The days of a robust internal watchdog within the Washington Post are over.
That became clear when publisher Katharine Weymouth decided to not hire an ombudsman to replace Patrick Pexton, whose two-year term ended at the end of February. In choosing Doug Feaver Thursday as the first “reader representative,” Weymouth ensures that the ombudsman job is officially in the dustbin.
Not that Doug Feaver is a weak or inexperienced journalist. To the contrary, Feaver goes back decades within the Post, from reporter to editor to executive editor of the website. He knows the Post, its weaknesses, strengths, and foibles.
In choosing Feaver, Weymouth deflects criticism that she chose an insignificant journalist, but he will be toothless. His choice was greeted by huzzahs on Twitter from former colleagues. I suggest they check reports from newsroom sources: The reader representative is a part-time position, and Feaver has been instructed to avoid investigating Post journalism or the internal workings of the newsroom.
Feaver might have made a strong ombudsman, in the mold of Richard Harwood, the first Post ombudsman in the 1970s. Or Mike Getler, who’s now ombudsman for PBS. Or Pexton, who moved the ombudsman’s voice to Twitter and social media. In the role of a classic ombudsman, they represented the readers by taking comments, digging into the Post’s practice of journalism, and writing columns that explained how the Post worked.
But we, the reading public, will never get Feaver’s take on how the Post covered—or didn’t cover, or covered badly, or covered well—any particular event. Because under the new rules as the Post’s first “reader representative,” Feaver will neither write columns for the Post website nor the Sunday column in the Washington Post that readers have come to rely on and appreciate for more than three decades.
Unless Weymouth and the Post change the terms of his role and give him a voice.