Richard Harwood, 75, a retired reporter, editor and ombudsman at The Washington Post who played an important role in the development of the newspaper for more than 30 years, died of cancer March 19 at his home in Bethesda.

Mr. Harwood was a gruff, plain-spoken, broad-shouldered former Marine, a veteran of Iwo Jima. He grew up in the Midwest and the South in the Great Depression, the son of a Presbyterian minister who fell on hard times. Though he rose to a position of prominence in American journalism, he proudly guarded his roots and never indulged in affectation or pretense.

Mr. Harwood began his newspaper career in Nashville and established his journalistic reputation on the Louisville Times. When just in his thirties, he was a formidable figure in Kentucky political circles, known as "Black Death Harwood," or "Death" for short. Colleagues said the nickname grew out of a combination of fear and respect among the politicians he covered.

The Times and its sister paper, the morning Courier-Journal, sent him to Washington in 1962 as a correspondent. Mr. Harwood joined The Post in 1966 as a reporter on the national staff. After two years as a highly visible and successful writer, he was named the paper's national editor, and spent the rest of his career as one of The Post's top editors, and as the paper's internal critic, or ombudsman. As both writer and editor, Harwood's cause was better writing based on the best possible reporting.

In his memoir "A Good Life," Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor who hired Mr. Harwood, gave this assessment of his abilities as a reporter: "primitive in his search for the truth, impossible to deceive, and without peer in his ability to write a declarative sentence." These talents were spiced by a contrarian view of the world. Former senator Eugene McCarthy described Mr. Harwood as "cross," which McCarthy called "a positive characteristic, especially in writers."

Mr. Harwood brought to his work a highly developed skepticism and a conviction that the world is not as simple as people might think from reading newspapers or listening to radio or television reports. Conventional wisdom, he believed, often turns out to be wrong.

He was wary of the fact that reporters and editors tend to filter events and news judgments through the prisms of their own experience, and he pushed himself and his colleagues to step outside their own assumptions and prejudices. He thought some Washington reporters were too predictably liberal in their views, too elitist and too close to those in power, and he made those opinions known. A voracious reader and student of government, he cared about the substance of politics, not just the combat. And he was fascinated by powerful people.

In his dealings with reporters and editors, he was candid about their work and wasted scant energy on diplomacy. He could be intimidating.

"He cast himself as a tough Marine, but he could show his emotion and his humanity," observed Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Post. "And he was a tough, exacting editor who contributed a great deal to the journalistic traditions of the modern Post."

Among his colleagues, Mr. Harwood enjoyed the reputation of an exacting reporter with a poetic touch who could write a story into his readers' memories. He had a novelist's eye for the quirks of human personality.

In 1968, Mr. Harwood was assigned to cover Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was with Kennedy when he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just after learning that he had won the California primary.

It was 3:15 a.m. in Washington, but Bradlee was still in the newsroom supervising coverage of the primary. For the only time in his career, he yelled, "Stop the presses!" Mr. Harwood dictated a story to his friend Larry Stern, the national editor, and The Post published it in an Extra edition. Kennedy died about 26 hours later.

In a column in 1988, Mr. Harwood recalled that Bradlee had given him the assignment because he knew that he did not like Kennedy.

"He thought I would not be seduced, so to speak," Mr. Harwood wrote. "He was wrong. By the end of Bobby's campaign, I was so fond of him that I asked to be relieved of the assignment. That request was made the day before he was shot."

Peter H. Silberman, Mr. Harwood's successor as deputy managing editor of The Post, said this was an example of Mr. Harwood's willingness to "step back, to take a hard and close look at things even when he was involved."

One of Mr. Harwood's best-remembered stories was written on the day of Kennedy's funeral. He rode the train that bore the slain senator's body from New York to Washington for burial beside his brother John, and described the extraordinary horde of humanity, probably numbering millions, who crowded the entire route:

"They were the people who had mobbed him and cheered him and taken his shoes and cuff-links in Gary, Ind., in San Francisco's Chinatown, in East Chicago, in Harlem and in Watts -- huge numbers of Negroes, who wept the most; tattooed cab drivers and factory hands, multitudes of adoring children, trembling nuns, and old women, hands clasped in prayer and crying.

"They were, for the most part, the common people of America because they are the kind of people who live near railroad tracks and because they are the kind of people who seemed to understand Robert Kennedy and to love him in the only way they knew how -- with their touching and their cheering and their votes . . . ."

