Enduring Values in a Time of Change

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 30, 2007

In my two years as ombudsman, The Post and the newspaper business have been changing at whiplash speed.

Newspaper companies have been sold; others have gone out of business. The Post, in journalistic and business terms, remains rock-solid, but it, too, has suffered declining circulation and revenue. Since October 2005, when my term began, Post circulation has decreased 45,000, to 648,517 daily; Sunday circulation has dropped by 64,671, to 904,413. (The Post's daily circulation peak was 832,232 -- over 1 million on Sundays -- in 1993.) Advertising revenue has plummeted because of a sharp decline in real estate advertising and the move of classified and employment ads to the Internet.

Advertising online is increasing -- not enough to offset declines at the paper -- and average monthly visitor traffic to The Post's Web site has risen more than 15 percent. In 2005, the site had 7.5 million unique visitors a month, according to Nielsen Media Research; in 2007, through November, it had 8.6 million a month.

The Post newsroom staff -- including part-timers and support staff -- has dropped from 900 to 800 and probably will drop further. Newsroom expenses are at about the 2002 level. The Metro section lost more people than any other department, but it staff is also the biggest. In percentage terms, the Business and Style sections and the photo staff were hit harder.

Even so, The Post had a year of excellent local, national and international journalism. The values of the newspaper's owners make all the difference -- that and owning Kaplan Inc., the education powerhouse. The Graham family has followed principles laid down by Eugene Meyer, Post Co. Chairman Don Graham's grandfather. Among them: "The newspaper's duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners" and "In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good."

Post newsroom changes have been swift. Reporters are adapting to the Internet. A recent washingtonpost.com video of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was taken by Dan Balz, a longtime national political writer. Not an expected video credit line.

As Balz wrote to me: "The biggest change is the volume of information that flows back and forth among the campaigns and the speed at which it moves. We're now in a continuous news cycle. Capturing all this and trying to make sense of it requires more than just newspaper stories, and video increasingly is a way to provide immediacy and intimacy to our report. We are all adapting to the new reality."

Readers can see some Post cutbacks -- such as much smaller stock market tables -- and the combined Sunday Style & Arts section and the squeezing of two Sunday comics sections into one. (I am mourning the shrinkage of "Opus.") But The Post has managed to shield readers from most cutbacks, as it should. The space devoted to news has not dropped appreciably -- at least so far. There are fewer domestic bureaus; foreign correspondents will have offices at home, and they may be living more out of their suitcases.

Reporting is the most important thing in a newspaper; it is The Post's focus. One of the most important stories The Post has done all year -- the investigation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center-- led to a wide investigation of how veterans are treated and the resignations of top officials. Anne Hull and Dana Priest, the Post reporters who wrote the series, are experienced journalists. The effect of their work cannot be measured in circulation, revenue or prizes. It is measured in the healing of damaged bodies and psyches.

Two years ago, I wrote a column headlined "The Two Washington Posts." In late 2005, there were almost no journalists from the Post's downtown newsroom working at the Web site. Now, several of The Post's top editors are there in prominent positions, and all the major desks have liaisons with washingtonpost.com. Paul Kane, who covered Congress for the Web site, is the newspaper's new congressional correspondent; Chris Cillizza of post.com is a part of the political team.

There's much more urgency in the Post newsroom to see its work online and well displayed. The number of staff-written blogs has increased sharply. Even the Investigations staff now blogs. The Web site has produced interlocking elements to Post projects such as the "Being a Black Man" series and the series on roadside bombs in Iraq. The Trail and The Fact Checker, produced by the paper's National staff, appear more frequently online than in the paper. Other features, such as Choose Your Candidate, are exclusively online, as are the popular On Faith and onBeing forums. The Web site also created a hyper-local LoudounExtra.com and will do the same with Fairfax in 2008. Videos abound.

Print reporters, editors and photographers don't want to be left behind, but for some it is taking a toll. Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank said, "Virtually everyone is producing more for the Web. I look at it as a matter of self-preservation. If I'm going to make it to retirement in this business, it has to be on the Web, TV and radio and writing books. You can't just depend on the newspaper anymore." Milbank went from three to four Sketches weekly plus a video sketch. "They're getting more blood," he said, "from the same stone."

The Post has sent 70 staff members to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, where they have reported under the most dangerous and difficult of circumstances. The saddest event of the year here was the death of Salih Saif Aldin, an Iraqi reporter for The Post who was shot to death while pursuing a story.

There was a moving ceremony for him at The Post, led by David E. Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news. "Someone tried to keep Salih from discovering the truth," Hoffman told his colleagues. "Salih, I promise you this -- the light of your inspiration has not been extinguished by this terrible evil, by this act of violence. . . . We will not cease the quest. We will complete your mission. We will find the truth."

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

© 2007 The Washington Post Company