We often watch in disbelief newspaper managements cutting off their nose in spite of their face. Faced with technological changes and previously profitable financial models that no longer deliver rich profits, employers say they have no alternative but to slash jobs, and shrink whole sections and editorial departments. The latest function that may come under the hammer is the ombudsman with the Washington Post leading the charge..
The newspaper that gave us the Watergate scandal, a story that inspired a whole generation of journalists, is thinking seriously about not replacing Patrick Pexton, the paper’s ombudsman, after his contract came to en end. If indeed he is not replaced, and it looks almost certain he won’t be, this would be for the first time in 43 years that this post would remain unfilled.
Pexton told his readers “I think the tea leaves are clear. For cost-cutting reasons, for modern media-technology reasons and because the Post, like other news organisations, is financially weaker and hence even more sensitive to criticism, my bet is that this position will disappear”.
There is a strong argument that, even during lean times when many newspapers are tightening their belt, doing away with the ombudsman is not only wrong headed but it would harm newspapers.
It has long been proved that quality journalism builds trust which in turn helps win market share and commitment from readers. The work of ombudsmen has been crucial in maintaining the credibility of newspapers at a time when readers’ expectation of accurate and fair reporting continues to rise in a world of information flooded by internet speculation. Showing readers that a newspaper care about accuracy and is prepared to make corrections is the best way to maintain a loyal readership and, in the end, save lawyers’ bills.
But is it a dying function? US newspapers have said the same thing about in-house photographers and subs to justify gutting their newsroom. Pexton claims to deal with 5000 complaints every month. Replacing him with direct online access for readers to file their complaints is shortsighted in the extreme. Soon they will realise there is nobody there to adjudicate or to analyse and respond to their complaints.
If it is indeed a disappearing function, why then have ombudsmen started popping up all over the world? Stephen Pritchard, president of the News Ombudsmen Organisation, claims that he never received so many invitations from editors worldwide wanting to know about how to set one up. Once again in a media world in tumult, profit hungry US publishers are at the forefront of ditching some of the most basic ethical traditions that underpin the work of journalists.