The vanishing ombudsman

Add one more category to the list of endangered journalism jobs.  In his introductory column, the Washington Post’s new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, says many of his fellow reader representatives have been casualties of budget cuts. That’s a shame, because it seems to me that the role of ombudsman is critically important to the survival of mainstream media.

What’s an ombudsman, you ask? The world “ombudsman” is of Scandinavian origin and applies to anyone who handles complaints and tries to find mutually satisfactory solutions.The first one was appointed in 1809 in Sweden to handle citizens’ complaints about the government, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, known by the best acronym ever: ONO.

Here’s how Alexander describes the job and why it matters:

As The Post’s new ombudsman, I am its internal critic. My job is to represent the interests of readers, hold The Post to high standards and explain its inner workings to an often-suspicious public. If I do my job well, readers will be empowered, and The Post will be more accountable, trusted and essential.

Ombudsmen aren’t the only way to hold newspapers and TV stations accountable, of course. The public does that too, and does it faster and more effectively than ever thanks to the Internet and social media.

But ombudsmen have a few advantages readers and viewers don’t. They have unlimited access and, theoretically at least, support from top editors for the mission of keeping the news organization honest. As a result, they’re not exactly beloved in the newsroom. Alexander says he expects to be welcomed like “the dreaded investigator from internal affairs.”

Like his predecessor at the Post, Alexander will write a weekly column. Here’s wishing him the best of luck in what’s always a difficult job, but especially now in these very difficult times.