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The Two Washington Posts

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 11, 2005

As far as most readers are concerned, washingtonpost.com is The Washington Post. But it's not, really. They are quite different, though the content is much the same and the Web site delivers Post content 24 hours a day.

The Post is primarily a local newspaper, no matter how or where it's read. Its circulation, as reported in September, is 671,322 daily and 965,920 Sunday. The Web site's reach is huge -- 8 million unique visitors a month, about 1.3 million of them local.

While local readers use washingtonpost.com more often and more intensely, the site also has a national and international audience. I'm repeatedly surprised when, reading an e-mail that is very knowledgeable about The Post, I scroll down and find out it's from a reader in New Mexico or Oregon -- or China, Israel or Australia.

Those readers -- who often say they "subscribe" because they register for online access -- think The Post is their newspaper no matter where they live. And if they have a complaint, it often comes to me.

The Post Web site is owned by the Washington Post Co., but it is not run by the newspaper. It is a separate company called Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive, or WPNI, with offices in Arlington.

Yes, The Post provides the vast majority of the Web site's content. But the Web site has its own staff of 65 editorial employees and its own features, such as Brian Krebs on cybersecurity, William M. Arkin on national security and the military, and Jefferson Morley on what the rest of the world is saying about the United States.

The site also has Web-only multimedia reports and blogs written by Post reporters, such as Howard Kurtz on the media, Mark Maske on the National Football League, Fred Barbash on Supreme Court vacancies and Joel Achenbach on just about anything.

Caroline H. Little, WPNI's chief executive and publisher, said the site is trying to offer more tools and interactive features. "We just launched a political database four days ago, and already a whole list of blogs is linking to it."

There are cultural differences between the two newsrooms, which could be expected between a traditional newspaper and the more free-wheeling Web site. But Jim Brady, executive editor of the Web site, said he finds the Post newsroom "incredibly cooperative."

The two Posts interact every day. Post reporters and editors often participate in online chats (about 50 hours a week) and there is a Continuous News Desk at The Post in charge of feeding the Web site.

Political reporters at The Post don't like WPNI columnist Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing," which is highly opinionated and liberal. They're afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.

John Harris, national political editor at the print Post, said, "The title invites confusion. It dilutes our only asset -- our credibility" as objective news reporters. Froomkin writes the kind of column "that we would never allow a White House reporter to write. I wish it could be done with a different title and display."

Harris is right; some readers do think Froomkin is a White House reporter. But Froomkin works only for the Web site and is very popular -- and Brady is not going to fool with that, though he is considering changing the column title and supplementing it with a conservative blogger.

Froomkin said he is "happy to consider other ways to telegraph to people that I'm not a Post White House reporter. I do think that what I'm doing, namely scrutinizing the White House's every move -- with an attitude -- is in the best traditions of American and Washington Post journalism."

On the other hand, Chris Cillizza, a washingtonpost.com political reporter, appears in The Post frequently. When he writes for the paper, he works for Harris, who is happy to have him.

Some Post reporters don't appreciate that links are put on the Web site to what bloggers are saying about this or that story -- especially when the bloggers are highly negative.

Metro reporters think the Web site ignores their good work and doesn't display it well. "My concern is that we have this rich, deep, robust local coverage which is not fully displayed, but I know the site is working to fix that," said Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for metropolitan news. McCartney is a great ally of the Web site and was assistant managing editor of continuous news for two years before he became Metro's top editor.

Brady said that in July, WPNI launched a new local home page that he describes as "a work in progress. We want to break that page out and make it look distinct with weather, traffic, local community information."

Brady and several of his staff members visit The Post every week, keeping up on what Post staffers are doing. Post staffers frequently visit WPNI.

A number of newspapers have integrated their newsrooms and Web sites, and the New York Times is moving to do so. I asked Don Graham, The Post Co.'s CEO, about that. "Putting out the newspaper is a demanding, more-than-full-time job," he said. "The Web site has an equally demanding challenge, having to make its way against brilliant competitors who are constantly unrolling new products. The Post and WPNI must cooperate but must also find a way to do quite different jobs."

My bottom line: The Web site adds to The Post's prestige, and the world is moving toward the Web. The Web is a wonderful place for The Post to put newsprint-eating texts and documents, such as presidential speeches, and other information, such as congressional votes, that readers want.

But I agree with The Post's political writers here; the Web site should remove the "White House Briefing" label from Froomkin's column.

Deborah Howell can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.

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