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Guest Host: Paul Brown
For the last four decades, the Washington Post — like many other newspapers around the country — has employed an independent ombudsman to serve as a reader representative and critic. But the Post may soon follow in the footsteps of news organizations across the country by eliminating the position when the term of the current ombudsman ends this month. Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton joins us in studio to explore the role of his position in the modern media landscape and the challenges facing newspapers in today’s economic environment.
- Patrick Pexton Ombudsman, The Washington Post
MR. PAUL BROWNFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Paul Brown sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, news organizations today do business in a 24/7 tornado, and the demands of the modern media landscape are forcing editors and reporters to reinvent themselves for this new online and mobile universe.
MR. PAUL BROWNBut not all the pieces of a traditional newsroom are likely to survive that reinvention. For the past four decades, for example, The Washington Post has employed an independent ombudsman to serve as both a reader representative and an internal critic. Those days may soon be over. The paper may eliminate the position when the contract for current ombudsman Patrick Pexton expires at the end of the month.
MR. PAUL BROWNPatrick Pexton joins us in studio today to explore what he's learned from both the readers and the journalists working at one of the biggest daily newspapers in the country and whether the industry will soon be writing a collective obituary for the position he's held for the past two years. Patrick Pexton, ombudsman at the Washington Post, your two-year term ends on Feb. 28. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. PATRICK PEXTONThank you, Paul, and glad to be here.
BROWNWell, you know, before coming in to sub for Kojo on the show today, I decided that I would look up the word ombudsman. So many of us know, or we think we know, what an ombudsman is. But I realized even I had not in a long time reviewed the history of this word, and I decided I had to find out. So it turns out, if you don't know -- if you're listening now, think for a moment, do you really know what an ombudsman is?
BROWNIt turns out it comes from the Swedish, which I did not know. And an ombudsman is an agent man that is an agent on behalf of someone trying to help that person or make contact or communication possible with someone else. And it originated, as we understand, in the early part of the 20th century, most often referred to ombudsman who helped people in their interactions with government in Sweden.
BROWNBut it could also occur at schools and eventually was adopted in the journalistic profession. Patrick, do you know at all why we adopted the Swedish word for this or not? I never got that far in my research. I have no idea why we didn't adopt, you know, a German-rooted word or a French-rooted word for ombudsman in English.
PEXTONYou know, I don't know the answer to that. And I'd actually done a little research on it, and I just don't know the origins of it. I'm sure it's back in the fog of history there somewhere.
BROWNI'm going to try to find out. And if anyone does know, by the way, and you want to give us a call, we would love to talk with you. The phone number, 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Patrick Pexton of The Washington Post, the ombudsman there for the past two years, you've basically been the public editor and reader representative at The Post.
BROWNBut you say there's a chance that, when your term expires later this week, your position at the newspaper will be eliminated altogether. Now, my first question here is, why is the ombudsman position at risk of elimination, and not just at The Post but at other newspapers and organizations? What is -- and what does this tell us about the state of the journalism business?
PEXTONI think there's really two things going on here. And one relates to costs, and the other relates to changing technologies. I think, in terms of costs, all newsrooms, print newspapers and metropolitan dailies around the country are shrinking. They're reducing staff. There's a paper out west who basically fired all their copy editors, and now it's up to reporters who do their stories to fact-check and comma check everything that they write.
PEXTONSo there's a cost element. The ombudsman is normally a experienced journalist with a lot of years. I have 30 years of experience. That's a salary of a senior editor. It's an easy target. So that's one reason. Nobody really likes to be criticized. I do that every Sunday in The Post and in my blog and in tweets and...
BROWNYou criticize your own employer.
PEXTONI criticize my own employer. They do pay my salary, but my contract guarantees me independence. I don't report to anybody, except myself. And the second reason really is technology. There's a lot of people who feel with social media, Twitter, Facebook, online comments on stories that in a way, the Web is self-correcting, that there's so many people reading and so many people commenting that if you make a mistake, someone out there will know that and instantly correct it.
BROWNWell, you know, one of the things that occurred to me as I was preparing for this hour is that not only is the Web self-correcting to a certain extent, but we're looking at a very big cultural and technological shift here. What we're seeing may be one more example of perhaps an unanticipated outcome of there being easier, cheaper access to media, easier ways to get your voice and your message out. It wasn't 25 years ago that, in order to publish something, you had to spend a considerable amount of money. Now, start a blog, no cost...
PEXTONYeah. Anyone can do that. Anyone can do that.
BROWN...and reach more people than you would ever reach by publishing a small magazine. Not long ago, if you wanted to be seen on video, you had to somehow persuade one of maybe two or three television stations in a community that you were worth having on the air. And if you wanted to actually make a video and produce a documentary, well, heaven help you for the cost on something like that.
