Shorting Readers on What They Want

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Two things are on my mind -- coverage of this historic election and the dismal financial state of the newspaper business. They dovetail.

Revenue at The Post and other major metropolitan newspapers has been devastated by the Internet, free online classified advertising, a bad economy's effect on retail advertising and many new options for time-starved readers to find the information they need. Declines in Post advertising and circulation and decreases in the value of smaller newspapers the company owns resulted in third-quarter earnings, reported Friday, being down 86 percent compared with the same period last year.

Every day I hear from readers who tell me the reason The Post's print edition is losing readers and advertising is that (1) The Post is too liberal, (2) The Post has gone downhill with three buyouts in five years or (3) The Post is arrogant. Or all of the above.

Those notions are simplistic, but each holds a grain of truth. Let's consider them:

(1) Neither the hard-core right nor left will ever be satisfied by Post coverage -- and that's as it should be. But it's true that The Post, as well as much of the national news media, has written more stories and more favorable stories about Barack Obama than John McCain. Editors have their reasons for this, but conservatives are right that they often don't see their views reflected enough in the news pages.

The Post's latest circulation losses were less than many large papers suffered, and business executives say the advertising downturn has more to do with the economy than with political coverage. That said, the imbalance still needs to be corrected.

(2) The Post newsroom has suffered from the buyouts, although they have helped the bottom line. Some stars, such as movie critic Stephen Hunter, are gone. Military reporter Tom Ricks will leave the payroll by the end of the year but will have a consulting contract. Others took buyouts and are still working on contract -- television critic Tom Shales, In The Loop columnist Al Kamen and venerable political columnist David S. Broder. Talented staffers also have gone to the New York Times and Politico.

The Post has lost scads of good copy editors and mid-level editors and reporters whom readers might not know by name, leaving the newsroom feeling perpetually shorthanded. Editors are looking at a serious restructuring of the newsroom and combining it with

But the paper and its Web site still are a powerhouse of good reporters, photographers and editors -- the envy of papers that have had to cut more.

(3) Arrogance. It is a disease easily caught by journalists, who can overlook its symptoms. We believe that we have a collective "nose for news" and the judgment to know best what readers need to know and how to present it. We believe in our own wisdom and experience and in the purity that keeps us out of politics and special-interest groups. We have our own rules, and we don't change them. We seldom ask for input from readers. We believe that if it weren't for us, the world couldn't be as well informed and democracy wouldn't operate as it should. But this sounds self-important to readers.

That arrogance can come into play in political coverage. While much Post coverage has been straightforward and some of it is excellent, the predominance of horse-race coverage has not satisfied what readers wanted to know about the candidates. Tactics, strategy and polls are important, but last week readers were still begging for coverage of where the candidates stood on the biggest issues.

They asked for such coverage beginning in the primary season. They didn't get much information from The Post. Reporters have even complained to me that suggestions for issues coverage have been turned aside.

Even for the "Potomac Primary" on Feb. 6 for voters in Maryland, the District and Virginia, readers only got one large graphic box on issues -- on voting day. Too little, too late.

With The Post spending millions to cover the presidential race, more needed to be done on the candidates' proposals and what independent experts thought of them. There were good issues stories Wednesday by Amy Goldstein on Obama's and McCain's health-care proposals, but they ran less than a week before the election and after the vast majority of readers had made up their minds, and in fact after thousands of people had already voted early in Virginia, a battleground state.

Some of the best analysis wasn't done in the news pages, where you would expect it, but in the "Ideas Primary" series of editorials and by op-ed columnists, especially Ruth Marcus. KidsPost deserves kudos for doing six issues pieces.

The Post is so focused on the presidential race that local races don't always get as much coverage as they deserve. The Voters Guide was published Thursday; it was up Tuesday on the Web site. That was too late. Only local races deemed to be competitive get any coverage outside the Voters Guide, and by the time it appears, readers don't have enough time to find out more about many candidates.

The Post can still afford to provide a wealth of good journalism, and the paper is worth more than readers pay for it. But it needs to face the uncertain future firmly focused on what readers need to know and when they need to know it while recognizing the hyper-competitive news world we live in.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at

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