raised by the loyal opposition. It's the job of the press to hold public officials to high standards and to closely question them.
Finally, about my Sunday column. . .the Pew study was raised in the context of how readers often see bias in The Post's coverage. I focused on very favorable pieces Tom Shales has written about Obama's TV appearances. Shales is a superb TV critic, perhaps the best. It's his job to offer his view of what's on television. My only point was that it should be clearly labeled as a "review" or as "criticism." Surprisingly, not all readers know his role.
Dunn Loring, Va.: Have you ever examined the breakdown of questions posed to Post reporters and columnists in these online discussions? The overwhelming number of questions are from a liberal perspective and in many chats there is not a single question from a conservative viewpoint. And for a conservative question to be accepted, it must be completely "bland" whereas liberal questions are often obnoxious. Given that several reporters have told me that there were no conservative questions even though I personally had submitted several to their chat, would the Post check that the moderators are not unduly exercising their political biases in passing questions to the question-takers?
Andy Alexander: I have not exmanined this, but you raise an important point. It's something I'll monitor. It's important that all viewpoints get exposure. Before I began this online chat, I called the moderator and encouraged him to send me questions from across the idological spectrum. He sent me yours, and I'm responding, so he honored my request.
Washington, D.C.: Curious as to your take on the demise of Book World and how it affected the rest of the paper. It seems to me that although BW went away, the reviews are cluttering up other sections that used to have a stronger sense of purpose.
Comparing Outlook this past week to Outlook a year ago, does making half the content book reviews add or detract from Outlook's mission?
Andy Alexander: I got a ton of reader reaction to the demise of Book World. I still get a few e-mails each week. That decision was made just as I joined The Post in February. It was one of the first things I looked into. I can tell you it was a painful decision for editors. Book World had a comparatively small - but very loyal - readership. Unfortunately, it also suffered from very modest advertising support. Book publishers, the traditional advertisers for Book World, are suffering terribly in this tough economy. Reluctantly, the decision was made to fold the stand-alone Book World section and move the reviews to Style and Outlook.
Many readers have written to me about the new format. I'd guess complaints outnumber compliments about 4-to-1. I'll admit, it takes getting used to. My advice: give it a little time. In my nearly 40 years in the newspaper business, I've learned that even the smallest changes are upsettling to readers. I've often likened it to someone breaking into your house while you're away at work and rearranging all your furniture. You open the door and you're upset.
As to whether the reviews help or hurt Outlook, I think the jury is out. The Post does a good job of constantly gauging reader sentiment through surveys. If reader reaction is overwhelmingly negative, I'd have to believe The Post's editors will make adjustments.
As an aside, it's my impression that The Post has solid reader data to back up most of the changes that have been made in the paper. But I don't think they've done a good enough job of explaining their rationale to readers. I've noted this in a number of columns. The decision to virtually end staff coverage of the Baltimore Orioles was a good example. In that case, The Post didn't even explain what it was doing, much less offer a rationale. Readers pay for the paper, after all. They deserve to be told what, and why.
Washington, D.C.: The Post is cutting sections, cutting the sizes of its sections, cutting content, cutting everything. I am a newspaper junkie; I have to have my paper every day, but the Post's shrinkage is getting to the point that it soon may no longer satisfy my addiction. If there are others like me, the Post will then die, at least in print. Is addressing this problem part of your portfolio?
Andy Alexander: Yes, The Post has gotten smaller. In years past, it had more heft. Now, the "fly weight" is diminished. It's all in reaction to these tough economic times for all businesses, including newspapers.
The Post is losing money, like many papers. The problem is a sharp decline in advertising. It has to cut costs. There are several ways to do it. One is to reduce staff, and the Post currently is going through its fourth buyout since 2003. Another way is to reduce the size of the paper, including the number of pages. That saves on newsprint and ink. That's what's been behind some of these difficult decisions to eliminate the stock tables (I strongly agree with that decision, by the way), and to cut the stand-alone Book World section.
I think The Post will survive. It's in a good market, it remains a quality product and it has terrific owners who understand the critical role the paper (including online) plays in this region and in society. That said, I predict more pain ahead. Management has not ruled out layoffs.
Many readers write me to talk about The Post's declining readership. They're wrong. Readership of The Post - print and online combined - is perhaps at an all-time high. And circulation of The Post is holding steady while circulation at many other metropolitan newspapers is plummeting. In fact, first quarter Monday-to-Friday print circulation for The Post was up slightly less than a peercentage point from the same period a year ago. Daily is now 642,000. Average Sunday circulation dropped 1.7 percent to 871,000. In this rotten economy, that's pretty good.
Fairfax, Va.: What if any relationship does an ombudsman have to the opinion page? Is your focus strictly on the news, or do you weigh in on factual errors by columnists?
Andy Alexander: I try to focus on the news pages. That's been the traditional role of the ombudsman at The Post. That doesn't mean that I will never write about the opinion pages. In fact, I did just that in my second column. But that was mainly because I was inadvertently drawn into a controversy over the editing of a George Will column.
I try to limit myself to the news pages for several reasons. First, most of the readers who contact me are raising issues about the news sections. Second, the opinion pages are. . .well. . .they're about opinions. Writers on those pages use their own set of "facts' to make arguments. Readers sometime contact me to complain that a columnist, or an editorial writer, is off base because "they got the facts all wrong." If I tried to assess each set of "facts" on the editorial page, I'd never have time to deal with the news pages, where most readers say I should be focused.
I should note that my column is edited by the copy editors who work for the Editorial Page. But that's because my column appears in the Sunday Editorial section. No one on the editorial page tells me write to write, I should note. In fact, I've never had so much as a suggestion from them.
Washington, D.C.: Do you assess the impact of online reader comments on WP columnists and journalists? Some columns (such as the one by David Broder suggesting there be no prosecutions for Bush officials for the "torture" memos, etc.) receive a huge number of comments in opposition to the viewpoint expressed in the column. Do the columnists and editors read them (at least the constructive ones)?
Andy Alexander: I'm likely to address the question of online comments in my Sunday column. I can't speak to whether reporters or columnists view the online comments for their writings. I hope they do, because some of them are very thoughtful and informative (although I acknowledge many of them are mindless). I review the comments for my column. They can be brutal. But I very much believe in online commenting, and I also believe it's OK for them to be offered anonymously.
As mentioned, I'll address them on Sunday unless something more urgent pops up. Stay tuned.
Andy Alexander: I see we've reached the end of our hour together. This is my first online chat and I've enjoyed it. We'll do more. I was unable to get to many of your questions. If you'd like me to respond, please e-mail them to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best wishes to all.
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