BROWNThe same thing was true in the recording industry for music. And there was a day when really newspapers had something of a monopoly on access to a broad voice. It was also because of that, I would imagine, rather profitable because the advertising rates could be very high. You knew you reached a lot of folks.
BROWNAnd all of these things have changed within the last two and a half decades or maybe a little more. So it seems that, you know, to me, that not only are we looking at a self-correcting new set of media, but the entire landscape in which newspapers operated where they were gatekeepers to a far greater degree than any single medium can be now has very much changed.
PEXTONYes. I think that's totally true, and I -- you know, we all have to be modernizers at this point. You can't resist the tide of change. You have to accommodate it in some ways. But I still think that I'm a little skeptical of the self-correcting Web in terms of my own position at The Post. Lots of people can criticize and pontificate and send in an immediate reaction to something they don't like or disagree with or maybe they have a special professional knowledge that let's them know it's not correct.
PEXTONBut it's not the same thing as an ombudsman inside the newsroom who can go talk to the reporter, go to talk to his or her editor, call some other sources that he knows and make a judgment based on all that information on was the paper right, was the paper wrong, what parts did they get right, what parts did they get wrong. I think that's a very important function. It takes a longer time.
PEXTONI can't do an investigation like that in 10 minutes. It takes me a day or two on a lot of these. We're half hour at the very least. So I think there's value in having someone in the newsroom who can go to people and ask the hard questions and get an answer and then share it with the public. I still think there's a great need for that.
BROWNPatrick Pexton with The Washington Post, he's the newspaper's ombudsman. His contract expires at the end of this week. You can join our conversation, call us at 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com or get in touch with us two our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet, @kojoshow. And let's go to John in Fairfax, Va. John, you are on the air.
JOHNHello. The answer to the question previously about the origin of the word or why we use the ombudsman really has two parts. One is the mechanism, and that seems to have been, according to my late father through the State Department because the -- several Nordic embassies had exactly that post, the ombudsman. And it performed the job that we now know, and it's incorporated into a number of local state and county functions called the ombuds program.
BROWNThat's very good to hear, John.
JOHNThe word itself is composed -- the etymology if you will -- om, meaning for all, as in omnivorous and things like that, meaning to combine together, to try to find one point where everything can be joined. And bud is related to another common word buddy, something to grow together, and that meant that this person was responsible for combining the interests of both the served and the served agency and its clients that being in this case the public.
BROWNJohn, thank you very much for your call. It helps a lot. And I'm going to go now to Eva in Falls Church, Va. Eva, you say you are Swedish, and we'd like to hear from you.
EVAYes. Thank you for taking my call. So the word ombudsman was -- has been used by the union before it became -- and union member that was a liaison to the company for the union -- for the other union members.
BROWNRight. So this was a representative of workers to the company.
EVARight. And then it became ombudsman. We have a children's ombudsman. We have for women, for consumers ombudsman. They sort of became and sort of grew out of there with -- they are the liaisons to -- for children to the government, for -- or other authorities and for women and consumers to the government.
BROWNWhen you saw ombudsman being created for media organizations, for newspapers and the like in the U.S., what did you think of that? Did you think that was a good idea, and also do you think that's an appropriate use of the word?
EVAI think it's a little drift from what I would see, but I think it's a great position. And I do read Mr. Pexton's column every week. So I'm sorry to see him go, and I hope that The Washington Post will replace him.
BROWNWhat do you get out of the column? In other words, why do you think an ombudsman is an important position? What does it do?
EVABecause, well, just what he is doing and his colleague in other newspapers is that they keep his journalists, colleagues honest and call the mistakes. It's hard to know that. Editors and all that are being phased out. And he becomes -- he or she as ombudsman becomes a good representative for -- to tell us as well that some things are not quite right in the reporting or how it was phrased in the newspaper, whatever it is.
BROWNWell, thanks very much for calling, Eva. Appreciate hearing from you. And, Patrick Pexton, how do you feel about Eva's comments that the ombudsman in a sense keeps reporters honest?
PEXTONI think it is one of my functions is to ask questions of the reporting process and of the editors who edit the copy. I think that's a very valuable service. Reporters are pressed for time like all of us are. They're being required to blog and to tweet and to Facebook and to brand themselves and to create an identity and a personality.
PEXTONThat's something they never used to have to do before. That creates a lot of demand on them as well. Just a little update for your audiences, ombudsmen are really around the world in journalism and in other positions. I've actually been exposed to a lot of ombudsmen across the globe. And the number of ombudsmen in media are reducing -- shrinking in the United States, still quite a few in Canada.
