My fourth-floor office looks out over the main entrance to The Post. I often glance across 15th Street and see tourists taking photos of the newspaper’s iconic nameplate. For so many, The Post has a reputation for journalistic excellence. Will it endure?
I’ve pondered that question while crafting this column, my last as ombudsman. So, too, have many of the tens of thousands who e-mailed or called during my two-year term as the readers’ representative. A dominant theme has been that The Post’s journalistic quality has declined. It’s a view I share.
I’ve written before that The Post on its worst days is better than most newspapers on their best days. In print and online, it retains immense influence through journalism that can frame public discourse. And it still produces stunningly ambitious work, such as last year’s “Top Secret America” project on the huge national security buildup and the “Hidden Life of Guns” series tracking firearms used in crimes. Priced lower than most competitors, the newspaper is a bargain.
But it has become riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable “small” factual errors that erode credibility. Local news coverage, once robust, has withered. The Post often trails the competition on stories. The excessive use of anonymous sources has expanded into blogs. The once-broken system for publishing corrections has been repaired, but corrections often still take too long to appear. The list goes on.
Much of this is a result of upheaval, disruption and necessary cost-cutting. Over the past few years, once-separate print and online staffs have been combined. The traditional newsroom structure was blown up and reconfigured. New editors are in charge. Scores of staffers have been reassigned.
And staggering financial losses have required unrelenting expense reductions to restore profitability. The loss of newsroom talent, through forced buyouts and voluntary departures, has been breathtaking. Some of the most respected Post journalists have left, along with institutional knowledge and leadership so desperately needed during a period of radical change.
The Post will continue to face huge challenges. Steadily declining circulation can be slowed but not reversed. Online revenue is increasing, but remains far below that of print. The growth in paid content on mobile devices, such as iPads, will help. But short term, it may not generate sufficient revenue to maintain the same size newsroom.
All this affects the journalism. The Post is trying to preserve a dying print product while building a new digital one. In the process, traditional standards and practices are being tested. Ethical dilemmas abound. Should celebrity photos be used on the home page to gin up traffic? Should The Post link to breaking news reports that it can’t independently verify? Such questions have exposed a journalistic culture clash in the newsroom and created an identity crisis as The Post struggles to reconcile its print and online personas.
It also has prompted readers, and many in the newsroom, to wonder if The Post has lost its journalistic compass. It hasn’t.
During my tenure, I’ve repeatedly scolded The Post for journalistic shortcomings, some of them unfathomable. But I have never questioned its commitment to responsible journalism. That starts at the top with Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham, a revered figure in the newsroom (deservedly so) who has respect and love for newsgathering.
The Post also understands that opening itself to criticism can enhance integrity and credibility. Each Saturday, the Free for All page is filled with reader complaints about journalistic performance. The following day, the ombudsman’s column offers more criticism (and occasional praise). Many readers are unaware that the ombudsman operates under a contract that guarantees total independence. I report to no one.
The Post and its journalism will survive. But the question is: At what level of quality?
That depends largely on those in the newsroom. They are among the best in the business, yet many are dispirited by change and uncertainty. Managers must inspire. But everyone, from print veterans to digital producers, must commit to create a new legacy of excellence.
Readers also play a critical role, demanding the best journalism.
And the new ombudsman, to be named soon, must serve as their strong advocate and a dogged internal critic.
Ombudsmen cannot command change. As The Post’s Stylebook says, “He is not God; he is not even one of the angels.”
Rather, the ombudsman’s job is to make those in the newsroom “think about their audiences, their standards and the quality of their journalism.”
In the end, it’s all about quality.
This column was originally published in The Washington Post on Jan. 23, 2011.