November 9, 2012

In the coming weeks, I’m going to write about my vision for The Post’s future and what it needs to do to thrive and not just survive.

Some thoughts will be based on my own analysis and instinct, but much of it will be based on what Post readers have told me. They’re sharp-eyed, intelligent and full of ideas and constructive criticism.

One of the complaints that I hear most often from readers goes like this: “The paper is so thin, you don’t need to toss it onto my front porch, you could slip it under the door.”

When I drill down and ask people to elaborate, they cite first the Metro section. It’s barely there. Many days it is only six pages; sometimes it is eight. Weather takes up the back page; obituaries and death notices take up usually two pages; columnists and the lotteries box take up another chunk. And on many days Page B2 of Metro is devoted to special content, such as the Education page, On Faith about religion, The Root DC (which focuses on the African American community) and the Federal Worker page.

That means that, on a given day, Metro has five local news stories that start on the front page and two or three other short ones inside, plus some briefs.

That is inadequate, and I don’t mean that as criticism of how hard Metro editors and reporters work. There is more local news online — I’ll address that shortly. But the vast majority of Post revenue still comes from people buying the print product via subscriptions or at the store, and they want more local news in the paper.

And don’t just believe me. Here’s what investor Warren Buffett wrote in May to the editors and publishers of newspapers he’s been buying up in mid- and small-size markets.

“I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.

“That will mean both maintaining your news hole — a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well — and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports. No one has ever stopped reading half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors.”

Amen.

Now I know that ink and newsprint are expensive, and the display ads to pay for them scarce, but I would add to the number of Metro pages every day by as many as the news will bear and shift some reporters to an intensive focus on local news in the District and the surrounding counties.

I know that local coverage is a challenge for a Washington newspaper. It has to cover the District; Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland; Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia; and Alexandria, Rockville, Bowie and a host of smaller municipalities. And it has to cover the state capitals in Richmond and Annapolis. That requires a lot of reporting resources. But challenge is opportunity.

The counties surrounding the District are distinct in their identities, and they are some of the most interesting jurisdictions in the country. They’re fast-growing, willing to experiment, wealthy and increasingly diverse. Prince George’s is a fascinating case study of an empowered, self-governing African American middle class running a major suburb. If Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax were cities, they would all be among the 20 most populous in the country. The District is No. 21.

They deserve more coverage. AOL’s online micro-local publications, called Patch, and some of the suburban weeklies, frankly, are inadequate to the task.

There is more local news in The Post online. But it is still pretty thin, and it’s hard to find on the Web site.

The U.S./Regional toggle at the top of The Post’s home page has helped readers find local news. But if readers click on Local and then on the Virginia or Maryland tabs, what comes up is sparse — a handful of new stories and then old ones lingering for days.

The District and surrounding counties should be covered like the major metropolitan jurisdictions they have become. A loyal core of local readers, in print or online, is a Post franchise that no one can take away. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, remember, were covering local government and cops — not the White House — when they made history.

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