PEXTONBut they're growing abroad. Media properties abroad are hiring more ombudsmen, and some governments, like the Pakistani government, for example, they have ombudsmen throughout their bureaucracy. They're actually appointed, and they have power to hire and fire and investigate.
BROWNWe'll be back in just a moment. We'll take a brief break. The number to call, once again, 800-433-8850 to join our conversation about ombudsman, the future of journalism, the changing landscape of public and commercial media. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5.
BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo today from NPR. And with me: Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman for The Washington Post. Patrick's contract with The Post winds up at the end of this week, and he's been writing about the position of the ombudsman. There is a chance that The Post may not, in fact, renew the position at all. And The Post is not unique in that regard.
BROWNBut we've been talking about the changing landscape of the news media, the future of journalism and the importance of an independent link between you, the consumer of journalism, and the organizations that produce it. You can join our conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get in touch with us by Facebook or sending us a tweet to @kojoshow.
BROWNWe also -- we have now a -- an email, I believe, from a print subscriber, Rachel in Chinatown. And, Patrick, Rachel says that she is a subscriber to The Post who feels that she is less and less important to the people running the newspaper than she has been in the past. She wants to thank you for your work and says that she reads your column every Sunday.
BROWN"He's always come off as having the interest of the print readers of The Post at heart," Rachel writes. "We're loyal. We pay for the product. And we should be a bigger focus of what they do every day. That said, I still love my Post, and I'm not to cancel my subscription anytime soon." So does Rachel have a point, Patrick?
PEXTONRachel does have a point. And I appreciate her email. One of the things that I think is a slightly wrong emphasis at The Post is it's moving very quickly in a Web direction and in a mobile device direction. They need to do that. That's where people are. That's what people are reading. I don't quibble with that. But the bulk of the revenue of the newspaper, some 55 percent or so, comes from print circulation, from people buying it on the newsstand and from people subscribing at home.
PEXTONAnd I would say the bulk of my email and letters and phone calls are from print subscribers who live in this area although, over time, more complaints are coming from Web readers from all over the country. And I think they're so anxious to move towards the new technology that they sometimes, I think, take for granted a little bit their print subscribers.
BROWNWell, let's talk for a moment with Bob here from Springfield, Va. Bob, you are on the air. And I understand you're curious about what an ombudsman does and also some other distinction. So happy to have you with us.
BOBThanks. Yeah, I wonder about the scope of your charter. It seems to me that, you know, you're talking about media. But in a larger sense, you're talking about journalism as a body of knowledge. And it seems that ombudsman, I would hope, would have some type of responsibility -- oversight responsibility for journalism.
BOBThere's a huge disparity, in my view, between what you see on the Web and what's in the print media. And I wonder, you know, how do you view those -- the print media versus what's on the Web? It seems to me that it's a bit of the Wild West on the Web. And at least there is some due diligence with regard to the print media, but it seems to me that's eroding as well.
PEXTONI think the caller makes a great point. One of the problems of legacy media, print, New York Times, Washington Post, is that in some ways, they're at a disadvantage because the reporters at The Washington Post and at The New York Times and mainstream media, they really do do the reporting. They really go call people and talk to people and to try to get out what the really facts -- the facts are.
BROWNThey're not just aggregators, in other words.
PEXTONNo. They are not just aggregators. They're actually creating content. They're doing the research, doing the reporting and doing the hard work of thinking about it and analyzing it. The problem with the Internet age is that I get two or 300 emails everyday and phone calls. And people say, I saw this on Fox News or I saw this on Breitbart or I saw this on the Daily Color or I saw this Daily Cost or I saw this on ThinkProgress, and you don't have it in your newspaper. Why don't you?
PEXTONWell, very often, it's not in the newspaper because they've chased down the sources, they've called the people up, and there's no story there, that either the facts on the other websites are just completely wrong or there's so little context that it doesn't make it really newsworthy. Reporters are doing that all day long in a newspaper, checking things out. Is this a story? Is it not a story? And the rest of the Internet is a bit of a Wild West prequel.
BROWNYou know, I have to say we run into the same thing, Patrick and Bob, at NPR because we are not always first with the story on the radio, and radio is a faster medium than print was, you know. And Internet is even faster. The Web is even faster.
BROWNBut there are many times, so many days come and go where we are working a story and trying to get something actually confirmed so that what we say is what we really know and that, as you say, there's enough context to it that we know we actually have a story that is worthy of people's time. And I think that one of the big changes in media is that you can simply jump on the Web and write anything right now.
PEXTONExactly. In fact, there was a probably well-known case just before I came on as ombudsman two years ago. You remember Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson. That hit the Web very, very quickly. And actually, The Washington Post tweeted out that she had been killed. And that turned out, of course, to be false. And, rather than actually saying in a tweet that, you know, ABC and so and so are reporting that she was killed, they just put it out there without attributing it to anybody. And actually...
