City Desk

Ombo Sauce: Advice for Jeff Bezos From the Post’s Former In-House Critic


Dear Jeff:

Congratulations! To paraphrase an old Riggs Bank saying, you’ve just bought the most important media institution in the most important city in the world; don’t screw it up.

As a former ombudsman who heard from hundreds of readers daily through email and phone calls, I cannot stress enough how important the Post is to the proper and effective democratic functioning and accountability of the District of Columbia, the city, county, and state governments in the region, and the federal government, from the presidency to the far-flung reaches of the State and Defense departments and the CIA. It plays a unique and important role in our democracy. Don’t forget it.

Here’s a little free advice.

First, grow a thick skin. The Post, since the announcement of the sale last week, has done an exemplary job of covering it, from all aspects. If I know Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, you’re going to see a lot more stories on the lobbying and labor practices of in the next two months before you take over ownership. The publication’s follow-up stories all the way through Sunday’s paper were full of that kind of reporting. In fact, you should see tougher coverage of Amazon, and your business and management practices, because that’s what we as journalists do. That’s what a great newspaper does. Don’t be defensive about this. If the Post doesn’t cover the crap out of Amazon, then the paper isn’t doing its job, and will get grief from a thousand media outlets for not doing so.

Remember that the product you’re selling is news. Amazon has succeeded because it delivers consumer goods at a low price, quickly, and targeted and tailored to the individual needs of its customers. But, at base, Amazon just sells stuff. Lots of stuff. But it’s all stuff.

Similarly, the basic product of the journalism business is news, news, news—always. That includes stories, graphics, editorials, columns, photos, and video, but it’s all news. Technology can and will change the transmission speed of, the look of, and where you read news. But news is still news. And that requires top-quality, experienced, adventurous, dedicated reporters, editors, photographers, designers, and for Christ’s sake, copy editors to get right. Hire good people, let them do what they do, and the product will always be good.

Get to know your audience. You’ll hear a debate about whether the Post should stay local or go national. False debate. You have to do both. The Post would lose its national reputation and brand if it didn’t have high-quality coverage of the federal government and politics. A lot of the Post’s increased Web traffic—national and international—is from people who need to know about the U.S. government. If you stopped that, you might as well rename it the DMV Post.

But the real challenge and opportunity is local news. Let me explain. The 200 to 300 people who emailed or called the ombudsman every day with their complaints broke down into three broad categories: 1) Readers/subscribers from this region who would comment or complain about the Post’s national coverage; 2) readers/subscribers from this region who would comment or complain about the Post’s local coverage (mainly the lack thereof); and 3) readers from outside the region who had an ideological agenda or a comment or complaint about national coverage. The first two categories were way bigger than the third.

Of the regional readers emailing the ombudsman, a big portion came from .gov and .mil email addresses. These are government employees who work nationally. They work at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, in the dozens of cabinet departments and subagencies, or for the rafts of government contractors who serve them. As employees and workers, they have to keep abreast of the federal government and national news. They’re your core of national readers (and they’re your journalists’ sources, too), and they know a ton about government. If the coverage is wrong or slightly off, they’ll know, and they’ll tell you.

But these same readers/subscribers live locally, in the District, Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and other surrounding jurisdictions. So they have kids in local schools, and they worry about local police, and local governments, and local taxes, and local peculiarities. They go to local music venues and eat at local restaurants.

And their main complaint was that the Post no longer covers these incredibly diverse, incredibly wealthy (that means buying power, Jeff) surrounding jurisdictions and their residents like it used to, and like it can and should. These local counties—three of them at or approaching 1 million people—are the equivalent of major cities in the rest of the country, yet their news and information needs are underserved. It is a universal complaint.

I’m not sure, exactly, how you do this—it’s expensive to cover the local jurisdictions. But you can’t continue to do it by cutting reporting resources. The solution probably lies in how you use the Post and the undercapitalized suburban newspapers you bought along with it— the Gazettes, the Southern Maryland Newspapers, and the Fairfax County Times—to target, sell, and deliver local news. That’s where you should put your thinking and marketing genius to work. Those suburban residents are nationally focused in their jobs but locally focused in their nonwork lives.

Make them happy, and you’ll have a permanent revenue base.

