April 22, 2011

The Post is reconfiguring its Metro staff — the reporters and editors who cover the District, Maryland and Virginia. On the Web site you know it as Post Local, and that is increasingly what this group of 100 reporters, editors, bloggers and support staff is being called in the newsroom as the newspaper becomes more like the online edition.

Vernon Loeb is the new top editor for local coverage. He came back to The Post three months ago after heading investigations at the Los Angeles Times and local coverage for the Philadelphia Inquirer. At The Post in the 1990s, he covered Marion Barry’s return to power and then had the Pentagon and intelligence beats. Loeb is street-smart, experienced and energetic.

He’ll need all that talent to bring coherence to a demanding task — writing about two states and the District with politics and traditions unique to each, plus sevenlarge suburban counties as populous as many cities, and don’t forget Alexandria.

The Post’s stated goal, “getting Washington right,” means both the region and the national government. To survive, it needs to dominate local coverage in a way the paper did in the 1980s and 1990s. But that’s much tougher now — there are many fewer reporters and editors here after three buyouts in recent years, and the region now is more populous, sprawling and diverse.

Loeb’s strategy, put simply, is to do memorable, groundbreaking stories that will appeal to readers across the region. Readers, he said, get too accustomed to drinking their news out of narrow, jurisdictional Fairfax or Montgomery “soda straws,” and he wants to get away from that.

He wants to do more stories that are “bigger, broader and deeper — stories that resound across the region” whether they’re about transportation or education. He cites as an example a story by Steve Hendrix in February on the trend of homeowners buying gasoline generators in the wake of terrible reconnection service by Pepco after the “thundersnows” of January. He cites the March story by Donna St. George on the Fairfax County middle schooler suspended for seven weeks because she had prescription acne drugs in her locker. He’s right that these were well-read stories around the Beltway.

Loeb says he wants to hold local governments, politicians and corporations accountable for their promises, actions and mistakes. And he says that The Post, even with diminished resources, is the only player in town that can do that. “When people get in trouble, they call us for help,” Loeb says. “We are seen as that indispensable presence.”

So that’s the strategy. To accomplish it, Loeb has strengthened the editing ranks of Local and appointed three new deputies, one in charge of investigations and news, one in charge of planning and coordination, and one in charge of the news on all of The Post’s digital platforms.

I like Loeb’s new, clear lines of authority, the accent on investigations and his emphasis on planning. But there’s a risk in Loeb’s plan. The emphasis on regional stories risks missing good local stories. This is one of the leading complaints I get from readers: The Post misses too many local stories or doesn’t do them adequately.

Last week, for example, e-mails to the ombudsman said that The Post’s coverage of the rising Potomac floodwaters and the inundation of the Georgetown waterfront was “pathetic.”

Bob Hurt, a regular print reader, wrote: “When the Potomac River floods Washington Harbour, when Fox News shows live video of the kayak rescue to the nation, and when the tens of thousands of D.C. area citizens see the surging currents, someone at The Post should realize that this is newsworthy.

“If you looked at Page 1 today in the print edition, there was zero mention,” Hurt continued. “When you make it to Metro, the dominant photo [on B1] is about an unrelated story that could run any day, and the photos on the jump page [of the kayak story on B6,] were so-so in telling the story. Even the WTOP Web site had better pictures than the Post had online, and a better report. (Ironic that a radio station has better photos than The Post.) The readers expect better than this!”

I agree with Bob. The story that Metro reporters wrote about the kayak rescue was compelling. But the coverage of Washington Harbour and the malfunctioning floodwalls there was brief, and the story had to cite radio station WAMU-FM and other “news organizations” for the quotes in it.

Washington Harbour is a major tourist attraction during spring break week; several businesses were destroyed, residents of upper floors had to evacuate, and cars were left floating in the underground parking garage. The floods probably caused millions of dollars in damage. Somebody in the management of that center screwed up by not getting the gates up.

But we won’t know why, because The Post didn’t chase it and dominate that story.

What a shame. I hope Vernon Loeb’s plan works.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at http://voices.washingtonpost. com/
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