September 5, 2013

The Washington Post Magazine’s Aug. 11 Education Issue came out a bit on the thin side. It contained a helpful cover story on how to emerge from college with a job. One of the lessons: Lots of students who pursue a degree in the sciences — which generally fetches a higher-paying job than the humanities — end up flaming out. To round out the special issue, the magazine’s editors had planned a couple of other education stories. One, by reporter Jenna Johnson, was on college drinking; another was an interview by reporter Nick Anderson with the outgoing College of William and Mary rector about whether Virginia’s public universities would get with the times on benefits for gay and lesbian couples.

Neither made it into the education issue.

Both stories got bumped from the Aug. 11 edition following objections from the business side of the Washington Post. “They didn’t feel it was appropriate,” says Lynn Medford, the magazine’s top editor. “They were adamant about it.” The education issue, explains Medford, is among a class of about a dozen special issues that the magazine publishes with a specific purpose. “They’re supposed to have a utilitarian focus,” says Medford. “The stories that we had in the education issue didn’t meet that criterion.”

Last-minute changes to story lineups at newspapers, of course, happen all the time: Reporters get jitters; editors lose battles for space; a late-breaking news story swamps the page. What’s noteworthy about the adjustments to the magazine’s education issue is the pre-publication intervention by the advertising folks at the Post. “They have their opinions, they express their opinions in the same ways their colleagues down here [in editorial] do, and sometimes I listen and sometimes I don’t,” says Medford. “I am responsible for the magazine and the final decisions are mine to make.”

Details on precisely what was inappropriate about the booted stories are tough to nail down. Questions sent to Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth fetched this response: “The Sunday Magazine has the same editorial independence that any other news section does. There is a magazine Publisher who runs the business side of the magazine and, as every GM of the magazine has, works with the editor of the magazine to ensure that we are publishing the best magazine that we can publish for our readers.” Education editor Josh White declined to comment on the issue, referring an inquiry to Medford.

The stories in question, however, did manage to find landing spots in the Washington Post — Johnson’s drinking story in a subsequent edition of the magazine, and Anderson’s piece in the Metro section — and their contours provide some clues as to what triggered red flags. The drinking piece starts by depicting out-and-out debauchery in the bars around the University of Virginia; and the interview with Jeff Trammell, the outgoing College of William and Mary big shot, addressed an alleged brain drain of talented gay and lesbian faculty and staff from Virginia public colleges and universities. Not good university PR, that is.

When asked about the developments, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said that the special issues need to have a “service-oriented” mission. As for the stories that got pushed out of the education edition, Baron points out that they ran elsewhere in the paper. “We should run these stories, and I don’t care who gets pissed off,” he notes, referring to the paper’s business side and advertisers. When asked if he had the chance to overrule the request from the business side to remove the stories from the education issue, Baron wrote via e-mail: “[I]t was Editorial’s call: We could have done anything we wanted.” When Medford approached Baron with the problem, “I said I felt that special issues (or sections) should be fundamentally utilitarian, that it didn’t seem to fit, that it could easily run in another issue,” notes Baron, who reports that Medford was his “one and only contact” on the matter.

But what about the pre-publication “editing” from the ad people? “I think we have to make our own independent decisions,” he says. Good thinking: With the assistance of the business side, the Washington Post Magazine Education Issue had one story on education.

A career newswoman, the 59-year-old Medford acknowledges that having the business folks so terribly interested in her work has “been an adjustment.” She recalls a time about three decades ago when she was working as a business editor at the Miami Herald. Someone from the business side of the paper rung her up in a meddling way. “It was a gigantic transgression,” she says.

The Washington Post Magazine has traditionally drawn a great deal of interest from the business side of the Washington Post. It is, after all, a magazine — a glossy vehicle for narrative journalism and for nice, splashy advertisements. Tom Shroder, who worked as magazine editor from 2002 to 2009, says he often dealt directly with advertising’s “discontent” over the stories that he chose to drop into the publication. He also contended with profit-and-loss statements, a form of spreadsheet pressure hardly universal at the paper.

Yet when asked whether the business side ever had the ability or authority to demand editorial changes on a pending edition, Shroder responded, “God, no and no! A thousand times no!” Debra Leithauser, whose tenure came in between Shroder’s and Medford’s, wrote via e-mail: “No pre-publication pulls ever occurred because of concerns raised by the biz side. Advertising brought up concerns occasionally — as happened on every section I ran during my decade at the Post — but would always back down when reminded they didn’t have a say in editorial coverage. I more recall post-publication grumbling.”

The modern era of business-editorial entanglement at the Washington Post Magazine dates back to 2009. That’s when Publisher Weymouth let it be known that she wasn’t happy about a pending magazine piece about a quadruple amputee. Just another depressing feature story, Weymouth opined. The piece was killed, and the magazine later relaunched with emphasis on greater “levity and brevity.”

About a year after the relaunch, Medford took over. Over the course of her three-year tenure, the advertising folks have taken an interventionist approach to her book of business. “Yeah, it’s always been that way,” she says.

There would be no Washington Post Magazine without its revenue issues. Whether it’s education, home and design, travel or dining, this cluster of themed publications accounts for the “bulk” of magazine revenues, to use Medford’s characterization. The news industry has long since made peace with the wink-wink corruption involved in producing these money-makers. Conceived to be friendly to the relevant industry, they’re often filled with content that makes for pleasant adjacencies to advertisements from companies with a stake in the topics at hand. Editors know not get too edgy with their story choices, lest the business side lose all credibility with their accounts and the publication move closer to bankruptcy. Baron puts it this way: Newspapers “tend not to do investigations of the auto industry in the auto section.”

As editor of the Washington City Paper in the last decade, the Erik Wemple Blog once fronted a special food issue with a profile of a food-safety inspector spouting stories about E. coli, not to mention the proclivity of flies to defecate and vomit. That wasn’t what the advertising reps had in mind. They had a good point.

Such an advertiser-offending atrocity is unlikely to spill from the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, which is a pity. Editors must have absolute autonomy to produce their journalism. As the boss of the Washington Post Magazine, Medford’s one and only job is to look out for her readers, a tough task to accomplish when the money people are looking over her shoulder. In his recent chats with staffers, future Washington Post owner Jeffrey Bezos chanted about the supremacy of the reader and expressed concern about any product that depends too much on advertisers, because you “start thinking that the customer is advertisers.” 

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