Trust and credibility is everything in the news business. The Post got itself into hot water when it began, in 2009, inserting links in online copy to for readers to purchase the films and songs that Post writers mentioned in their reviews. In return for doing this, Amazon gave the Post a small cut of sales made through those links. Ethicists wondered whether the reviewers were shilling for Amazon sales or truly giving honest opinions about the artists’ work. The Post continues to do that to this day, despite the objections to the practice by my predecessor as ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, and from readers contacting me through March of this year.

That’s just a small example of what you could face by bringing modern selling and e-commerce to the news business without making clear and identifiable, with labels, the distinctions between ads and real news. Keeping firm the lines between editorial and advertising/selling may be the hardest kinds of decisions you’ll have to make as you seek to increase revenue. Readers are already cynical and distrustful of the media as it is, and the publication has no more ombudsman to act as watchdog. If Post news copy, of any kind, is seen as being written because of some commercial motivation, readers will desert you in droves.

Now for some Good, Bad, and Ugly.

The Good

Marty Baron. He and I only overlapped for about eight weeks early this year. We had our differences, and he bristles too much at criticism. But he’s a tough and good editor. Since January he has made the Post edgier, tougher, newsier, and more ambitious in national and local coverage. He knows what news is, he’s afraid of no one, and he’ll go directly for the jugular when he needs to, as he did at the Boston Globe when he went after the Catholic Church for its cover-up of the not-so-priestly sexual abuse scandals.

The sports section. Sports I received the fewest complaints about. Good writers, good coverage. Sure, the Post goes overboard on the local NFL team with the unmentionable name, but the locals love it. Maybe a little more coverage of women’s teams, offbeat but locally loved sports like lacrosse, and Baltimore pro teams. Oh, and while you’re still printing newspapers (print is still the largest part of your revenue stream, remember), for God’s sake don’t print the blessed paper until you can get in the late sports and box scores. It drives print readers crazy.

The Bad

The Style section. I don’t want to demean the real talent in Style. It has much: Manuel Roig-Franzia, Monica Hesse, Dan Zak, Jason Horowitz, Hank Stuever, Philip Kennicott, Sarah Kaufman, Anne Midgette, and others. But the main feature writers are spread thin, need help, and could use better and more imaginative conceptual editing. And they need a mission and someone to shape the vision.

The Ugly
Jennifer Rubin. Have Fred Hiatt, your editorial page editor—who I like, admire, and respect—fire opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin. Not because she’s conservative, but because she’s just plain bad. She doesn’t travel within a hundred miles of Post standards. She parrots and peddles every silly right-wing theory to come down the pike in transparent attempts to get Web hits. Her analysis of the conservative movement, which is a worthwhile and important beat that the Post should treat more seriously on its national pages, is shallow and predictable. Her columns, at best, are political pornography; they get a quick but sure rise out of the right, but you feel bad afterward.

And she is often wrong, and rarely acknowledges it. She was oh-so-wrong about Mitt Romney, week after week writing embarrassing flattery about his 2012 campaign, calling almost every move he made brilliant, and guaranteeing that he would trounce Barack Obama. When he lost, the next day she savaged him and his campaign with treachery, saying he was the worst candidate with the worst staff, ever. She was wrong about the Norway shootings being acts of al-Qaida. She was wrong about Chuck Hagel being an anti-Semite. And does she apologize? Nope.

Rubin was the No. 1 source of complaint mail about any single Post staffer while I was ombudsman, and I’m leaving out the organized email campaigns against her by leftie groups like Media Matters. Thinking conservatives didn’t like her, thinking moderates didn’t like her, government workers who knew her arguments to be unfair didn’t like her. Dump her like a dull tome on the Amazon Bargain Books page.

Patrick B. Pexton was the ombudsman of the Washington Post until March 2013. He blogs at Illustration by Jandos Rothstein

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  1. #1

    Rubin is a scourge on the post and should be fired but obviously her "neocon" ties keep her employed. We get it. Always who you know, right?

    I'd have more respect for Pexton if he used the word "Redskins", but since he's a journalist (and not agreeing with your fellow libs in the newsroom is so gauche!), I get totally get it. A haircut like that isn't going to wear itself.

  2. #2

    “Fire opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin.” Why? “Not because she’s conservative, but she’s bad.” Why is she bad? “She peddles right-wing theory [i.e., she’s conservative].”

    I believe this is called begging the question.

  3. #3

    Not that I like Rubin at all, but, dude. Greg Sargent. All of those complaints apply much more to him.

