July 13, 2012

If you’re a regular reader of the printed Post, you’ve probably noticed more columnists appearing on the front page.

Last Tuesday, for example, Ezra Klein, chief of the popular online Wonkblog, analyzed the risk of unsettling the economy in a showdown between President Obama and congressional Republicans over extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. The week before, Steven Pearlstein wrote a front-page news analysis that outlined the history of job outsourcing in the wake of the accusations between Obama and Mitt Romney over that subject.

Pearlstein and Klein are talented writers who make economics and complex policy issues clear, accessible and interesting. But should they be on the front page?

When I came here last year, I found the appearance of news and sports columnists on the front page jarring, and frankly I didn’t like it. Shouldn’t that page be reserved for important domestic, foreign and local news?

Readers also objected. For example, Tim Mercer, a subscriber from Laurel, objected to a front-page column that Sally Jenkins wrote in December on the leadership qualities of professional quarterback Tim Tebow. Mercer said that the column lacked a clear reason to be on the page:

“I can’t ever remember an opinion column beginning on page 1 without any other related story appearing next to it, ever. If it’s the presidential election results and there are four other stories on the cover about the presidential election that’s one thing, but a stand-alone opinion column without any supporting editorial, appearing on page 1? It’s like it was dropped there from the moon.”

What’s behind this migration of opinion from other sections of the paper to the front page?

Well, partly it’s a way to make The Post’s print edition more like its online version.

One thing that distinguishes the digital Post from the newspaper is that The Post knows a huge amount about readers’ online habits. On the Web, every story or column’s popularity can be measured, by page views and unique visitors. But The Post has little idea, once the paper is delivered to your home, which articles you read.

Web data show clearly that commentary and news analyses are popular and drive readers to the Web site. That’s why, on The Post’s home page, opinion columnists are usually featured near the top in a list or paired with a breaking-news story on the same subject. Readers want to know what these Post “distinctive voices,” as they are now called in new-media jargon, have to say. Tom Boswell and Sally Jenkins’s columns in Sports, for example, consistently get more Web traffic than regular game stories do.

And that’s why The Post is putting the occasional column on the front page and why some popular Post voices who first developed their audiences online — such as Klein and Chris Cillizza of The Fix — now also appear on Page A2. Klein and Cillizza’s blogs are consistently among the Post’s most-read.

Managing Editor Liz Spayd, who makes the key decisions about what goes on the front page of the printed Post, explained: “We have a collection of outstanding columnists, expert in their fields and eloquent in their writing, and there are occasions when those columns do a more effective job of distilling a subject than a news story can.”

Spayd explained, too, that she has guidelines for what can appear on the front page. “I don’t think we should be putting columns on A1 that take sides in a political dispute, or have a clear ideological bent.”

I agree. That’s why E.J. Dionne Jr. or George F. Will, for example, would not and should not appear there — they take partisan sides, and they work for the editorial pages.

From there, though, it gets confusing. Klein and Pearlstein work in the newsroom, for the business editor, and most of what they write is news analysis. Similarly, Cillizza and Dan Balzwork in the newsroom for the national editor and also analyze the news.

But Klein is a hybrid. He’s an analyst who also takes policy positions. He favored a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases and the individual mandate on health insurance, for instance. And although Klein himself rejects partisan and ideological labels as attempts by the two parties to pigeonhole journalists — and I agree with that, to a degree — he does guest-host MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” and he came to The Post from the American Prospect, a magazine with deep roots in the left.

I think that any opinion column appearing on Page A1 should carry an additional label announcing it as news analysis. Columns on Page A2 should also be labeled “opinion” or “news analysis.” Readers deserve the clarity.

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