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Newspapers are facing more challenges every day

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Posted: Saturday, March 23, 2013 12:00 am

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization that evaluates and studies the performance of the press, recently reported that the number of people who get information online at least three times a week has surpassed those who read newspapers.

Smartphones' and tablets' growing popularity, plus home computers, have made the Internet the top news destination, easily surpassing television, radio and print media. Online news consumption increased 17 percent in 2012.

Despite dire predictions for newspapers' future, I can't imagine that they'll ever be obsolete. As a Lodi News-Sentinel contributor and reader, I want the industry to not only survive but to thrive. But since print media can't match the Internet for timely news delivery, it has to thoughtfully manage what it can do.

Accordingly, I was surprised to read that the Washington Post — the daily newspaper that Congress, its staff and the D.C.-based lobbyists rely on for national political news — recently fired its ombudsman, Patrick Pexton. In his place, the Post announced that it will appoint a "readers representative."

Although relatively few papers still have ombudsmen, the position is an important one that should act as a bridge between readers, reporters and editorial page writers. But top editors like those at the Post aren't fond of the idea. They're hesitant to publicly acknowledge mistakes and misjudgments, or to incur the newsroom's wrath. The boxing comparison would be leading with your chin.

As one anonymous journalist, said: "Everybody hates the ombudsman. The editors hate the ombudsman. The staff hates the ombudsman. News sources hate the ombudsman. Readers hate the ombudsman."

Whether ombudsmen are widely disliked or not, with newsrooms shrinking and well-paying professional media jobs harder to find every day, somebody should be willing to step up, assuming the position isn't eliminated altogether.

Former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee rose to national fame when he gave Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein a free hand in covering the Watergate scandal. Bradlee wrote in his biography "A Good Life" that when he created the ombudsman position, he envisioned that it would monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise between the newspaper and its readers.

Furthermore, Bradlee said that the Post ombudsman would "resolutely autonomous," work on a contract rather than be staff, write about whatever he wanted and never be edited, assigned or fired.

The Post's current executive editor, Martin Baron, told Pexton last month before he fired him that one argument against perpetuating the ombudsman job was that its core functions — criticizing the Post and holding its staff accountable — had been somewhat subsumed by the Internet.

Baron's wrong. Internet bloggers and those who comment online to stories don't have the same credibility as Post employees. At about the same time as the Post fired Paxton, they also laid off about 50 others. The firings indicate an ongoing Post effort to reduce overhead.

As of June 2012, the Washington Post Company's newspaper division had lost money in 13 of the last 15 quarters. Total loss over that period: $412 million.

The Post's ongoing losses create circumstances that force the newspaper to eliminate positions like the ombudsman, which in turn means the final printed product is less interesting and possibly more error-prone. Less interesting means fewer sales, less revenue and deeper losses, an endless Catch-22.

Newspapers have been part of Americans' daily lives since the early 19th century. They should survive. But in today's turbulent economy and ever-advancing technology, the challenges are many.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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