A Global Reach, but a Local Focus

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 5, 2006

One of the big surprises for me in becoming ombudsman is that most e-mail focuses on national issues, not local news.

This column is an initial effort to solicit comment from readers about local news. Is The Post covering the kind of local news that is relevant to your life as a citizen, shopper, homeowner, apartment dweller, parent or commuter? Are there some stories that The Post is missing?

Research among the most frequent readers of the paper shows that local, national and international news are almost equal in importance to readers. In an era of declining circulation, The Post has to satisfy all three expensive needs.

Being in the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth means that The Post has to have a worldwide reach, but it is primarily a local newspaper that devotes about a fourth of its staff of roughly 700 full-time professionals to covering and presenting news of the District, Maryland and Virginia -- and that's not counting Business, Style and Sports staffers doing local stories.

More than 90 percent of The Post's circulation comes within 50 miles of the U.S. Capitol. That's about 678,780 copies a day on weekdays and 965,900 copies on Sunday.

The Post has a huge and complex area to cover: the District and two states. It must cover the news in its circulation area of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, as well as the two states' legislatures. The Post's Metro section is "zoned" five days a week -- all but Saturday and Monday -- into different editions for the District, Virginia and Maryland. Each edition's front page is intended to feature the most important news for its readers. Most, but not all, stories will appear in all three editions, if displayed differently.

While the paper needs to cover the broadly important issues that cut across city, county and state lines, readers also hanker for close-to-home news. That is why The Post publishes the county-by-county Extra sections on Thursdays in most counties and twice a week (adding Sunday) in Loudoun and Prince William counties and Southern Maryland.

Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for Metro, said, "Our goal is aggressive, sophisticated and lively coverage of the Washington region, focused on news and trends that are of the greatest interest and relevance to local readers."

In visits to suburban bureaus, I've found eager young reporters and experienced veterans who want their work in the Extras to be read and appreciated. My worry about the Extras, which are filled with lots of the most local news and advertising, is that they are lost inside the paper. The tabloid-sized sections are found inside the Home section.

The 11 Extras require a lot of resources and are labor-intensive. Do Post readers know where they are or what's inside them? Confession: Before taking this job, I didn't. While there are "keys" that highlight stories in the Extras on the front of the Metro section and sometimes on Page One, are those keys significant enough to draw readers to the Extras?

To make the Extras more visible, The Post could make them broadsheets, like most sections of the paper are, so that they would have a section front. Parts of the Extras' content could be in the Metro section. Is it important that they be tabloids?

The Metro staff numbers about 170 reporters and editors. The reporters and assignment editors, spread from Annapolis to Richmond, are divided among the District, with 24; Maryland, 43; and Virginia, 35. Another 40 reporters and assignment editors have regional or sectionwide responsibilities, and about 25 copy editors work on Metro news.

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