BROWNAttribution is very, very important.
PEXTONAnd the guidelines -- actually, the internal guidelines for tweeting changed after that.
BROWNBob, what do you think of what Patrick has been saying here?
BOBI'm sorry, I missed what you said.
BROWNI said what do you think of what Patrick's been saying? Does this answer some of your question?
BOBYeah, he has. I mean, I better understand the difficulties that the print media has these days with the Internet, kind of intruding into the space. But seems like we've got to have some type of better due diligence here between the two, particularly if print media is going to survive in any real sense, huh?
PEXTONThat's a great point. I agree with him. The problem is is that the utopian vision of the Internet with everybody able to get on also has its dystopian aspects.
BROWNThanks very much for calling, Bob. Good to hear from you. Russell of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., you are on the air.
RUSSELLThank you for having me on.
RUSSELLI've really enjoyed reading. I read online. I really enjoyed reading Patrick's work. I think he's been a real good ombudsman. And I'm wondering, Patrick, a couple of things, what are you going to do now? And second, you know, I -- my sense is that -- I have to admit that I think The Times is an -- New York Times is a better paper than The Post. I don't always -- I don't -- didn't always think that back 20, 30 years ago, The Post was the better paper. But it's become a lot more conservative, especially on its editorial page.
RUSSELLAnd I'm wondering what -- I don't believe The Post is going to bring back the ombudsman, and I think the reason is because they don't like the criticism. And I'm wondering what -- whether you believe that part of the reason that they're not going to bring it back is because of the conservative tilt, you know, Fred Hiatt's ultraconservative tilt and the conservative tilt especially on the editorial page.
PEXTONThere are several questions there. I think, first of all, that they are sensitive to criticism. We're all sensitive to criticism. We don't like to be critiqued publicly. It's no fun. I think because The Post is weakened financially and is smaller, I think The Washington Post and other media outlets are also more sensitive to criticism. They're weaker. They just don't have the strength they used to, and that is -- it's a hard -- harder to be criticized. I do think that's absolutely an issue.
PEXTONIn terms of what I'm going to do next, I have done just about everything there is in journalism. I've done small town reporting in New England. I've done reporting on Montgomery County and Alexandria City. I've covered the State House in Annapolis. I covered the military for eight years with Army Times, Navy Times, papers which are independent about the military. Then I worked on a small magazine here in D.C., running the newsroom, National Journal and non-partisan, very non-partisan magazine.
PEXTONAnd then I came to The Post. So I'm kind of an optimist about journalism. I think that we're in tough times, but I'm looking forward to getting some kind of leadership position with an outlet that believes there's still a future in this job and in this industry and that there's still room for great reporting, great writing, great photography, great graphics. And I want to be a part of an organization that is still looking forward.
BROWNJoin our conversation, 1-800-433-8850, as we talk about the future of journalism and the various journalistic media. You know, Patrick, we've been hearing from a number of people to whom the print edition of The Washington Post is really very important, and I'm wondering how the changes in the media landscape and the addition of all the new media we're surrounded by now has changed your job as an ombudsman.
PEXTONOh, that's a great question. The amount of input I get from readers has gone up even in the two years since I've been there. So I average, again, at least 100 emails a day, but sometimes it spikes up to 200 or even 500 a day. Sometimes those are coordinated email attacks by special-interest groups. But phone calls between 12 and 24 a day, and of course, the amount of postal mail is shrinking all the time.
PEXTONSo I get more input. I have to react to more things. And you're juggling. I, actually, was doing more blogging on my own blog in the beginning of the two years. And then as it went through, I found that by doing that, I was neglecting the email, and people were writing back a second and third time, you didn't answer. Or they'd write to Don Graham, the CEO, or Katharine Weymouth, the publisher, well, he didn't answer me. So I'm either going to blog or I'm going to do the email. So in the last few months, I've actually been doing more of the email responses.
BROWNDo you try to respond to every message or do you not?
PEXTONI would say I have an assistant who helps me with the emails. She handles some of the simpler issues. We get to about 90 percent of the email.
BROWNHmm-mm. That's impressive. I mean, I don't know what the total number is. But still, given how quickly you have to respond in today's world and given that the number of people who read both the paper and read The Post online, one would imagine that's a very, very large number. How much weight does the print edition still pull in terms of finances and support of the organization? We've got, you know, all these folks who feel that The Washington Post is important to them, and a lot of them talk about the print edition. How important does it still?
