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Ten Ways to Keep a Newspaper Strong

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 30, 2008

Readers sometimes think they own The Post. So do the journalists who produce the news. But it's the Graham family and other stockholders who own The Washington Post Co.; they have done very well by it. The new publisher, Katharine Weymouth, and The Post's top business executives and editors make the key decisions on The Post's financial and journalistic future.

The newspaper recession, compounded by the nation's financial crisis, has put the newspaper part of the company between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The Post has had three buyouts in five years, yet business demands mean more will be trimmed.

Deciding what to trim is tricky. If subscribers don't feel loyalty or that sense of ownership in the paper, they cancel their subscriptions, especially when they can get it free on the Internet. The Post must have committed, paying print readers in order to do well in the short term -- and the long term is only dimly seen. Those readers make up the subscriber base that brings advertisers to the paper; advertising provides most of The Post's revenue.

Many company stockholders just want a decent return on their investment. The Post's stock price hasn't been doing that well lately, but Donald Graham, chairman of the Post Co., has always said that he doesn't care about short-term results. Disclosure: That philosophy was why I bought Post stock years before I worked here.

In the newsroom, we think of ourselves as keepers of the sacred flame of journalism. But in seriously tight times, the most important thing is to ensure that cuts do not damage the paper's quality in the eyes of readers.

Now that I've listened to readers for more than three years (my term is over at year's end), here are 10 suggestions, not in any particular order of importance:

(1) Exclusivity is a virtue. Readers can get breaking news in many places, but they count on Post reporters and columnists for reporting and comment they can't get elsewhere. I'm thinking of features such as KidsPost, the Style Invitational, Federal Diary, In The Loop and Dr. Gridlock, and such top reporters and columnists as Dan Balz, Dana Priest, Steven Pearlstein, Sally Jenkins, Michelle Singletary and David S. Broder.

(2) Outshine competitors on what The Post can do best. That means all things local and Washington. An initiative to better cover the federal workplace is underway. The federal government is the biggest employer in this area. No one should do a better job than The Post in covering the presidential transition and the new Congress and administration. (And I trust that The Post won't get caught without enough papers at inauguration time.)

(3) Readers, don't expect The Post to have everything; you'll need to go online for some information. Though this area is heavily wired for the Internet, readers without computers moan when information is only online. I get e-mail from readers in their 80s -- even 90s -- all the time. Try it out at your local library, folks. You'll find lots to like.

(4) If information is easily obtainable elsewhere, it's fair game to be trimmed in The Post -- stock quotes, for instance. The Post has different calendars in print and online -- Express, Style on the Go, Weekend, the Going Out Guide plus the Going Out Gurus. What about a consolidation? But don't even think about cutting Sudoku.

(5) When newsprint is at a premium -- the two biggest expenses are people and paper -- reporters should learn to engage readers quickly and tell a story faster. If long leads or long stories don't hold a reader through every paragraph, editors should make them shorter.

(6) Readers want to get a feeling for what is happening in their town, the country and the world. The Post's local, national and foreign bureaus have shrunk over the past few years. The foreign staff has become more nimble, moving around to react to the news, and forming partnerships with other news-gathering organizations. For my money, The Post's strong bureau in Iraq is worth every penny of the more than $1 million a year that it costs to be there. And coverage in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is crucial for Post readers.

(7) When The Post can't cover it all, it can do a better job of putting many stories in local, national and world briefings that can send readers online for details. Not everything has to be in the newspaper. Story selection and page design have to be smart and considerate of readers' time.

(8) Exclusive investigative reporting should be a franchise, concentrating on projects that are intensely meaningful to readers. The Post has not done anything more worthwhile in recent years than uncovering scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Veterans issues should remain an important topic to cover.

(9) The Post must be a watchdog on local government, business, education, courts, law enforcement and institutions. That historic role must stay strong.

(10) It must also give a strong sense of what it's like to live around the region. Readers like stories that stress the human and humane element of living here. People like to read about people like themselves, not just all the swells in high places.

Readers are the reason the newspaper exists, and The Post has some of the smartest readers -- and leaders -- in the world. How will Weymouth, who is Donald Graham's niece and the namesake of her grandmother Katharine Graham, reconcile all these pushes and pulls? Not easily. Readers and journalists alike should wish her well.

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

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