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Three Venues and One Responsibility

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 2, 2006

Thursday's launch of Washington Post Radio means that you can now listen to The Post on 107.7 FM and 1500 AM as well as read it in print or online on washingtonpost.com. All three Posts are under different management, but to most readers or listeners, The Post is The Post is The Post.

What is happening is an expansion of a well-known brand across three media. And while some of the cast of characters are different -- broadcasters on Post radio, online journalists on the Web site -- The Post's print journalists are all over both.

No matter what the medium, the message from readers (and I expect soon from listeners) is that Post journalism is expected to be of the highest quality. This comes uppermost to mind because several days ago, washingtonpost.com accepted the resignation of Ben Domenech -- amid allegations of plagiarism -- after three days as a conservative blogger for the Web site.

I received more than 4,000 e-mails -- most of them from political liberals, quite civil and from outside the circulation area. Two readers applauded the hiring. The rest were in various states of high dudgeon.

George Kennedy of White Plains, N.Y., said, "The dereliction of duty is beyond words. This is The WASHINGTON POST, for God's sake. Balanced journalism, as I'm sure you know very well, does not mean putting right-wing extremists in The Washington Post. It means finding good journalists who have impeccable records, a moral obligation to get to the bottom of a story, and the guts to tell the truth even when it conflicts with their own politics."

Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, has said without equivocation that hiring Domenech was a mistake. I'm not going to pile on. Anyone out there who's ever hired or fired has chosen at least a few clunkers. Brady wants to enlarge the reach of the Web site's opinion section with a conservative blogger; there's nothing wrong with that. He said he will pick someone with more of a journalism background next time. The Post covered the controversy as a news story. If Post radio had been up, the story probably would have been on the air.

Before I got buried, I replied to readers that the Web site is run by Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), a wholly owned Post Co. subsidiary based in Rosslyn, with different management and employees.

No editors at the newspaper recommended Domenech's hiring or were consulted about his resignation. Post.com employees create much online content that doesn't appear in The Post. Indeed, Post editors don't tell Brady and his colleagues what to do on washingtonpost.com, and the Web site's managers don't tell Post editors what to put in the newspaper. All content from The Post is edited by Post editors, not at the Web site.

Still, a suburban Maryland reader who says he's a fan of the paper puts it this way: "Please stop this horrible ridiculous posturing about the Post newspaper and the Post Web site somehow being two separate things. . . . Both are owned by the Washington Post Company. About 99 percent of the subject matter and content on the Web site is, uh, from The Washington Post. And if The Washington Post newspaper did not exist, neither would the Web site. They are basically, essentially, necessarily, one and the same entity. All those bylines? Post. All those chats? Post. All of the columns, features, news stories . . . business stories, Style stories? Post."

I accept -- and everyone at the radio station, the Web site and the paper should as well -- that readers and listeners look on The Post's print and Web content and radio programming as the same, even though they're overseen by different people. One fact: The Washington Post Co. doesn't own WTWP. It has an agreement with the station's owner, Bonneville Corp., to provide programming.

Post reporters, especially, find themselves in great demand -- writing quickly for the Web site on a breaking story, writing for the next day's paper and now talking on WTWP. It requires a flexibility and dexterity that even the quickest of us will have to get used to.

So journalists need to remember that they represent Post standards whether they're online or on the air. Only a few journalists in online chats have crossed the line -- into obscenity and political rants that Post journalists shouldn't engage in -- since I've been here.

Here is commonsensical advice for reporters who go on television or radio or do live chats.

· Don't say anything live you would not write in the paper. Don't speculate without a sound basis in fact.

· Don't try to be ironic or sarcastic; it's always misinterpreted. Humor only works if it's light and at no one's expense but your own.

· A relaxed manner is good for chats, but watch you don't come off as unprofessional.

· You're a reporter for a top-notch outfit. Act like it.

Post journalists are always under the microscope and at an open mike in this new world of round-the-clock news and opinion. I found that out to my dismay when I uttered an unprintable word at a gathering of newspaper people in Minneapolis and found it on a blog within 24 hours and posted on a popular media Web site in another 48. Lesson learned.

Though the media and the management may be different, and though the Web site and radio may operate at a faster pace and a more informal tone than the newspaper, the Post brand is important and needs to be protected by all who work for it.

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

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