July 6, 2012

Did Post reporters and editors work overtime covering this “derecho” storm that caught everyone flat-footed and wreaked such unexpected havoc on all of our lives in the past week? Yes, they did, and they produced a lot of informative copy. The stories got better as the days progressed. I thank them for it.

Was The Post’s coverage what it could be? I think not, and readers agreed. Here’s what one wrote in an e-mail:

“The Post’s coverage of the storm and its aftermath has been lackluster. . . . There’s just not all that much there there. It’s slow and it’s boring and unimaginative. The Post is the main daily here and it should be leading the pack, telling us things we would not have thought of. Instead, too much of the Post’s coverage has been simply compiling information from various officials.”

And here’s another: “As someone who has lost power, why can’t The Post give a realistic assessment of what is going on, other than official statements? I am a little stunned at the lack of awareness of how important this is to readers. And to stick to the government’s and Pepco’s script on coverage is bizarre. Anyone in the middle of it now reading Post stories might have the impression that we’d already made the transition to stories written by computer and algorithm.”

The overall impression I got from readers, and from my own observations as someone who lost power for a relatively manageable 57 hours, is that The Post was okay but not great. Stories had too much officialdom, too little humanity. Coverage was not aggressive enough, and it had too little depth, breadth and creativity. It lacked verve and passion in covering what was, and is, a very big story affecting millions.

I think too few reporters were out in the neighborhoods, in their cars or on two legs, using their eyes, ears and noses to get the news from different perspectives. I didn’t see, for example, a single quote from an electric lineman.

Yes, The Post did some good work, such as its coverage of the loss of 911 service in Northern Virginia — a scary breakdown. Marc Fisher had a good write-up Tuesday of the maddeningly inadequate responses from Pepco officials, including this humdinger quote from a senior official: “We don’t really believe it’s appropriate to compare restoration rates between companies.”

Mike DeBonis had an excellent look at the costs and benefits of putting more power lines underground. Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty reprised their groundbreaking 2010 series on the perils of Pepco with a story about failures by utility regulators.

This storm revealed systemic weaknesses in Washington area infrastructure — in electricity, telephones, 911 services, police response and information technology. But I saw almost no coverage of how the outages affected businesses, the federal and local governments or military installations. Friends in those fields told me about severe IT problems around the Beltway. The Post itself was affected, for example.

Shailesh Prakash , head of IT here, told me that The Post’s Tysons Corner data center, which is necessary for the Web site to run, lost power Friday night and immediately rolled to generator power as designed. But the cooling system broke down and temperatures reached into the 90s before it could be fixed. About a dozen less-critical servers and systems went down, making the site slower for a few hours. The Post’s Web site sign-in system also was affected, making it harder for people to log in.

Readers also were fed up with officials and politicians saying on the radio to go to this or that Web site for more information. Among those without power, only smartphone users had a way to access the Internet, and most of those said they didn’t want to do too much online to conserve the battery for important calls and text messages from family and friends. Many older subscribers — who are key to this publication’s financial stability — said the print editions had too little information; instead, it was collected online, where these readers couldn’t access it.

Vernon Loeb, Post Local editor, said, “I would stack our coverage against any of our competitors’, and we outcovered everybody.” Perhaps, but in a crisis like this, the standard should be higher. The Post is not a mere observer; it provides a public service in relaying vital information to people who need it. For the next storm, The Post needs to do better.

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