PEXTONIt's still extremely important to The Washington Post. It is the number one money-earner for The Washington Post. Ten, 15 years ago, revenues to The Washington Post were 80 percent from advertising and 20 percent from circulation, which is newsstand sales and subscriptions at home. Now, it's about 55 percent of the revenue is from subscribers and newsstand sales and then another chunk from online ads and another chunk from print ads. Prints ads are still double what online ads are in terms of revenue.
PEXTONSo the print edition is extremely important to The Washington Post. They do know that. I don't want to give the impression that they don't understand that. They do. The circulation operation of The Washington Post is one of the best in the country and has the best on-time record of just about any newspaper in the country. Only the L.A. Times has a greater reach in terms of home subscribers. It's hugely important to the paper. They know it. But I think the paper is also -- and the executives are -- want to have a big presence online.
BROWNAnd they feel that they need to...
PEXTONThey need to. Actually...
BROWN...in order for the enterprise to survive in the long-term.
PEXTONIn the long-term...
BROWNThey've got to be on all of these platforms.
PEXTONAbsolutely. This is a fascinating part of journalism today. Everything has to be designed four or five times. It has to be designed for the print product. It has to be designed for the Web and the homepage. It has to be designed for tablets, both android and iPad. And it has to be designed for mobile. So you have more designers. You have more IT people in the newsroom. And that actually means less room for on-the-ground boots reporters. It's really a problem.
BROWNSo it's a tremendous set of pressures here on the company. Carol in Bethesda, Md., you are on the air. What's on your mind?
CAROLFirst, I want to say I think this -- the ombudsman's job is really important, and I hope the Post does not eliminate it. But I wanted to ask Patrick, how often do you find outright mistakes in reporting? And what are some of the biggest mistakes you've uncovered in your two years?
PEXTONOh, golly. Yes, I do find mistakes, but not as many as people think. The reporters and the editors of The Washington Post are very thorough. They do check things. One thing that was a really interesting case that Kojo would love to talk about on a Tech Tuesday, I'm sure, is there was a blog post by one of the younger bloggers at The Post. And she's great. I really like her. But she kind of got taken in by a man who claimed to invent email.
PEXTONAnd he didn't, in fact, invent email as we heard from the fathers of email in onslaught of email to me and to her. And we did our research. She had written a quick post, and this guy had donated some stuff to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and he sounded legit. But he really didn't invent email. He invented a very small email system, but he didn't invent the big email system that we all use, which was really done by government contractors working in the Pentagon.
CAROLSo that's the biggest mistake? That's pretty good if that's the biggest mistake.
PEXTONWell, I think there have been other mistakes. There has been, you know, incidences of plagiarism in the two years I've been there. I have to think about a minute if there's another big mistake that stands out quite like the who-invented-email mistake.
BROWNWell, we'll let Patrick think on that as we continue along. Carol, thanks very much for calling. Appreciate hearing from you.
BROWNLet's go to Vida (sp?) of Chevy Chase, Md. Vida, you're on the air.
VIDAOh, great. Thank you for taking my call. Hi, Mr. Pexton. I don't know if you remember me. I write to The Post fairly often, particularly about issues have to do with Israel and the Middle East.
PEXTONYes, Vida, I know your name.
VIDAAnd I must say, I do appreciate the position of the ombudsman, and I'm sorry to hear that you're going to be leaving. I hope that the ombudsman position is kept on because, frankly, when there are things that are not given enough context, and on a background and so on, there is nobody else for a person like me to talk to or to write to.
VIDAIt's very, very frustrating to find things to kind of -- it's not that the facts are maybe wrong. It's if the facts are given out of context. And that happens a lot in the news media, in The Post and in The New York Times. So I do hope that they -- that you are replaced. And I'm wondering if anything that your -- the readers have brought to your attention have actually helped you in any way.
PEXTONOh, yes. I think the readers, very, very often, are right, and the newsroom sometimes is wrong. Readers bring so much to my attention, everything from the people I call the grammar police who, you know, point out misspellings and punctuation errors and dates that are wrong and names that are spelled wrong and then, you know, very serious people who know about a region of the world that I may not know that much about, or they know more than the reporter does.
PEXTONAnd those come across in my email queue every single day. The reporters -- this audience in the Washington, D.C. area is sophisticated, knowledgeable and smart. And they know a lot.
BROWNAs evidenced by the folks who called in to tell us earlier about the word ombudsman.
PEXTONExactly. I mean, I learned so much...
PEXTONI learn so much from readers every day. And they actually help fix the paper. When I first came as ombudsman, there was a lot of problems with the search engine. There still is problems with The Washington Post search engine, to be quite frank, but I raised this with the technology team soon after I came in 'cause it was just the number one thing I was getting.
PEXTONAnd they did pay some attention to the Washington Post search engine, and it got better. It still needs to get better. It's not a great search engine. I find a lot of things on the Washington Post through Google myself. But at least it raised the bar a little bit, and they raised that on their priority list. So readers help the paper get stronger. I want them to know that.
