The Post Needs an Ombudsman. Just Not This One.
Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton's term is up at the end of the month, and there's a good chance he won't be replaced. In one of his last columns, he sings the song of his dying profession:
It is possible that I’ll be The Washington Post’s last independent ombudsman and that this chair will empty at the conclusion of my two-year term Feb. 28. If so, that will end nearly 43 years of this publication having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative and critic.
Although the fate of the ombudsman position hasn't been decided, Pexton writes, "I think the tea leaves are clear. For cost-cutting reasons, for modern media-technology reasons and because The Post, like other news organizations, is financially weaker and hence even more sensitive to criticism, my bet is that this position will disappear." The arguments in favor of eliminating the job Pexton identifies in the column are the same ones often used to eliminate other newspaper salaries: It's done better by people on the Internet, and it costs money. Interviewed by Pexton, Executive Editor Martin Baron seems to come down in favor of eliminating it.
Pexton wasn't bad at his job, but was torn between the position's two divergent responsibilities: "internal critic" and "reader representative," per his Post bio. When he did actual media reporting, he broke important stories about how the paper works—for example, the Post's give-and-take relationship with the Chinese government and a recent case of plagiarism by the paper's Mexico bureau chief.
Too often, however, Pexton tried to mollify readers who really didn't have anything to complain about. The typical Pexton-as-reader-representative column went like this:
- Reader complains that the Post covers something too much/not enough.
- Pexton says the reader is wrong.
- Pexton admits that the reader is right, sort of.
For everyone except those agitated emailers, that often made for a confusing snoozer of a column. Nevertheless, Pexton habitually coddled tendentious interest groups like Catholics and legislative aides that felt their pet issues deserved more attention.
That commitment to puzzling out readers' complaints wasn't merely a waste of time: It often made his column feel like an effort to save Post subscriptions. Over his term, the reader representative role seemed to overpower the internal critic role. With Pexton's columns, you might read an important examination of a blogging culture that creates plagiarists; more often, you got items like Pexton's mind-numbing tally of endorsements by the Post editorial board. In other words, the ombudsman became skippable.
Unfortunately, the reader representative side of his job is exactly where Pexton has decided to make his stand. Pexton and his assistant are sometimes the only people responding to readers, he writes in his final column. "We prevent multiple home-subscription cancellations every day by just having a sympathetic ear," writes Pexton. "At $383 per year for a home delivery subscription, we’re earning our salaries in saved subscriptions alone."
That might be true, and the Post could be headed in that direction anyway. Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt tells me that the ombudsman position could be replaced by a reader representative—in other words, the worst parts of Pexton's work.