Sunday, December 28, 2008

The future of journalism?

A friend from college has been the ombudsman at the Washington Post for the past several years after spending a life-time as a journalist. She writes a good-bye column from her unusual catbird’s seat.

A Farewell Hope for The Post's Future

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 28, 2008

My term as ombudsman ends with this column. My hope for the future is that readers, our lifeblood, will find in The Post, in print and online, journalism they can believe in and that the paper will both engage and enrich the many communities in this region.

Journalism has changed tremendously since my early days covering police and courts in Corpus Christi, Tex. Typewriters and Linotypes are ancient tools, and the Internet sometimes makes ink on paper seem so yesterday. What doesn't change is fact-gathering and analyses that inform readers and help citizens to form a more perfect union.

Journalism is better than it was in my early days and changes in technology have opened up a new world. My worry is that journalists aren't as connected to readers as they were in the days of my youth, when the city's newspaper was the equivalent of the public square. Then, reporters tended to be folks who often hadn't graduated from, or even attended, college, and they weren't looking to move to bigger papers. They knew the community well, didn't make much money and lived like everyone else, except for chasing fires and crooks.

Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we're just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online.

That's a mistake. Readers want us to be smart and tough and for the newspaper to read that way, but they don't want us to think that we're better than they are. We need to be worried sick when people drop their subscriptions and think of ways to prevent that.

An unpleasant fact about journalists is that we can be way too defensive. We dish it out a lot better than we take it. It's not that we have thin skin; we often act as though we have no skin and bleed at the slightest touch.

Journalists need to find ways to be more a part of their communities and their interests -- without crossing the line to partisanship -- and to engage with readers in improving the newspaper and its Web site to be sources readers can't do without. If something drives readers nuts, what can we do to help them?

Journalists need to be tough enough to face down a mayor, a police chief or the president of the United States, but we also should be tough enough to respond to honest criticism. The worst part of my job as official internal critic hasn't been dealing with readers, though that has been both daunting and rewarding. Taking those complaints to reporters and editors has been the biggest challenge. I'm grateful to those here who took them seriously. Some readers had complaints that I just couldn't get to; I regret that. Some journalists think I have been unfair to them. If I have, then they know how people who believe The Post has treated them unfairly feel.

Journalists' defensiveness is heightened by the uncertainty that grips our business. The Post has changed in my term. Its news staff is smaller, and so is the space available for stories. Sections are being dropped, and there's a tightening feeling everywhere.

The Internet was on everyone's radar screen in 2005, but its importance wasn't uppermost in everyone's minds. Now it is. The future of journalism is online even as the print newspaper remains by far the biggest revenue-producer. That many readers want to read it in print remains our bread and butter.

The paper has a new executive editor, Marcus Brauchli. The Post had only two top editors in the previous 40 years, Ben Bradlee and Len Downie. Brauchli's job is a huge one -- keeping The Post strong journalistically while trimming its sails financially. He deserves good luck.

And there will be a new ombudsman on Feb. 2 -- Andy Alexander, former Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers -- a longtime friend and colleague. He's as good a journalist as I know and is more than up to the task before him. I will be lightly monitoring your mail until he takes over. The Post is to be congratulated for continuing the ombudsman's job.

I cannot leave without saying that I owe a debt of unreserved gratitude to the editorial copy desk, which edited my column, and especially to its chief, Vince Rinehart, an extraordinarily fine copy editor. They have saved me again and again and made my columns better for readers.

In this time of uncertainty, here's a quote from Bradlee in a recent interview with Bob Woodward: "I cannot envision a world without newspapers. . . . I can envision a world with fewer newspapers. I can envision a world where newspapers are printed differently, distributed differently, but there is going to be a profession of journalism, a band of brothers and sisters working intensely together. Their job is going to be to report what they believe the truth to be. And that won't change."

That's my own fervent wish -- along with wishing that readers will appreciate journalists' work. Most cities don't have as good a paper as The Post. A friend who moved away told me that she misses The Post more than anything else. And she's a conservative Republican.

Deborah Howell can be reached at


Jeff Hebert said...

I didn't know she was a friend of yours, that's amazing. Her reputation in the liberal blogosphere is not, unfortunately, very good, but she seemed to want to try, which is a lot more than you can say about a lot of people.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, George. She is wonderful and it proves there are great people on both sides in this country..trick is, getting everyone to remember we are AMERICANS FIRST.


Ken Martin said...

Thanks for passing this along, George. We aging journalists know our profession is rapidly changing and it's hard to avoid suffering deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.

Though our local magazine, The Good Life, is a far cry from The Washington Post, we try in our small way to uphold standards, but the economics are brutal. Sometimes we feel we're building sand castles on the edge of low tide, knowing we'll be swept away but incapable of quitting. It'll be a miracle if the magazine survives the current economic downtown. But then, it seems a miracle we've lasted more than eleven years.

The South Plainsman said...

"....Journalists need to find ways to be more a part of their communities and their interests -- without crossing the line to partisanship -- ......"

Very well said, and is probably why she was not popular in the liberal blogosphere.

We need newspapers, badly. But we need them to be honest , fair, and non-partisan. Unfortunately, we have not seen enough of that the last couple of decades.

That is not the only reason for the decline of the great newspapers in the country, but certainly is an important one.

We need newspapers to survive, and to be independent. Somebody has to report the facts. All of the facts. Opinion needs to be elsewhere, not in the reporting.

Jeff Hebert said...

SP, the reason she wasn't popular in the liberal blogosphere was that she too often excused blatantly false reporting by her staff, and refused to acknowledge blatantly partisan reporting from the same.

Too many journalists have become little more than stenographers, dutifully reporting whatever they are told by authority figures. In the pursuit of a false "balance", they will repeat whatever they are told by the "other side" even if it's unmitigated and blatant baloney.

The Post is more guilty of that than most other outlets, which I would argue is one reason (among many, many reasons) they're in trouble along with the rest of the industry.

People don't want "balance" or "nonpartisanship". They want facts. They want accuracy. They want reporters to tell them when something is false and there aren't a whole lot of news outlets out there willing to do that. McClatchey is the best, in my opinion, and the Post was one of the worst.

I don't mind reading partisan stuff as long as it's accurate, as long as the bias is clearly understood, and as long as false statements are pointed out. I can get basic facts anywhere, what I need is to know if they're accurate or not.

Max Fischer said...

A much need dose of introspection. Thanks for pasting this our way.

Anonymous said...

That essay should be in the front of every journalism school Bill

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but never heard of her. I am ignorant of writers, but up on wine. See you in February.
JR PS I am in Port A now!!

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