The Washington Post on Friday said it was ending its decades-long practice of employing an independent ombudsman to critique the newspaper’s journalism and field readers’ questions.
The Post’s ombudsman will be replaced by a reader representative, a staff member who will answer questions and respond to complaints, said Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor. The reader representative, who will report to Hiatt, might write a blog as well, but the ombudsman’s long-standing Sunday column will end, he said.
The newspaper has employed an ombudsman for the past 43 years; he or she was an experienced journalist who worked under a contract that ensured editorial independence.
The paper’s most recent ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, served a two-year term. His contract ended Thursday.
In a brief column addressed to readers and published online Friday, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote that the ombudsman’s “duties are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.”
Weymouth added that The Post’s reporters are held accountable for accuracy and fairness by multiple sources, including media critics and readers via online comments and letters to the editor.
“In short, while we are not filling a position that was created decades ago for a different era, we remain faithful to the mission,” Weymouth wrote. “We know that you, our readers, will hold us to that, as you should.”
In a column published Feb. 15, Pexton suggested that The Post would end the ombudsman’s position to save money. But Hiatt said money was not a main consideration.
“For me, it starts and ends with the fact that the media world has changed,” he said. “We have to ask, is having an ombudsman under a two-year contract writing a weekly column serving the purpose of responding to reader complaints and questions? Accountability is important, too. The newspaper has to be willing to explain what it does and how it does it to its readers.”
A reader representative will be named from within the newspaper’s staff. The position will be a full-time job, Hiatt said. He said he hopes to add a “senior” staff member on a part-time basis.
“Our intention is to make sure that the job has the heft within the organization so that unquestionably they get the answers readers want,” he said.