04/09/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

Two Cheers for the News Ombudsman

Word that the Washington Post was doing away with the job of ombudsman after 43 years was greeted, by and large, with a shrug and a yawn by news habitués.

As Reuters' redoubtable press critic Jack Shafer observed: "If there has been any protest -- organized or piecemeal -- against The Post for retiring the ombudsman position, I've missed it. I've witnessed greater reader noise after the cancellation of a comic strip from the Post."

It's no surprise that news ombudsmen, whose job is to investigate reader complaints and share their findings publicly, have never been beloved by publishers or, for that matter, by journalists. Companies don't normally pay to be embarrassed, and few professionals welcome being pilloried publicly for their mistakes. Ombudsmen do both.

But it's a little surprising that the public cares so little that a major news organization is killing off its marquee contribution to the closest thing this country has to media self-regulation. After all, when they're doing their job -- as the Post's ombudsmen often have -- these are people who make a serious, principled effort to hold the media accountable for their sins, and do so in the full light of day.

Now, I'm a longtime member of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen, because ONO is the only professional outfit I know of that puts media accountability on the front burner. So I'm a fan.

And worldwide, ombudsmanship is on the rise, with ONO's membership up 38 percent since 2008, led by notable gains in Asia, Africa and the newly emancipated media of the former Soviet bloc, says ONO executive director Jeffrey Dvorkin, himself a former ombudsman for NPR. In the U.S., however, 13 positions were eliminated that year, and only four have been restored.

One of the reasons the others have gone unmourned is that ombudsmen are a mixed bag. Some are shrewd critics, critiquing editorial judgments in ways that readers can appraise and debate. Others are little more than customer service reps, who explain away lame editorial calls.

Their employment terms differ too. Some ombudsmen, like the Post's used to be, are hired on a fixed term, contractually assured their independence and answerable to nobody.

Others are salaried editorial staff members who are rotated through the job. They expect to weather their stints as in-house gadflies unimpaired and ready to resume their duties as line editors. That's a sure recipe for corruption, of course, since it's unreasonable to expect anybody to disregard the future consequences of being overly critical or disruptive -- in other words, honest.

No matter how the job is structured, ombudsmen generally please no one. While journalists complain that they're quick on the trigger and unsympathetic to the pressures of deadline-driven news production, outsiders say they're too soft, and lack the spine to challenge their own employers over the most vexing new practices.

To that is joined now the criticism that they're simply obsolete. That's a point the Post itself endorsed when it noted the profusion of tough media commentary from unaffiliated online critics, implying there was no longer a need for the Post itself to weigh in as well.

That's an interesting point, but I didn't hear any corresponding commitment to cooperate with these outside inquiries. And I can't imagine the Post deciding that in light of the ramped-up coverage of Capitol Hill by Politico, the New York Times and others, it need no longer cover Congress.

In fact, the value of the news ombudsman is only partly a matter of what they contribute to the public discourse. True, they may be no better than outside critics.

But they still represent a powerful recognition by news organizations that they owe it to the public to hold themselves accountable, that routinely answering for their actions isn't just optional, but is integral to the practice of journalism. That's huge.

News organizations that have ombudsmen have decided it's worthwhile to pay people to challenge their own journalists in the same way those journalists challenge other people. And those organizations commit themselves, as a matter of institutional honor, to publish the ombudsmen's findings. In that way they both commission and submit to a public scrutiny that is a model for what they demand -- on our behalf -- of other institutions that wield public power.

The reason ombudsmen matter isn't the direct way their reporting may serve the public, although some do. It's in the way their existence signals an acknowledgement that accountability is right there, at the core of news culture.

They may not be an ideal solution, but I've yet to hear the news business offer a better one.