    Geez, I get sick of people and their perception filtering based on political viewpoint.

  4. #4

    "Amazon just sells stuff. Lots of stuff. But it’s all stuff." I guess you missed the part where they pioneered and then cornered the ebook market? it was in a couple of papers...

  5. #5

    "The conservative movement ... is a worthwhile and important beat that the Post should treat more seriously on its national pages."

    Mr. Pexton, I appreciate the sentiment, but the real problem is that conservatives make up the largest self-identified ideological group in the country, yet the Beltway media treats them as a "beat." We're not a beat. We're people just like you.


  6. #6

    Yeah, the reason the WaPo had nine straight years of declining revenue and was sold for a mere $250M is because they have one bad conservative columnist. I am sure Bezos is going to soak up this sage advice.

  7. #7

    “She... peddles... right-wing theory.”

    That's an interesting way to parse it, the actual quote was (bolding mine):

    She parrots and peddles every silly right-wing theory to come down the pike in transparent attempts to get Web hits.

  8. #8

    Interesting that two (so far) commenters claim the knock on Rubin is just due to political bias and completely ignore the author's statement that she was the number one source of complaint mail. Talk about political bias!

  9. #9

    Greg Sargent? Yum, no, Sargent is mildly partisan but he's mostly consistent, doesn't make stuff up, corrects his mistakes, and, well, generally at least acts like a journalist most of the time. Rubin is a straight up hack.

  10. #10

    Dear Pexton, you should really stick to things you are demonstrably better at than media criticism. Things like autofellatio. Now there's something for which you have a real talent.

  11. #11

    So... if you received so many complaints about Rubin, why did you never address those complaints in your role as ombudsman? I find that utterly baffling.

    Another suggestion: after firing Jennifer Rubin, also fire Richard "Inessential on any given topic" Cohen.

  12. #12

    Sage advice. I only wish someone had heeded this wisdom while Pexton was still ombudsman. Then his rather tepid tenure would not have been in vain.

  13. #13

    DG Myers: here is what you quote: “She peddles right-wing theory

    here is the actual quote:

    She parrots and peddles every silly right-wing theory to come down the pike in transparent attempts to get Web hits.

    Notice the big difference.

  14. #14

    Mr. Bezos,

    A better piece of advise is put everyone at the Post on a variable salary which depends on the economic performance of the paper. Put a USD 100,000 cap on all salaries and everything above that will be paid out in options with clear bench marks including claw backs for senior managers.

    The Washington Post needs to remain a great national and and a real local paper (District and PG)and not continue to be the Arlington or Bethesda Post.

    A newspaper can only do its job if it is sustainable ie profitable. You have bought a great asset despite the management that did its best to run into the ground.

  15. #15

    "She parrots and peddles every silly right-wing theory to come down the pike in transparent attempts to get Web hits."

    Sorry, but isn't this trashing of Rubin just a pathetic attempt to get Web hits?

  16. #16

    The WaPo is left wing rag and having an "ombudsman" is a sick joke. Objectivity has never been and will never be a goal or practice of that rag full of hacks.

  17. #17

    For those wondering why he said to fire Rubin - read his comments! She is the No. 1 (ONE) source of complaint mail to the WP! That's reason enough to get rid of her.

    She's trash and consistently lies about people like Sen Rand Paul.

  18. #18

    Not that anyone asked, but the worst thing about the Post (IMO, obviously) is its insularity--internalizing the rationalizations and values of the powerful rather than shining a light on them. More than any other institution, the Post has been responsible for turning the Washington press corps into a class of courtiers.
    There's a reason this industry is the only one protected by the US Constitution, and it's not so reporters can suck up to the people they're supposed to be covering.

    Fix this, do it right, and someday you too could hear Sally Quinn say: "Jeff Bezos trashed this town, and it's NOT his town!"

  19. #19

    Greg Sargent and the rest of the liberal morons who have driven the Post further into the ground these past several years should be the first ones on the chopping block. The leftward swing of the Post since they helped cheerlead Obama into office has been their deathknell.

    But, of course, common sense and left wing politics are polar opposites.

