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The Post needs to recapture its Style

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The Washington Post brand is not simply Watergate. Part and parcel of The Post’s brand is also the idiosyncratic and irreverent Style section. At its best, Style — sometimes called the “daily magazine” — gave and gives The Post not only voice and cachet but also power.

Media power doesn’t come only from accountability reporting on elected and appointed officials, although that is primary. It also derives from the insight and criticism that original and thoughtful writers can bring to bear on people and politics through provocative profiles and essays. Style has earned a reputation for producing this sort of work.

These stories draw readers and influence to The Post because they capture the cultural anthropology of this town and help define each era, even each presidency, as a moment in history, different than the others. Style has been and needs to be a destination for readers, and for writers.

In 1969, when Ben Bradlee blew up The Post’s “women’s” section and launched Style, that kind of narrative-writing about culture and personality was innovative. Today it is everywhere, done by bloggers, online magazines and a pack of Web sites. But little of that is done very well, and Washington remains a unique cultural vantage point from which to do such pieces.

I think that The Post needs to revitalize Style and give it its own uniquely identifiable digital presence.

The challenges to Style may be harder than the obstacles facing any other part of this publication. And I don’t mean to criticize the current Style editor, Frances Stead Sellers, or the handful of writers she has left to write people and zeitgeist profiles. Nor do I intend criticism of Style’s arts critics — they’re award-winning writers who have to cover a huge and growing volume of venues.

Doing Style coverage is harder now, Sellers pointed out, because the city and region have changed dramatically. “Style is all about capturing the culture of the city and the ideas that inform it — and that culture has certainly changed from when Georgetown was the social hub and the government was about the only employer in town,” she said. “Washington today is still the power center, but it’s a far more varied and interesting city — socially, culturally, economically, artistically, not to mention the suburbs with their enormous growth and diversity of immigrant populations. That gives us richer fare to write about — our reporters are never short of ideas — but it also makes Washington more difficult to characterize, its key players harder to identify, its peculiar foibles harder to pinpoint.”

It also doesn’t help that Washington’s unrelieved partisanship and the Twitter news culture have made politicians sour and tight-lipped. It’s like they’ve all been given a Miranda warning before they speak: Everything can and will be used against you.

That means it’s harder now to get a truer picture of these people. Doing so requires more reporting, which is all the more reason The Post needs a robust stable of talented Style writers whose job it is to get below the surface and under these people’s skin. It’s slower and riskier journalism but carries a higher value.

Sellers said that if she could have three things, it would be two additional general-assignment writers and one arts reporter — not a critic — who would “report on the business and personalities of the burgeoning and increasingly sophisticated cultural scene here.” That would be a good start.

Style should also have its own robust place on the Web. You can’t go directly to Style on the Post’s Web site. Instead, its stories are split between two tabs at the top of the home page, Lifestyle and Entertainment. The stories are not very logically divided, and readers tell me their favorite Style writers are hard to find online.

Style also needs to take design chances electronically, perhaps going with a very different look. A lot of work has gone into Going Out Guide and the news-you-can-use parts of Style coverage, but I think that some of that energy should go into the culture and personality coverage that is at the heart of Style. Those pages, whether in print, on tablets or on the Web, should be graphically daring and beautifully rendered. That, too, would make Style a destination, not just a collection of ill-fitting parts.

This is hard. But no one else is going to compete with The Post on this. Not the New York Times, not the Examiner and not the Alexandria Times. Style is the Post’s franchise. Honor it by reviving it.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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