Washington Post May Cut Ombudsman; New York Times Shills for Lee Radziwill

In an age when editors have to scrutinize every job on the payroll, is an ombudsman absolutely necessary?

The Washington Post is about to cut its ombudsman, according to its ombudsman.

In the latest, lamentable sign of the diminishing of America’s great daily newspapers, Patrick Pexton wrote this weekend that he is likely to be the last reader representative for the paper when his two-year term ends on Feb. 28.

He writes that the Post’s new editor Marty Baron signaled this decision in a recent meeting: “If so, that will end nearly 43 years of this publication having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative and critic.“

It’s a tough call. In an age when editors have to scrutinize every job on the payroll, is an ombudsman absolutely necessary? Pexton argued that it is.

“We prevent multiple home-subscription cancelations every day by just having a sympathetic ear,” he writes. “At $383 per year for a home delivery subscription, we’re earning our salaries in saved subscriptions alone.”

He also notes:

The Sunday column takes 25 to 30  percent of my time every week. The rest of the time, I and my assistant, Alison Coglianese, are “engaged” — to use new-media speak — with readers. Nights, weekends and “days off,” we are still responding to and researching the incredible volume of reader complaints or concerns that arrive via e-mail, letter and the phone — an average of 5,000 e-mails alone per month.

The job of ombudsman has traditionally been the most thankless task in the newsroom. Your job is to criticize the work of the people sitting all around you, every day. No one in editorial looks forward to your calls or emails; no one particularly wants to hear from you.

Yet the role is an undeniably healthy function for a news organization, however painful internally. Baron can argue, as well he might, that the live interaction with readers in the digital age – in the comments section and over Twitter and Facebook – give reporters and editors all the critical feedback they need.

But an ombudsman can also defend the journalism of a given news organization, and explain the process to readers with the remove that reporters and editors may lack.

I can’t judge The Washington Post for what sounds like a done deal. The paper has already cut deep into muscle with newsroom reductions. And at digital news organizations like TheWrap we don’t have copy editors, much less ombudsmen. (Instead we have spell check!) In the age of declining budgets, an ombudsman may be a luxury, sad to say.

                                                                  *******           

The New York Times’ heavy-bound, ad-thick  “T” magazine should have come with a disclaimer this Sunday: not for New York Times readers.

With a lead profile on socialite Lee Radziwill that gives new meaning to breathless sycophantism, the paper has thrown out editorial discretion and given uncharacteristic license to godawful writing.

We meet Jackie O.’s sister at the door to her apartment on the Avenue Montaigne (in New York Times photo at right), care of socialite-designer-writer Nicky Haslam:  “I am confronted by a subtly strong presence and personality, part wreathed in the glamour of the past, part intensely modern in outlook and awareness. Not for her any all-too-easy reminiscences of ‘those days.’ She is, quite clearly, herself.”

I actually rolled my eyes upon reading this, but then came: “In a world of passing celebrity, Lee Radziwill, 79, possesses a timeless aura that radiates nowness.”  Pause to suppress giggle. Wait, there’s more. Radziwill has a “bang up-to-date personal style,” and lest we worry about her mood, “She is utterly content, and it shows. She regulates her life by… staying true, by her irony, by her humor – all qualities that show she is the real deal.”

I wouldn’t care so much, except that Radziwill is the cover of the magazine and promoted all over the website’s home page. The new issue is apparently the first in a "redesigned magazine from its features to its logo," says the news site. The redesign needs a reexamination, in my view. If the paper is going to start publishing its own version of Town and Country, then readers ought to be warned to suspend all critical thinking when they open the magazine. But this tripe has no business in the New York Times, I don’t care how many Ivanka Trump ads ‘T’ magazine sells.

By the way, I met Lee Radziwill, once. Years ago I found myself standing next to an elegant American woman at Rudolf Nureyev’s funeral, which I was covering in Paris for the Washington Post. I figured she was someone but had no idea who, so I leaned over and asked. She peered at me imperiously, as if I should have known: “Lee Raaaaadziwill,” she responded. I knew better than to press for more. Hmmm, I wonder what the ombudsman would have said if she knew?