  20. #20

    It was very obvious to me, when reading Pexton's columns on rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on innocent Israeli civilians, that Pexton was an anti-semite. That's why he hates Rubin- He should just shut up and go away--and get a decent haircut. His grooming suggests he suffers from mental illness. Someone who adopts such a bizarre appearance might be characterized that way by a mental health professional. That is a standard factor considered in assessing one's mental health status.After reading this guy for a long time, I developed the impression that he was an oddball, and somewhat off his rocker.

  21. #21

    Thank you Patrick Pexton! Very thoughtful open letter and dead on in relation to issues from the appalling Ms. Rubin to the Post's need to hire back all those laid-off copy editors. As for DG Myers, why is it necessary for you to distort what Pexton wrote to disagree with him? If you are a Rubin fan, just own it. But don't pretend she represents a well-reasoned conservative view. You are a fan of someone who traffics in the basest form of right-wing innuendo, writes badly, and, as Pexton says, doesn't tend to admit her mistakes even when they are doozies! Great taste DG Myers!

  22. #22

    Hagel's statements about Jews WERE anti-semitic. Anti-Semites (like Pexton) never admit they are.

  23. #23

    Standing, clapping.

  24. #24

    P. Pex is awesome -- Bezos should immediately hire him (or me or SOMEONE) back as Ombudsman -- it's ridic that the WASPost got rid of that position.

  25. #25

    "and for Christ’s sake, copy editors to get right."

    Oops. Maybe that was intentional, but I think not.

  26. #26

    "Her columns, at best, are political pornography; they get a quick but sure rise out of the right, but you feel bad afterward."

    Yeah, but I usually don't feel bad at all after pornography. Still though, just a beautiful sentence and a metaphor delivered with a flash of the elbow.

  27. #27

    Can't dispute the characterization of Rubin. She's awful - but any worse than Will, Richard Cohen, Samuelson, or Hiatt himself. They're embarrassing twits.

    And that leads to the news sections. Bezos could re-build the reporting, but right now most of it is painfully weak. Lots of journalists who sound arrogant but just reguritate PR spin from one of he many think-tanks (read propaganda mills) in town.

    Start with Rubin sure, but keep moving through the little Grahams, almost the whole editorial page, the reporters who just reprint spin, etc. Maybe looking at some refugees from the Murdoch Journal could be a place to start.

  28. #28

    So where the hell were you when she was doing all this?

    Oh right, defending Fred Hiatt's comfy bed of insider inanity from the criticism' of the unwashed.

    Some "ombudsman!" Brave, fearless.

  29. #29

    Tell this average reader who Ms. Rubin knows and why that keeps her employed---I don't know much about her.

  30. #30

    It'll be hilarious to watch Bezos fire this libtard.

  31. #31

    Fire the only conservative. If you don't have a left-only hard partisan liberal "news" source you can't follow MSNBC to the top of the food chain.

    What? MSNBC has slightly higher ratings than the Home Shopping Network... what more could they ask for?

    Clearly the goal is to have approximately 1/4 of the circulation of an average newspaper and 1/10th of the circulation of the top newspapers... which hard-partisan slant will give you.

    Best of luck, and if you need more advice on how to lower circulation and damage your brand, ask Mr. Pexton for more advice. I'm sure if required he can come up with more disastrous plans.

    Maybe a New Coke style rebranding if the MSNBC lean-leftward partisan slant doesn't run off enough of your customer base? Just off the top of my head, feel free to use it though.

  32. #32

    I get the same message from these Pexton arguments as I get from reading the Post regularly and the comments its readers leave on stories. That is, liberals simply cannot tolerate opposing points of view. The arguments Pexton makes against Rubin are ones that also could be made against Greg Sargent and others at WaPo, but he doesn't name those people.

    He suggests that's because WaPo gets a lot more complaints about Rubin than others. Well, of course it does. WaPo is a paper that aims for a liberal audience -- a good part of the reason it is floundering -- so it will get a lot more complaints about conservative writers.

    It is a paper of, by, and for the left.

    Like most liberals, Pexton has his blinders on.

  33. Agent Michael Scarn

    The truth is that there is not one Beltway opinion columnist worth spit. They do nothing but peddle tired cliches and regurgitated pablum. If there was once an original thought in their head, lefty or righty, it was strangled in the womb a long long time ago. All they are capable of is spitting out a few hundred words of dreck a week. Then they rush to the nearest cocktail party to pat themselves on the back about how much better they are than the commoners. Off with all their heads.