BROWNI have personally noticed the search engine is working better. I will tell you that. And I'm a registered user and all that, so -- online as well as a print reader, so I've noticed. Now, how do you reporters react to some of the comments? And by the way, Vida, thank you very much for your phone call. Appreciate your info.
VIDAAll right. Bye-bye.
BROWNHow much do you -- how do you reporters react to the vast number of comments, criticisms, maybe the occasional word of praise, I hope, coming your way?
PEXTONThat's a great question. Reporters really vary. Some reporters at The Washington Post are so good at answering every email and every phone call. Karen Tumulty, for one, is great at responding to readers when it comes to mind. The investigative team that works The Post, by and large, is excellent responding to readers because they know as I know -- 'cause I used to do investigative reporting -- you get a lot of great tips that way.
PEXTONThere are some people who never respond to readers, and they make that a choice. They say, I don't have time for that. Something has to give. So they respond to no readers. And then they -- those complaints come to me, and I probably have a little more ability to go to that person, stand at their desk and get an answer.
BROWNJust talk with them for a couple of minutes, get a quick answer...
BROWN...and understand the concept.
BROWNSo it's a range.
PEXTONIt's a range. And most people at The Washington Post, most editors and reporters respond to me very quickly, as a matter of fact.
BROWNJoin our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. I'm with Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman at The Washington Post, and we're talking about the future of the ombudsman position in media and in journalism and the future of the journalism craft as a whole. We'll be back after a break. I'm Paul Brown from NPR News, and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on 88.5 WAMU.
BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown from NPR News, sitting in today for Kojo, and we're here with Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman from The Washington Post. Patrick's two-year term ends on Feb. 28. He's here to talk about the position of the ombudsman, the role of an ombudsman, the future of journalism. And we're also happy to hear from you. We do have a lot of calls and emails.
BROWNWe're trying to get to everyone as quickly as possible. The number: 800-433-12 -- 433-88-50. Sorry. 800-433-8850. OK. Here we go. We have an email here, Patrick. "What I love about The Post: great reporters who help me understand stories in all their complexity. What I'm growing to not love about The Post: too much political reporting that focuses on the politics as football aspects of government and campaign.
BROWN"If I thought Politico was doing a good enough job of helping me to understand health care or Syria, I would cancel my subscription. They don't, and I won't. But I worry about the forces pulling The Post into more and more straight political coverage." What are your thoughts about this?
PEXTONThat's an excellent point. I actually agree with the emailer. The Post does great politics coverage, and that -- I mean that by the electoral politics, whether it's the presidential race or congressional races or even local races around here, although I think that could even improve, particularly local races around here.
PEXTONI think with any good thing -- and this is a political city. We have lots of political junkies and consultants who -- you can never satisfy their need for that. But anything that really tastes good can give you indigestion if you eat too much of it, and I think The Post has gone a little too far in too much politics coverage and not enough government coverage and issue coverage.
BROWNSo when we're talking about policy, the future of the country, America's interactions with the world, you would want to see much more of that. And it sounds as though this reader would like to see the same thing.
PEXTONYes, I agree. You know, there are many -- many of the cabinet departments have no Washington Post reporter covering them. They have some aspects like homeland security. There's no full-time reporter covering homeland security. Now, The Post says we don't cover buildings anymore. We cover issues. Well, that's a nice phrase, but you often don't get at the issues if you're not really on a beat like that closely and every day.
BROWNDoes this really come down to money?
PEXTONYes, it comes down...
BROWNIn a word?
PEXTONWord. It comes down to money. And The Washington Post is known for its politics coverage, which is good, and it's innovative. The paper is innovative and -- in the way it's presenting politics. They just recently announced they're going to hire a lot of video producers and shooters for a new online politics channel. That's great, but those 15 video people will not be out on the street getting stories. They'll be interviewing Post reporters who are already doing that and...
BROWNSo we're back again into these competing pressures, financial pressures, really, that put The Post into a position of where do you allocate your resources...
BROWN...put boots on the ground or aggregators and producers.
PEXTONRight. And video sells ads. Online video is a great generator of ad revenue, and that's why they're doing it.
BROWNWe have another message from a listener, and it says, "When I was dismayed at The Post coverage of the recent XL pipeline rally in D.C., I bypassed the letter-to-the-editor route and sent my observations to the ombudsman because my objective was to cause a rethinking of the editors, not to make a public statement regarding what this person considers the inadequate coverage of the fact that some 35- to 45,000 citizens had traveled to D.C. and braved a very cold, windy day out of their concern over climate change.