Another story that Mr. Harwood wrote under emotional stress was the obituary of Laurence Stern, one of his closest friends on the newspaper, who died at the age of 50 in 1979. Stern and Mr. Harwood had taken turns running The Post's national staff, and had worked together on stories. After hearing that Stern had collapsed and died while jogging on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, Mr. Harwood had gone with his wife to a party, where he drank too much, as he occasionally did. Early in the evening he announced that he was too upset to stay at the party, and he went to the Post newsroom on 15th Street NW. When he arrived, he volunteered to write Stern's obituary.

Bradlee, who was on Martha's Vineyard at the time, recalled receiving a phone call from Howard Simons, then the paper's managing editor, reporting Mr. Harwood's desire to write the obituary. "But he's drunk," Simons told Bradlee. "I said, 'Great!' " Bradlee recalled. "He wrote a wonderful obituary."

Although he was an editor for most of his years at The Post, Mr. Harwood never stopped writing. He made a number of trips abroad, reporting on conflicts in southern Africa, on the status of women in Saudi Arabia and on the Pacific islands where World War II had been fought.

But he would not write about his own experiences during the war.

Mr. Harwood was one of the journalists Bradlee hired in the mid-1960s when he was trying to transform The Post into a more significant newspaper in Washington and in the country. Bradlee, Mr. Harwood and Stern together shaped an approach to reporting and writing about national affairs that became a central element of the personality of The Post, and remains so.

When Bradlee decided to create a new position of in-house critic and ombudsman -- the first such appointment on a major American newspaper -- he turned to Mr. Harwood. As a critic of The Post he was unsparing. In an internal memo in June 1970, he wrote:

"Our standards are objective and whimsical. They reflect our tastes, values, prejudices, opinions and conveniences . . . . We are a 'white' newspaper in a Southern or crypto-Southern area of circulation . . . . There are millions of Poles and Italians and Chicanos and farmers and coal miners out there but very few in our newsroom . . . . Our coverage of the New Culture has been so extensive -- in the news columns, in Style, on the editorial pages, in the literary, art, theater and movie columns -- that we may sometimes appear to be a New Culture organ."

After two years as ombudsman, Mr. Harwood resumed running The Post's national staff, as assistant managing editor for national news. He held that position during the Watergate affair. He was one of the skeptics in the newsroom about that story, which was taken over by the paper's metropolitan staff, for which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were reporters. Later Mr. Harwood freely acknowledged that his news judgment had briefly failed him after the Watergate burglary.

In 1974, The Washington Post Co. acquired the Trenton (N.J.) Times and entrusted its first affiliated newspaper to Mr. Harwood, who was named the paper's editor. In Trenton he hired some extraordinary young journalists, several of whom moved on to The Post, where they made a mark. Among those Mr. Harwood first hired were David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi; T.R. Reid, now The Post's London correspondent; and Blaine Harden, a Post correspondent in Africa and the Balkans who now reports for the New York Times.

Mr. Harwood returned to The Post in January 1977 as deputy managing editor, the third-ranking position in the newsroom. In that role, he supervised the paper's weekly sections and often ran the daily newspaper. After his retirement in 1988, he again served as ombudsman, and he again judged The Post sternly.

On Jan. 1, 1989, he wrote that Post stories are too long, that the daily word count in the newspaper "often equals or exceeds that of the New Testament." He called The Post "one of the most long-winded and loosely edited journals in the western world, and it is getting worse."

Richard Lee Harwood was born in Chilton, Wis., on March 29, 1925. His father was Luther Milton Harwood, a Presbyterian minister, and his mother was Ruby Heath Harwood. He grew up in Wisconsin and in Loup City, Neb. After his mother died and his father found it difficult to carry on alone, Mr. Harwood, then a teenager, moved in with relatives in Nashville.

Serving in the Marine Corps in the Pacific in World War II, he took part in four island campaigns, including the struggle for Iwo Jima, where he was wounded. After the war, he briefly considered a career as an electrician. Instead, he attended Peabody Teachers College and Vanderbilt University, where he graduated in 1950.

His honors included a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and a Carnegie Fellowship at Columbia, the George Polk Memorial Award and the Distinguished Service Medal of Sigma Delta Chi for reporting in 1967 and a second Polk award for criticism of the press in 1971. He was named to the Hall of Fame of the Society of Professional Journalists in 1997.

Survivors include his wife, Beatrice Mosby Harwood, whom he married in 1950, of Bethesda; four children, Helen Harwood Minchik of Washington, John Harwood of Silver Spring, Richard Harwood of Cincinnati and David Harwood of Boulder, Colo.; and eight grandchildren.

Richard Harwood was known as an exacting reporter and tough editor.