When the Washington Post recently announced it had hired New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, it looked like yet another signal that the Post’s days of penury were behind it.
The public editor—what the Post and most other news organizations call an ombudsman—is an independent journalist charged with critiquing her own news organization, an in-house referee who calls a foul when coverage is biased, opaque, or just sloppy. It’s a role that doesn’t make friends for you in the newsroom and is often one of the first jobs to be cut in lean times.
Three years ago—months before Jeff Bezos bought the Post and took his wrench to the paper’s frozen money taps—that’s what happened when Patrick Pexton, the paper’s most recent ombudsman, finished his term. Shortly before his departure, Pexton predicted the Post would “end nearly 43 years of . . . having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative.”
Alas, Sullivan’s return doesn’t mean Post readers will get their advocate back. “This is not in any way a public-editor job,” she tells Washingtonian. Instead, she’ll write a media column modeled on the late David Carr’s work for the Times, and she’ll join the Post’s corps of journalists who cover journalism—Paul Farhi in Style, Erik Wemple in the opinion shop, and Callum Borchers, who joined the Fix blog last fall to cover political media.
Of course, the Post had talked about maintaining some kind of reader-advocate role. On Pexton’s exit, then publisher Katharine Weymouth replaced the ombudsman with a reader representative, who would “write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.”
Doug Feaver was hired in that role in March 2013. He lasted less than a year. His replacement, current reader representative Alison Coglianese, has never written a word in public about the Post’s journalism, and her Twitter bio doesn’t identify her as an employee of the company. By e-mail, Coglianese says her “interactions are more on a personal level as opposed to a public one”—meaning she passes readers’ concerns on to reporters and management rather than weighing in herself.
At a time when news organizations are suffering brutal cuts to the newsroom, an ombud may be written off as a relic of an era when the print edition was fat with ads and the Post could afford to employ someone to give journalists the floggings they secretly crave.
Well, maybe. At the Times, Sullivan showed that an ombudsman didn’t have to be someone who descended from Mount Journalism twice a month to administer beatings. She began blogging on her first day on the job, and while her big hits on the organization got a lot of attention—she scoffed at Timespeople’s excuses for missing the story of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, noting that the organization somehow had the resources to produce a video on nipple activists and to cover the fashion trend for buffalo plaid—her lasting legacy will come from less splashy work: She waged a tireless campaign against gratuitous anonymous sources that got results; banged the drum for coverage of poverty, race, and the environment; and worked to demystify the paper, explaining, for example, why it can take a while for readers’ online comments to appear—the kind of small-bore, unrelenting critique that makes the news better in the long run.
That’s what’s currently missing from the Post. Its media reporters do pounce when the paper makes news—something Sullivan says she’ll do as well—but the quirky questions that inform the romance between a paper and its readers aren’t part of anyone’s beat.
And that’s too bad, because for true-blue Post devotees, the little concerns can feel anything but. If you’re worried that the Post has given up on local coverage or notice more typos in headlines or feel strongly—please don’t get in touch with me if you do—about the future of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, your concerns are unlikely to go beyond the person tasked with talking to you. And if you’re concerned about bigger things–how the Post misreported the number of FBI agents investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, for instance–you’re at the mercy of outside media reporters’ work schedules.
Maybe the budget still isn’t leafy enough for the Post to afford to criticize itself. Except, somehow, the paper has had enough firepower to cover Jim Gilmore’s campaign, launch a new blog about how “the lives of animals and people intersect,” and publish a phone game called Floppy Candidate.
Bezos is known to jump into customer-service matters at his other company, Amazon, and it’s terrific that the Post has Coglianese in place to direct reader concerns. But ombudsman is a job for an activist investor, not a middle manager. Some previous Post ombuds were good, others less so—but now in Sullivan, there’s someone on staff who’s a living yardstick for excellence in modern public editing. Surely there’s room in the organization’s ever-expanding ambitions to bring aboard someone who could follow her example and make the whole enterprise better.
This article appears in our April 2016 issue of Washingtonian.