BROWN"Even the photography played down the huge turnout and nature of our concern, focusing on trees, not the forest, meaning quirky individual photographs here, shots that could have been from any ordinary smaller rally. Where was the page one shot of the entire scope of the thousands?" Where does this comment, where does this question take you as an ombudsman? If you were to receive this in your office -- and now we're in a very public office -- what's your response? How do you start to think about that?
PEXTONTwo responses to that. First -- and I urge people to do this -- often in the print newspaper, there'll be one photo of a rally or demonstration, or maybe two if you're very lucky, and a short story. Online, there may be four or five stories or blog posts about that. So I urge everyone, before they send a letter to me -- or if I have a successor, which I'm doubtful of -- check online. There's often more, double online than what's in the print product. In many ways, the print product is now the best of The Washington Post. Secondly...
BROWNI get -- but, you know, this listener seems to be saying, well, this is the best of stories, but it didn't make it into the best of The Washington Post. This is important. This is about the survival of the species on the planet, and it's relegated to one -- couple of small photographs. So that's their criticism. It's not that you don't have a lot online.
PEXTONI agree with her. Yeah, I agree with her. I actually wrote a column suggesting that they ought to have a full-time protest reporter or a full-time protest blog. The number of protests in this city every week and every month is incredible. It's one of the ways, in the First Amendment, that people petition their government for grievances.
BROWNIt's democracy expressing itself.
PEXTONIt's democracy expressing -- I think The Post doesn't do a good job. I'll just be as frank as I can. They do not do a good enough job covering protest, and they don't give a relative size of crowds. Now, crowd estimation is a inexact science, but there are companies out there who actually do this. I think The Post would be smart -- the previous ombudsman wrote about this -- to be the arbiter of crowd sizes.
PEXTONIt helps you determine how big is this group? I wrote a column about the lack of really good coverage of the March for Life. No matter how you stand on abortion, the March for Life is one of the biggest protests every year in the city, and The Post, the first year I was there, didn't do a very good job covering it. Because I really slammed them in the column that they didn't, they did a much better job this year covering it.
BROWNSo what you're saying is that you don't disagree with this listener.
PEXTONI don't disagree at all.
BROWNIn some ways you agree. Let's go to Nancy in Gaithersburg, Md. Nancy has been waiting for quite a while. Sorry about that. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
NANCYWow. Thank you for having me. I'm originally from Louisville, Ky., where the position of newspaper ombudsman was first created. And this is just a little interesting, I think, interesting piece of a tidbit. Historically, it was created not just to make sure that everything in the paper was correct, but it was that it was presented in an unbiased fashion.
NANCYFor instance, the Louisville papers, I believe, were the first to ban junkets and other freebies. And the reason for this was that, even if the reporter was reporting it in an unbiased fashion, it might appear biased, you know, if the newspaper wasn't paying for whatever they were covering themselves so...
BROWNSo what's your question, Nancy?
NANCYIt's not a question. It's just an interesting tidbit. But, you know, I think that -- well, let me ask you this. Do you still find the picture of working with presenting -- everybody argues -- says that The Washington Post is biased. It's too -- you know, the progressives, they started saying it's too conservative. And the conservatives were saying it's too progressive. Do you find that you were -- you do something in that fashion with, you know, helping with the moderating, making sure it's presented -- the news is presented in an unbiased fashion?
BROWNGood question, Nancy. And, Patrick, how do you approach what must be very frequent comments about perceived bias at The Washington Post? I can't imagine a news organization that doesn't endure that or doesn't experience it.
PEXTONYeah, this is among the top five categories of complaints that I get from readers. I'd say the bulk of readers -- it's probably 70 percent saying The Post is too liberal. It's probably 30 percent saying The Post is too conservative. That may give you a rough idea of where The Post stands. But what I think I'd like to tell listeners is that Washington Post reporters don't come to work today or any day and say, what can I do to help Barack Obama today? Or what can I do to help John Boehner? That's not what they do.
PEXTONThey come to work, cover their beats and say, what's a good story that people need to know about, and how can I get as close to the truth as I can? I get -- it's actually a fairly stale argument about bias. Do I think The Post is probably slightly more to the left than to the right? I actually do. And that's not because they're carrying water for Barack Obama. I just think, as I wrote kind of last week, reporters have a very big libertarian streak in them.
PEXTONThey don't like a lot of people telling them what to do, whether it's from the right or from religious people. We actually believe a great deal in the First Amendment and our own ability to seek out the truth. And I think over time, I think journalists because they've seen a lot of the world -- they see traffic accidents, they see police crime scenes, they see fires, they see legislators at their worse and best -- I think it puts on reporters a certain leavening, a certain tolerance that is probably more towards the liberal spectrum.
