March 19, 2013

Washington Examiner Editor Stephen G. Smith found out last week that his newsroom was about to be dismantled, then rebuilt. Gone will be daily, printed local, sports and entertainment coverage, yielding the way for a national politics Web site and weekly magazine. “I was surprised to hear about it at the moment,” says Smith. “When it was explained to me, in 10 minutes, I got it.”

In an interview today with the Erik Wemple Blog, Smith, 64, spoke of the difficulty  managing what he termed a “bifurcated” publication: up-the-middle local news in one half, conservative opinion in the other. “The whole dual nature of the publication had always been a challenge for us, so it wasn’t surprising that we would try to reconcile it in some way,” said Smith.

That reconciliation entails laying off 87 folks across editorial, production and business operations. (Smith declined to comment on the specifics of the severance packages.) Thirty-eight have been retained, and there’ll be 20-30 new hires, said Smith. The daily Washington Examiner with heavy local reporting will continue publishing through June 14.

The changeover means saying goodbye to Smith’s formulation for local news, which formed in contradistinction to the area’s reigning model. “The Post is a paper that — I don’t want to say this the wrong way — has taken the old newspaper goal of looking out for the little guy, I think, farther than the people who came up with that theory ever had in mind. We saw an opening for, well, what about the taxpayer? And so I think there was an opening for a kind of old-school, down-the-middle sort of journalism,” he says, noting that his paper had particular impact on Montgomery County and the District. As for the conservative bent in the editorial pages, Smith said there was no space for an editorially liberal newspaper in the District of Columbia. “That’s what you guys are here for,” he said, referring to The Post.

Smith will oversee the entire new operation, which will consist of straight-up news reporting supplemented by the right-leaning Examiner opinion voices, including Michael Barone, Byron York and Tim Carney. “I think the new Web site and weekly magazine will contribute to the national conversation in different ways and be extremely challenging and extremely valuable,” he said.

As for the highly competitive news field into which the Examiner is now jumping, Smith said, “It is a crowded marketplace.” The new entity will distinguish itself, he says, with “strong coverage of politics and government that doesn’t have what is a generally a liberal tilt in the media.” Right up the center of the road, in other words. Managing a publication with straight news and conservative opinion, he says, poses little “problem” for Smith, who has worked at Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the Boston Globe, among others.

“This is not some wild-eyed right-wing Web site, such as some that might come to mind,” says Smith. “Oddly enough, I think having a print presence is important in that respect in that it disciplines you and shows you that the information that you’re publishing both online and in print is edited, considered for fairness and accuracy and isn’t just a bunch of folks spouting off.”

A right-leaning Web site with a weekly print product: Sounds kind of like a publication  owned by the same company — Clarity Media Group – as the Examiner: the Weekly Standard. How will they differ? Smith:

There will be a big difference in content. Nearly one-quarter of the Standard is devoted to arts and culture, 28 percent to domestic policy and courts, 18 percent to defense and foreign policy, and 30 percent to politics and elections. We won’t be covering arts and culture, foreign policy (except tangentially, as it figures in politics), or the courts.

As for overlaps in politics and elections, we’ll be doing more news analysis and investigative stuff and less opinion. In any event, conservative opinion is all over the place, and our guys are often interested in very different things. An example is Tim Carney’s work on crony capitalism and the revolving door between government and K Street.

The new model will streamline the Web audience of the Washington Examiner. Smith noted that under the long-standing model, regional folks would come to the paper’s Web site for local news; meanwhile, a national audience — Texans, for instance, said Smith — would snap up its commentary on national issues. “We were existing in different universes,” he said.

Yet the editor doesn’t relish abandoning one of them. “It is a day of very torn feelings for me and for the organization,” he said.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.