Does Virginia Get a Fair Shake?

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Do Post reporters and editors slight Virginia and give better coverage and display to news in Maryland and the District? It's a perception that keeps flying into my e-mail box from readers and even Post staffers.

Post daily circulation is approximately 268,500 in Virginia, 266,600 in Maryland and 90,000 in the District. The comparable Sunday figures are about 397,100, 418,000 and 97,400, said Amy Luxner, manager of circulation analysis and reporting.

Surveys show readers are interested first in their area's news, said Laura Evans, The Post's director of marketing research. The District is the second preference for Maryland and Virginia readers, because it is the nation's capital and the regional hub. That means that the District gets more coverage than its share of population or subscribers. News from all three is "zoned," except on Mondays and Saturdays, so readers get more news of their area.

While Virginia has more readers, the Maryland staff has slightly more reporters and editors, at 40. Virginia has 36; the District, 29. Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for Metro news, believes "our judgment is weighted" toward Virginia, because "we have more readers in Virginia than in any other jurisdiction, and more in Fairfax than in any other county."

The staffing disparity, he said, stems from Maryland having two big suburban counties -- Montgomery and Prince George's -- while Virginia has one -- Fairfax. Maryland has five Post bureaus -- in Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, and Southern Maryland -- while Virginia has four -- one for Alexandria and Arlington, and bureaus in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. A sports reporter will soon be living in the Roanoke area to cover the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech teams.

Reader Jim Balcom of Alexandria complained about a Nov. 20 paper "clearly labeled on the front page as Northern Virginia Home Edition. The Metro section is completely void of any news from anywhere in Virginia, except for a picture that is essentially an ad for multimillion-dollar homes in Loudoun County. The contents of the story were all in Maryland. If you aren't going to tell residents of Virginia what is going on in Virginia, how can you expect Virginians to buy your paper?"

While two Virginia reporters had stories on the front page of that day's Metro section, the Maryland stories were more newsy and prominent. As Virginia editor Mike Semel said, the stories "didn't scream" Virginia and were more regional features.

McCartney said, "The Monday edition often suffers a bit, because there is less news breaking over the weekend, except in Sports. Because we don't zone the Metro section on Mondays, we have to handle news from all three jurisdictions. In this case, we happened to have more breaking news and features from Maryland. The flow of news is uneven, and sometimes it works the other way and Virginia events dominate the section."

Balcom then measured Tuesday's Metro section. "I came up with 148 inches about Virginia, 134 column inches for D.C. and 100 inches for Maryland, not counting the columnists and sidebars. I don't see how this is anything extra special for Virginia, but it is better than . . . three to four years ago."

The stepchild perception is there among some reporters in the Fairfax and Alexandria bureaus, which I visited earlier in the year. Reporters there complained that their stories would often get "buried" and then months later a similar Maryland story would get prominent display, and that their stories get dropped more than Maryland and District stories.

David Dadisman, The Post's vice president for circulation, said he doesn't get as many complaints from Virginians since zoning was started four years ago. But "as a Virginia resident, I find the Post's coverage of Virginia news inadequate and given from a distant perspective. I perceive a somewhat snobby and distant attitude toward us Virginians in many things Washingtonian."

That wasn't helped by a satirical Style piece Oct. 18 on Northern Virginia (NoVa) vs. the Rest of Virginia (RoVa). Many readers complained; it wasn't very funny.

James W. Fox of Fairfax complained about a Nov. 22 story on immigrants from India. The story said, "Many settled in top-performing school districts, especially Montgomery County, where 31,822 Indians reside, and Fairfax County, with 35,326." Fox thought it odd "to mention the county that ranks second in immigrants before the one that ranks first. Even odder is the mention of Montgomery County first in relation to 'top-performing' school districts. The best public high school in Fairfax County may well be the best in the country; it is far and away better than any high school in Montgomery County."

Fox surmised that there is an "implicit bias" toward Maryland. "I would like to see a compilation of where the [Post] professionals live. My guess is that they either live in D.C. or in neighboring Maryland counties, with a smattering of such people in Alexandria or Arlington . . ."

Right you are, Mr. Fox. The vast majority of top Post editors live in the District or in Maryland. (Virginia editor Semel does live in Virginia.) That doesn't mean Post editors consciously pick stories from their home areas for Page 1 or Metro front slots, but it does mean they can't help but be more attuned to what's happening in their own back yard.

But take note: There was a Page 1 Virginia story Tuesday in all editions. Okay, it was about a trailer park, but it was in Northern Virginia. Then there were two Virginia stories on all front pages Wednesday.

All the zones arrive in my office. From now on, Virginia will get more attention. Ahem, I live in Maryland, but don't hold that against me.

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


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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