BROWNNancy, thank you very much for your call, appreciate hearing from you. And we just have a few minutes left, but I do want to get to Steve here in Silver Spring, Md., who has an interesting question, because we've been talking about money. Steve, you're on the air.
STEVEHey. I like your show a lot. And I want to say something about the money. If money is an issue, you ought to turn into, like, how about one a week, you know, 52 a year, have a little contest, get an intern in their ombudsman of the week, and I'll be the first one if you need a volunteer.
BROWNOK. So we think we've got the idea of a volunteer ombudsman.
STEVEOne a week. How's that?
BROWNOne a week, a different one, so it moves along. Term limitations here, we're talking about.
PEXTONWell, that's actually kind of an interesting idea. You know, I have been getting ideas from people out there if The Post doesn't continue with a full-time ombudsman. Another idea out there is called the press council. This is very common in abroad, countries abroad. And the Seattle area has a press council, which is a non-partisan group of people. Some of them are businessmen. Some of them are former journalists. Some of them are professors.
PEXTONAnd they act as kind of a group ombudsman for the media outlets in Seattle. That's been suggested here. It's non-profit, it gets donations. And so it's not aligned with anybody. It doesn't get a salary from anybody. It tends to be a little slow. An ombudsman can act very quickly if he's inside the building, but, you know, that's a good suggestion. I know The Post is looking at a way to respond to readers, emails and complaints. I just don't think they figure out a way to do it yet and they're looking out.
BROWNIt'll be interesting to see how that plays out. Steve, thanks very much for your call, appreciate hearing from you. And we have a note here also. You've been talking, Patrick Pexton, about how The Post is expanding the numbers of things that it does and trying to be a little more of something for everyone in a way on the various media that have emerged over the past years.
BROWNHere's a note that says, "I love The Post, but some of the brands they push at me are now confusing. What is Wonkblog? Is Ezra Klein a reporter, a columnist? Some people appear as opinion writers one day and reporters the next. I'm an educated reader, and I find myself confused all the time about who people are and what role they play at the paper."
PEXTONThis is really an important issue that I've written about several times. The lines are blurring. It used to be reporters were reporter and opiners were opiners. And that is just a line that is blurred tremendously. Ezra Klein, for example, is a -- he actually works for the business page. He and his fellow bloggers work for the business page. They do a lot of analysis of economics. But as the caller probably knows, Ezra Klein is a fill-in host for Rachel Maddow in MSNBC. It's certainly on the left side of things.
PEXTONAnd his bloggers -- most of his bloggers, not all, are kind of on the left side of things. And sometimes Ezra Klein appears on the front page. Sometimes his column is on page two. Sometimes it's in the business column. And if you're coming to The Washington Post from online, like referring from Google, where a lot of people come, it's often not label. You just come to Wonkblog. You don't know that is it opinion? Is it reporting? Ezra is kind of a combination. He does a lot of reporting for his blog, but he's generally on the Democratic side of things. So it's confusing.
BROWNSo what's a reader like this to think?
PEXTONI think they have to express their concerns to the paper. I just -- my solution to all of this is just label everything. Label it what it is. And that way, people are not confused. I get lots of email every day from people saying, was that a column? Was that a news story? I don't know.
BROWNPeople can't tell as easily any more.
PEXTONPeople can't tell, yeah.
BROWNAs we come down the homestretch here, what do you think is the future of the ombudsman position in major market journalism?
PEXTONI think they're disappearing and are likely to continue to disappear. I think this position will likely disappear.
BROWNIt was very exciting when they first appeared, I'll have to say. I remember, you know, several decades ago that we really start to first hear about them, but it seems as though whether the need has run its course or not, it looks as though the ombudsman position in many places is endangered. Do you -- and briefly, because we're heading out the door here for this hour, do you feel that that would be a significant loss to the journalism craft?
PEXTONI do think that will be a significant loss. I think the ombudsman helps the newsroom connect with readers. We're also busy now that readers have a hard time connecting to editors and reporters. They complained about that to me all day long. They get in a phone tree, never get any one and they come to me. I think that itself would be a loss. And I think the second thing for an institution like The Washington Post, quality is everything. If they don't maintain quality, they'll have nothing. And the ombudsman does a little bit to help maintain standards and quality.
BROWNYou've helped us a lot understanding, I think, the multiple pressures that newspapers in particular are operating under because the newspaper is an older technology operating in a world of exploding technologies and yet to the traditional technology is the one that financially supports the entire enterprise more than anything else that The Washington Post or other papers are doing. Patrick Pexton, been great to talk with you, the ombudsman for The Washington Post. Your two-year term ends on Feb. 28. Congratulations. Best of luck.
PEXTONThank you, Paul.
BROWNI'm Paul Brown, in for Kojo Nnamdi. It's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU.
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