In a March 1 letter to readers, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth announced the end of the newspaper's ombudsman position, which will be replaced by a "reader representative" who will not write a weekly column but "will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns."
To a casual reader, this might seem merely a matter of semantics, but much more is involved. Since the 1970s, the Post's ombudsman position has been endowed with unique independence within the paper, independence that is now being eliminated.
A personal note: My father, Charles B. Seib, was the Post's ombudsman from 1974 until 1979. He had had a long career in journalism, culminating with his being managing editor of Washington's other major paper, the Evening Star. When he came to the Post, he became the only employee of the paper with a contract that guaranteed him independence. He signed on for a five-year term and if the higher-ups at the paper wanted to get rid of him before that time, they would be obligated to pay him for the remainder of his term. He wrote a weekly column, "The News Business," that was syndicated nationally, and he wrote internal memos -- often several each day -- critiquing the Post's product. He was always accessible to the public. At times, he got into tussles with the Post's publisher, Katharine Graham (the current publisher's grandmother), but they always ended amicably. Somewhere I have a nice note that Mrs. Graham sent to my father; she had complained about his saying kind things about the New York Times, but they soon worked out their differences.
So much for reminiscing. The key issue at hand is the ombudsman's or reader representative's freedom to criticize. My father understood how important this was; he would not have taken the job without it, and I assume his successors in the position felt free to truly represent the public regardless of internal politics. It is hard to believe that the new reader representative, a regular staff member, will be willing to take the career risk of doing combat with the publisher or editors.
The ombudsman's job is important because it implicitly signals that a major news organization recognizes its power and wants to construct an internal check on the exercise of that power. No law requires this; the Constitution would not allow such an intrusion by the government or other outsiders. Rather, it is a matter of social responsibility -- evidence that a news organization can police itself and keep itself accountable to the public it serves.
The last Post ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote in his farewell column about reasons for the end of his job: financial concerns, social media filled with self-appointed media critics, and the endangered newspaper industry's increased sensitivity to criticism. Those are all plausible reasons, but none of them is responsive to the ethical duties of the news business.
The public is being poorly served by the Post's decision.