A farewell hope for journalism's future

Posted: Monday, December 29, 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 the Washington region.

Journalism has changed tremendously since my early days covering police and courts in Corpus Christi, Texas. 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.

Howell is ombudsman for The Washington Post.



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