  34. #34

    I guess we know why this clown is now the Ex-Ombudsman at the ComPost, but you well know his ideological clone is working the same job.

    Here's hoping that Prebius embargoes all the rest of these left-wing propaganda outfits once and for all. No debates, no interviews - put them all online, and put this dinosaur media out to pasture for good. They are nothing less than the media arm of the Obama White House, soon to be Clinton Call House if we continue playing by their rules. Gee, ok - let's do a debate with Stepahopoulos, senior Bill Clinton adviser turned "newsman", moderating a debate with his old boss's wife. Enough!

  35. #35

    Mr. Pexton, Clearly you are a small man, not just in stature but in spirit. How sad that a man who held the job you did with WaPo has revealed himself to be so immature and unprofessional. Sad too is the fact that your brand of personal evisceration has come to characterize the mainstream media. Thank God for the alternative press and talk radio! You now cater only to the low-information voter, with glee no doubt.

  36. #36

    With Bezo at the helm, The Washingotn Post will become a NeoCons' wet dream.

  37. #37

    If I can paraphrase "crush any and all dissent". Paxton is basically a small man who can't stand ideas he disagrees with. How pathetic. But Bezos will likely follow this advice and insure that even fewer people take the WaPo seriously. Eh, its only $77 million.

  38. #38

    I won't be missing Rubin if she is, after all, ejected but denouncing her as some kind of Rightwing shill (as opposed to an Est. Rep tool) is just a lie. Is she a Birther? That would be a no. Not that she or anyone else at the Post ever gave any attention to the obvious fraud of Obama's birth certificate. Yes, she was an early and obnoxious Romney backer... this makes her John Birch incarnate? She was also a fan of John Huntsman! And is often an Obamacon on specific issues. Go ahead and purge your little rat cage if you want. The Post could hardly be more puerile for it. The Commie press is dead no matter what else happens so why not be MORE commie? Go for it.

  39. #39

    From JC Adams:

    “ [The WP] parrots and peddles every silly [left]-wing theory to come down the pike…. [The WP’s] analysis of the conservative movement, which is a worthwhile and important beat that the Post should treat more seriously on its national pages, is shallow and predictable. [The editorial page’s] columns, at best, are political pornography; they get a quick but sure rise out of the [left], but you feel bad afterward.

    And [the WP] is often wrong, and rarely acknowledges it. [The WP] was oh-so-wrong about [Barack Obama], week after week writing embarrassing flattery about his 2012 campaign, calling almost every move he made brilliant…[The WP] was wrong about [add your own list of the many times the WP has been wrong]…. And does [the WP] apologize? Nope."

  40. #40

    Would a creep like Pexton ever be as nasty to the typical aging lefty wrecks that hold a high position in WaPo ?
    I wonder if Rubin is an easy target because she is Jewish and is no lefty?

  41. #41

    Perhaps you can enlighten us to how many hits Ms. Rubin's pieces get, and how that affects the Post's advertising dollars? Also, is she paid per hit? If not, what could be her interest in getting more hits? Or the Post's? Thank you

  42. #42

    Most of what Pexton says about Rubin is simply wrong. Parroting every conservative theory is precisely what she does not do. In fact she clearly picks sides in intra-conservative fights, mostly toward the centrist view. Predictable and repetitive - yes she's that - so how does Patrick square that with "parroting every theory"? Now she's made mistakes. She got weirdly obsessive about pro-Romneyism and then turned. And she blew the initial reaction to Norway. But wait. Why is that worse than the many times liberal or "mainstream" media in the U.S. and elsewhere have made the opposite error - scrounging around for some other label for what is actually terrorism motivated by some form of, well, you know? And why is Pexton's interpretation of Hagel's statements any more valid than hers? I'm sorry but the bias as usual unintentionally shows through - calling conservatism a "beat," calling for Rubin to be fired but suggesting no alternative, etc. Sigh.

  43. #43

    yes, the Post is suffering because it's "so liberal" (eye roll). They should be right-wing. That's the business model that made the Washington Times so successful!

    I think I know the Post's problem. All the righties complain about it being left-wing, while the left thinks it's too conservative. Clearly the Post is getting its editions mixed up. The righties are getting the leftie version and the left is getting the right-wing version!

  44. #44

    The only reason I read the Washington Post is for the Insightful Intelligence of Ms Rubin. Mr. Pexton is too easily showing his Viral Jew Hatred.

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