Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Patrick Pexton, New WaPo Ombudsman, Meet Struggling Paper. Tough Love, Please.

The seat may have gone cold for a few weeks, but no more: the Washington Post's new ombudsman starts his gig today. Patrick Pexton, formerly deputy editor of National Journal, will be the ombud, serving for two years, the paper announced last week.

Pexton has his work cut out for him.

The situations is this. Whole magazine articles could be written on the decline of the Post (right). It sounds tacky when people say it, but it's true: the Post doesn't know what it is, and is struggling to hold on to a niche. Is it for DC insiders? Or is it for a general audience? It's not exactly either. That's a problem.

Ultimately, the Post cannot save itself by trying too hard to save itself. Putting stories about Facebook on the front page, or trying to use hip headlines, is not going to help; it only comes across as forced and awkward.

To compete nationally, the Post can't keep playing catch-up; it needs to be more aggressive. The paper needs to focus its web content on being unique and high quality, and not try to do things it can't do well. And the paper needs to correct clear errors when it has been informed of them.

Andy Alexander, the last ombudsman, said he thought the Post's journalistic quality had declined ("Can The Post regain its legacy of excellence?"). In the end, he said, it's all about the quality.

The new ombudsman will surely investigate and offer his opinion on the debates du jour (i.e., was the Post right to withold the CIA affiliation of Raymond Davis in Pakistan?). But the worst thing Pexton could do would be to spend too much time calling a series of balls and strikes. Instead, he ought to spend many of his column inches on the bigger picture systematic problems, like the over-the-top use of anonymous sources, the still-broken corrections process, and the tendency toward he-said-he-said political reporting.

These are the kinds of things that need to be taken on and improved, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because they will help the Post's future business chances. Would fixing these problems suddenly bring the Post a wave of new paying subscribers? Of course not. But a path to continued viability, whatever exactly that looks like, will ultimately need to include better news reporting, and fewer front page gimmicks. As tempting as gimmicks are, you can't out-Gawker Gawker, because Gawker will always be better at what they do. You have to go for the quality niche, and win there.

That's the challenge for the Post. For it's own good, the Post needs some tough love to get there.


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