Why Isn't The Post Easier to Reach?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Public service is the hallmark of good journalism, and The Post and its journalists ought to be as accessible to the public as possible; its standards and ethics policies also ought to be easy to find.

Many readers obviously know how to find the ombudsman, and reporters and editors say that they get a lot of e-mail. But every week readers complain that they find it hard to find specific contact information for The Post either in print or online. They don't always want to complain; sometimes they want to offer story tips, more information for a continuing story or simply a compliment.

Yet there is no central place in the paper that tells readers how to get in touch with a section, a reporter or an editor, where to send a news release, where to request a correction, how to handle a pesky delivery problem.

In print, the only clue is the rate box -- a small box that appears on one of the first few pages of the A section several times a week. It gives subscription rates and phone numbers for the major desks and suburban bureaus.

But it's in teeny, hard-to-read type. In this day of e-mail, it contains no e-mail addresses. It would be more reader-friendly to have a box in readable type with all the important information, e-mail addresses and phone numbers; it could run two or three times a week.

For those who want to know now, many e-mail addresses are intuitive: metro@washpost.com, business@washpost.com, national@washpost.com.

Readers often ask why reporters don't put their e-mail addresses at the top or bottom of stories, as is done at many newspapers. Some editors think it's a waste of space. And, frankly, some reporters don't want more e-mail than they're already getting.

But others staffers welcome the feedback. You can send them e-mails through "clickable" bylines online. Some staff members volunteered to put their names on the Web site for contact. The Post e-mail protocol is fairly easy. For most staffers, it's their last name followed by their first-name initial and then @washpost.com.

Only the top editors and other executives are listed in a box on the editorial page, but it doesn't say how to reach them. The top section editors -- Metro, Photo, Business, Sports, Style -- are not listed anywhere on the Web or in print.

Some smaller sections, such as the Magazine, Health, Weekend, Travel and Book World, list the editor, contact information and staff. The Food section does some weeks but not others. Some Extra sections mention all the staff; some don't. The District Extra's staff box is woefully out of date. A consistent approach for all sections would be preferable.

It's better at washingtonpost.com, with a fuller "contact us" button at the bottom right of the home page. There's also information on submitting letters to the editor and op-ed columns. But some of the information is out of date, and many readers seem to have a hard time locating it. It also doesn't list section editors at The Post or at the Web site or say how to request a correction or where to send a news release. It does effectively tell readers how to contact the ombudsman.

While The Post is a private business, it serves a huge public role in the community. Its journalists are public figures, and readers ought to be able to find out something about them on washingtonpost.com -- a picture and their professional background, and information on how to contact them.

It's not practical to put up all the bios at once. There are a few up now -- the editorial board, the ombudsman and Metro columnist Marc Fisher. Others are hit-and-miss. A good start would be to put up all section editors first, then beat reporters on the Metro, Business, National, Style and Sports desks.

Along with an easier way to reach journalists, readers should have easy access to The Post's written standards. The Post stylebook exists only internally and online. It's a great document, and I refer to it daily. Its writing is clear, often inspirational. There's no reason most of it can't be available, and the company's lawyer has raised no objection to most of it being online. The Post should be willing to be publicly judged by its own standards.

One of the early paragraphs says: "We fully recognize that the power we have inherited as the dominant morning newspaper in the capital of the free world carries with it special responsibilities: to listen to the voiceless, to avoid any and all acts of arrogance, to face the public politely and candidly."

I've asked many times internally for the standards to be posted. Editors seem interested, but it just doesn't happen. So I'll harp about it publicly. You can find much of The Post's standards and ethics, among those of other papers, on the Web site of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. So why not put them on washingtonpost.com?

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

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