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John Kelly's Washington

Read (but Not All!) About It

By John Kelly
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C09

You may have heard that the circulation of The Washington Post is down, as it is at most newspapers. While more people are reading the work of Post journalists than ever before, they're doing it via the Web.

This is troubling for those of us who love newspapers as much as we love news. One of the reasons for the decline, I think, is that many people have never learned how to read a newspaper. For them, I offer these instructions.

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Step 1: Grasp The Washington Post in your hands. Enjoy the pleasant feel of the paper against your skin.

Step 2: Unfold the newspaper. The Post is a broadsheet newspaper, which means that it is tall and skinny, in other words, healthily mesomorphic. Unfolding it will allow you to see the bottom half.

Step 3: Scan the front page. We in the newspaper biz call this page "A1." It's so important that they named a steak sauce after it.

There's a lot on A1 competing for your attention. Do not consider it a disorganized jumble. In fact, the entire newspaper is an attempt to impose order on the chaos that is our world. There is a rough rule of thumb: The higher up the story is on a page, the more important it is.

Reading the front page, or even skimming it, is a good way to get a grasp of the "issues of the day." However:

Step 4: Peruse at will. There is no right or wrong way to read the paper. Everyone does it differently.

We've organized it into approximate subject areas, but you may do what you like. I've met people who say things like, "I always start with the 'Merchandise Wanted' section of the Classifieds, then move to the new incorporations listed in Business, then read 'Hints From Heloise,' the entire Sports section -- from back to front -- and the obituaries." That's fine.

Note that while perusing the paper, you may encounter stories you wouldn't necessarily have sought out but that you appreciate stumbling over. Newspapers are very good at providing these unplanned but welcome digressions.

Step 5: Disperse contents as needed. Like a navel orange, a newspaper is easy to share. It may be split up at the breakfast table -- the A section to Mom, Sports to Junior. It may be folded for insertion into a briefcase and carried aboard the Metro, something you can't do with, say, Peter Jennings. And because each page is numbered, it's easy to reconstitute it in its original form.

Step 6: Be skeptical. The princely sum of 35 cents entitles you not just to a copy of The Post, but to the right to whine and carp about it, too. You are allowed to disagree with the selection of stories we put on A1, or the wisdom of describing a gruesome crime in detail or the idiotic opinions of a columnist.

You may compose letters pointing out our mistakes. (For example: "I noticed with some amusement that a recent map of Europe placed Paris in Germany. Though Adolf Hitler did his best to accomplish this, I believe you are in error.")

Notice, though, that we get it right the vast majority of the time, under tight deadlines and often extreme situations. Our reporters dodge bombs in Baghdad and attend incredibly boring county council meetings so you don't have to.

Step 7: Feel no guilt for not "finishing" the paper. Our parents raised us to eat everything on our plates. And what has this gotten us? Buttocks that won't fit into airline seats and guilt over an unread newspaper.

I have sat behind the two-way mirror at countless focus groups and watched former readers say they don't buy The Post anymore because it accreted into a shame-inducing pile. Let me make this clear: There's nothing wrong with not reading the whole paper. No one reads the whole paper. No one eats the whole salad bar, either, and that's what The Washington Post is: a vast, well-stocked salad bar that attempts to provide some flavor for nearly every appetite.

We have finally realized that here at The Washington Post. The Post's new TV ads feature the proclamation "Read what you need," which is more politic than "You don't have to read the whole $#@&%! thing."

In fact, there's nothing wrong with buying a newspaper and not reading it at all. People who don't really need glasses get them to look smarter. Bachelors who don't really need dogs get them so they look adorable to single women at the dog park. How many of us have cobweb-covered treadmills taking up space in the basement? And they cost a lot more than 35 cents.

Step 8: Use it. You will encounter information in the paper that you may wish to act upon. Go ahead: See that movie; clip that coupon; patronize that advertiser.

Step 9: Repurpose it. The newspaper is good for more than reading: lining bird cages, wrapping fish, housebreaking puppies, temporarily patching holes in leather-soled shoes, protecting the garage floor while decoupaging a wooden trunk . . .

Lodged somewhere in my brain is the memory that women about to give birth in unusual places -- taxicabs, bus stations -- need two things: boiling water and newspapers. I just can't see someone shouting, "Mrs. O'Herlihy can't hold it any longer! Put the kettle on and print out 100 copies of the Google News home page!"

Step 10: Recycle it. That way we can use it to make more Washington Posts.

Step 11: Repeat Steps 1 through 10 daily until I retire.

Of course, you can't do online chats in the newspaper. Mine is at 1 p.m. today. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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