Pexton, whose contract expires at the end of the month, used his column on Sunday to address the possible end to a 43-year old tradition at the Post:
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.
Officially, no final decision has been made. Discussions are underway within The Post about how to respond to reader complaints and concerns without an independent ombudsman.
But 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.
Pexton based his bet on a conversation he had with the Post’s new executive editor Marty Baron, who told him, “There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries.”
Baron is right. There is certainly no shortage of media critics today, thanks to the Internet, but Pexton thinks Baron isn’t seeing the entire picture.
Pexton says that the job doesn’t consist of just his Sunday column and blog posts. He said that he and his assistant are constantly dealing with complaints and concerns of readers who send them an average of 5,000 emails per month. He added that by virtue of having a sympathetic ear, they have prevented multiple home-subscription cancellations and have earned their salaries in saved subscriptions alone.
That probably means little to Baron since the discussion about the ombudsman position really isn’t about money, but about the fact that Pexton and some of his predecessors have stung the Post on more than one occasion with their criticisms of the paper. That’s something Baron wants to avoid as he tries to reshape the Post.
Pexton doesn’t think that ombudsmen are infallible, but neither does he think the Post should eliminate the job:
Can I say for certain that an ombudsman makes The Post more credible? No, I can’t point to any good study saying that. But people’s trust in the media is declining. Eliminating the ombudsman seems a shortsighted move.
Indeed it is.