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Fixing 'the Essential Newspaper'

By Michael Getler
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page B06

Last Sunday's column about declining circulation and other challenges that newspapers face elicited more than 75 e-mails, letters and phone calls.

Many were from distant locations, attesting to the readership of the online Post. There were also testimonials to the print Post from local readers. "I read it every day front to back," one said. It "lets me read, think, reread and form an opinion. I will never give that up." Though optimistic about The Post, others who said they were devoted readers fear that as the paper seeks solutions to circulation problems, "some things I take for granted will be lost," as one put it. "Do not be swayed by requests for less bulk or [for] superficiality." Others said they had always benefited from newspapers and hoped they would survive, but noted that their children don't read them.

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If there was a dominant theme, it was the charge that the press generally, and The Post, have been timid in challenging the Bush administration, especially "when opposition in Washington seems to be out these days," as one put it.

"The Post's icon status was earned through hard work and nerve under fire, not through fear of criticism," a Maryland reader said. Another compared coverage of the Bush administration with the "fierce pursuit of Bill and Hillary Clinton." "You were overly focused on Clinton's sexual misconduct and in the last four years you gave Bush a bye," said another.

"My essential newspaper would be more adversarial to government and do much more afflicting of the comfortable. Journalists need to stop worrying about being accused of liberal bias," wrote a Wisconsin man. A Texan used stronger language: "The loss of trust in the newspapers and the news networks actually began back in 2002 when you failed to recognize, or responsibly react to, the lies used to mislead the world about the plan to invade Iraq. The failure to investigate and report the truth continues today, and that is the reason people are losing faith in you."

Some readers said that coverage of the Social Security debate falls into that category and that the struggle for "balance" too often means that opposing claims are "equally false and misleading" when that may not be the case. "I think the drop-off in readership and the disgust a growing number of Americans feel for the news media are based on the fact that the mainstream press cannot seem to break away from the 'conservative said this and the liberal said that' model. As we have all learned through bitter experience in the last few years, this is woefully uninformative. Cover more than the Republicans vs. the Democrats. Let in some unheard voices."

Readers in Colorado and Illinois, and locally, wondered whether the loss of competition over the years in many cities had contributed to a backlash against surviving newspapers and to circulation managers taking readers for granted and not paying enough attention to subscription or delivery problems. "When there was more than one thriving newspaper in a town, each one usually had a distinct personality in an effort to separate itself from the other," said one reader. "Without other local newspapers to compare yourself to, does that lead readers to devalue the one remaining paper?"

Several readers wrote to endorse the need for hard news on the front page, and some also objected to the frequent use of what are called "anecdotal" or feature-type lead-ins to news stories. "One reason people aren't reading the paper," writes a local reader, "is that they are now conditioned to want news fast. The lead paragraph should either tell them all they want to know or that this is an article they want to read. I don't want to wade through a hundred words or so letting me know the reporter is an atmospheric writer." Another, citing the March 1 Post, in which the top three, above-the-fold news stories all had anecdotal leads, said: "I can't stand it anymore. Enough with the feature leads. The front page has been getting progressively worse."

Others complain about the "style" of writing. "You are alienating your upper middle class educated people who are the people who read you every day," said one caller. Another said: "Make the customer think. Write up, not down. Make the experience educational."

Another offers this observation: "The editors are too old. The readers you claim to want to attract don't know who Pinochet was [a reference to recent Post stories about Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, who took power in 1973 and stepped down 15 years ago]. They don't know what the Letelier bombing was. They probably have only a vague idea, if any, who [Henry] Kissinger is."

Some of these observations are more useful and relevant than others. For me, the issue at the top of the list is whether the press has indeed been too timid in probing and challenging an administration that is, in contrast, perhaps the most skilled in modern times at diminishing and closing off many of the so-called mainstream media.

That may be the substantive challenge. Here's the practical one from a reader in New Hampshire. "I got rid of my TV, stopped my lifelong love affair with the N.Y. Times and Washington Post (I'm 83) when O.J. Simpson coverage and Princess Diana coverage just wiped me out. TV was the worst, but the newspapers weren't far behind. I had a brand new Apple computer with a big screen, a new easy chair in front of the screen and enough computer skills to make the type large enough for easy viewing. . . . I really thought it was only a temporary hiatus until the offensive coverage was over, but I have never gone back. I still read the Times and Post on the Web, along with the Los Angeles Times, Manchester Guardian, Der Spiegel and an eclectic bunch more. I Google the world and it waits for me. When I got broadband, then I knew I was hooked forever."

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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