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Post shortchanges Montgomery and Prince George's readers on election coverage

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, September 12, 2010; A23

If you care about Tuesday's primary elections in the District, you've benefited from The Post's wall-to-wall coverage of the fascinating race for mayor and contests for D.C. Council.

But if you've relied on The Post for coverage of campaigns in Montgomery County or Prince George's County, you may be excused for feeling neglected. Until last week, The Post largely ignored scores of contested races there.

The disparity is glaring. About 50 stories or columns about District races appeared on The Post's news pages from Aug. 1 through Friday. That's at least three times more coverage than that for races in Montgomery County, and roughly 10 times more than that for Prince George's.

The extensive coverage of District races is appropriate, especially given D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's bold challenge to incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The outcome is important for District residents. And many living in the suburbs, especially those who work or play in the District, also are closely following the campaign. The city is the hub of the region, after all. And it's the nation's capital.

But the huge coverage gap is confounding, given who reads The Post. Its daily circulation in Montgomery County far exceeds that in the District (about 118,000 to 90,000, according to the latest breakdowns). On Sundays, it's about 150,000 in Montgomery, compared with about 95,000 in the District. And while daily circulation in Prince George's is smaller than in the city, it exceeds the District on Sundays.

So readers feel short-changed. In those two Maryland counties, coverage has been late, and little.

That's unfortunate, because the stakes are high. In Prince George's, voters will elect a new county executive, an array of County Council members, a state's attorney and a sheriff. Like the District, the county is so heavily Democratic that victory Tuesday is tantamount to winning the general election.

In Montgomery, races for County Council, state legislature and other offices are hotly contested and well financed. Yet The Post has provided scant coverage about where candidates stand on issues or even who is running.

"If a resident wanted to know something about the candidates and their positions, you would not find it in The Post," said Richard B. Kabat, campaign treasurer for Montgomery Democrat Mark Winston, who is running for the Maryland House of Delegates from the 16th District (which includes Bethesda).

Coverage has been "pretty thin," agreed Eric C. Olson, an incumbent Democratic Prince George's council member.

The "lack of Post coverage . . . is on the mind of every politician that I've talked to in this county," said Adam Pagnucco, a Montgomery resident who writes the popular Maryland Politics Watch blog. "They all comment on how The Post is absent."

"I'm not saying the [D.C. mayor's] race shouldn't be covered. I'm just saying it shouldn't be the only coverage," said Sharon Dooley, a Democratic council candidate from Montgomery's 2nd District, the northern part of the county. She urged Post editors to "look at your demographics. Who reads your paper?"

Candidates and public officials always want more media coverage, of course. But of the 11 from Montgomery and Prince George's who were interviewed for this column, most spoke of a decline in coverage that coincides with the paper's staff cuts in recent years.

Top Post editors heard complaints in meetings with the Montgomery County Council in May and the Prince George's County Council in June. "We got the warning. The shot was fired across the bow," recalled David J. Jones, the former Post public relations manager who arranged the meetings as part of an outreach campaign.

The limited election coverage in the two counties is a "missed opportunity," he said. "That's where our revenue dollars are, and that's where our readers are, and you don't get one without the other."

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, The Post's top editor for local coverage, said staffing reductions are partly to blame for the diminished Maryland election coverage. "We just don't have the numbers of people we used to have," he said, acknowledging that "we probably should have moved some staff around" to assign more reporters to the two counties. Institutional knowledge of local issues and politics also has been lost through staff buyouts and restructuring.

But readers want coverage, not explanations.

"We have tons of subscribers who respect The Post," said Pagnucco. But if it can't provide sustained local coverage, "they're going to go elsewhere."

He's right. A news organization thrives by serving its community. Not just parts of it.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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