By Rem Rieder
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; C01
Inside The Washington Post -- A Great Newspaper Fights for Its Life
By Dave Kindred
Doubleday. 266 pp. $26.95
"Morning Miracle" is a love story, a tale of passion starring a faded beauty trying desperately to hang on in a rapidly changing world.
The object of author Dave Kindred's ardor is old-school newspaper journalism, deeply reported public affairs coverage, the kind that can make a difference in people's lives.
"I love the smell of newsprint in the morning, and my favorite time of day is thirty minutes to deadline," writes Kindred, who has spent more than five decades in the business.
In particular, Kindred loves the journalism at The Washington Post, where he once worked as a sports columnist. In "Morning Miracle," he paints a vivid picture of the paper, its people, its triumphs and its struggle to survive in a media landscape transformed profoundly and inexorably by the Internet. (Disclosure: I worked as The Post's deputy metro editor from 1984 to 1987.)
The book has an insider's feel, and no wonder: The Post opened itself up to Kindred, and he interviewed 155 people, most of them current or former Post staffers. After reading "Game Change," a relentlessly fascinating political page-turner packed with anonymous quotes, it was shocking -- in a good way -- to encounter a book consisting almost entirely of on-the-record material.
To illustrate why he thinks The Post is so special, Kindred devotes four chapters to different aspects of the newspaper's journalism. I found two particularly compelling.
The first focuses on the riveting series on awful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center put together by reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull. It's a classic example of important investigative reporting in the public interest. Kindred traces the story from blind tip to powerful journalism via the tedious but essential back roads of shoe-leather reporting.
"Go there, ask questions, listen, watch, ask more questions," is the way Kindred describes the process. "Not many papers will give you months to do it, but the Post did. When you know the story, you write." This is the kind of work that is largely the province of professional news organizations. No matter how wonderful the blogger or citizen journalist, independent reporters are not very likely to pull back the curtain on a Walter Reed because such reporting often requires serious resources.
In another chapter, Kindred introduces Anthony Shadid, a gifted foreign correspondent with a penchant for telling the stories of ordinary people affected by momentous events. Shadid, who was shot while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the Boston Globe in 2002, went on to report from Iraq for The Post. Despite the costs of his commitment -- the physical danger, the toll on his personal life -- Shadid talked of why he did what he did: "This will sound cheesy, but it is an overwhelming experience when you're defined by a story to that degree. And that's when journalism can really be great, when that's who you are, you're here to report that story."
Like so many love stories, though, this one is fraught with complications, and the Shadid saga underscores that fact. In the book's epilogue, Kindred reports that the correspondent has defected from The Post to the New York Times. "I adore The Post and [Washington Post Co. Chairman] Don Graham is still an inspiration to me," Shadid says. "But they're going a different direction in foreign, a lot more about policy, not going head to head on daily stories."
And, indeed, "Morning Miracle" explores The Post's plight as digital moves to the fore. There's much about the paper's bad news: declining circulation, plummeting ad revenue, shrinking staff, soul-sapping buyouts and the overall diminution of a great American institution.
Kindred places The Post's struggles in the context of today's media cataclysm without letting its executives off the hook. "The newspaper's problems were partly of its own making, allowing editors to overspend, and failure first to anticipate the Internet and then to comprehend its impact. But most of the damage came when the Internet's rapid maturation coincided with the collapse of the national economy. No one could stand in that tsunami."
The book, which will be published this month, illuminates two potential turning points when The Post might have reacted more effectively to the digital revolution. The first dates all the way back to 1992, when then-Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser had an epiphany on a fact-finding mission to Japan. Kaiser returned and wrote a memo calling on The Post to launch an electronic edition and plunge into the world of online classifieds. But the plan went nowhere.
Years later, after The Post had amassed a large national and international audience, almost by accident, thanks to the Internet, a task force headed by then-Managing Editor Steve Coll urged the company in 2003 to adopt "a somewhat more aggressive national and global Web strategy." But Graham rejected the idea on the grounds that the paper's emphasis was and should be regional.
Despite his affection for his subject, Kindred is by no means in the tank. He is merciless in his treatment of publisher Katharine Weymouth for her plan to host "salons" at her home, events for which high-rolling sponsors would pay handsomely for the privilege of mixing with Washington players and Post reporters at off-the-record sessions. After the plan became public and was widely criticized, as Kindred puts it, for "selling seats to representatives of special interests," Weymouth scrapped it and apologized to readers. Kindred also skewers Weymouth for expressing her distaste for "depressing" stories that advertisers don't like.
A particularly poignant episode in the book is the departure of longtime Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., an accomplished and widely respected journalist who succeeded the great Ben Bradlee. (Says Kaiser, "Ben created the Post. Len perfected it.") Weymouth had taken over as publisher, and she was looking for a more Web-focused editor to oversee the much-needed merger of The Post's print and online operations. But Downie, who started his Post career in 1964, didn't see it coming. He was particularly upset to get the word not from Graham, his longtime partner-in-Post, the man who had named him to the top newsroom job, but from Post Co. Vice Chairman Boisfeuillet "Bo" Jones Jr.
Kindred describes a surreal scene when Graham and Downie finally met at Graham's house. Graham was newly separated, and the furniture was still covered with sheets. The two went to a second-floor bedroom and sat on the only uncovered chairs in the house. "For both men, it was a wrenching moment," Kindred writes. "The future, once theirs, now belonged to others. They wept."
But the book doesn't end on a note quite that melancholy. Kindred envisions a future where indefatigable young journalists produce great work, just as a young Bob Woodward improbably did so many years ago as a rookie reporter during something that became known as Watergate.
Let's hope he's right.
Rieder is editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review. He previously worked for six newspapers and one wire service.