washingtonpost.com
Suburbs feel left out of revamped local coverage

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, October 17, 2010; A19

Nearly a decade ago, during a planning retreat at a posh coastal hotel in Florida, Post newsroom leaders heard an upbeat assessment of the paper's expanding local coverage. Jo-Ann Armao, then the top editor for local news, described an "extraordinary transformation" of the Metro desk into a journalistic juggernaut of 110 reporters, 30 assigning editors and dozens of lower-level editors and assistants.

The Post's Maryland coverage team had swelled to 38 reporters, with news bureaus in eight counties. For Virginia, there were 32 reporters and bureaus in seven counties and the state capital. Only in the District had staffing been reduced because its population had declined, Armao said.

Today, that vast network no longer exists. Necessary cost-cutting has shrunk the Metro desk by about 40 reporters, and its editing ranks have been reduced by more than half. Only a small number of reporters remain in the suburbs. Most work out of The Post's downtown newsroom.

Over the past year, I have received a crescendo of complaints from suburban readers who say Post coverage of their communities is too thin. Candidates have complained that little attention has been paid to their races. And suburban parents have said The Post virtually ignores news about their school districts while providing saturation coverage of Michelle A. Rhee, the high-profile D.C. schools chancellor who announced her resignation last week.

Longtime Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier has seen a "noticeable reduction" in Post coverage of Fairfax County schools, including a shortage of stories on the heated debate over the school budget that directly affects taxpayers. "There just doesn't seem to be that much interest in the day-to-day of what's going on in the school system," he said.

Post leaders should not be faulted for staff reductions. Dramatic cuts were required because of the devastating recession-related drop in advertising that sent Post finances into the red. And there is logic to the way the much smaller local reporting staff was restructured to emphasize topical, rather than geographical, coverage that can resonate with readers across jurisdictions.

But there are two problems with the current local news operation.

First, coverage is out of balance. An examination of roughly 450 recent local news stories shows that about 40 percent focused on the District. That's far more than were written about Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George's counties combined. Yet daily and Sunday Post circulation is dramatically higher in Montgomery and Fairfax than in the District, and only a little lower in Prince George's. The disconnect is greatest in Fairfax, where Post circulation is highest but coverage is comparatively sparse.

Why the disparity? The District's heated mayoral primary surely caused a bump in recent coverage. And interest in the District is high because it is the region's hub for employment and entertainment.

But coverage also may be influenced by where Post Metro staffers live. An examination of home addresses shows that more than half reside in the District, with far fewer in Maryland and even fewer in Virginia. Like readers, journalists tend to focus on their own communities.

The bulk of local reporters also work out of The Post's downtown newsroom, and that's the second problem. More should be based in the suburbs. Reporting from the scene produces superior journalism. It leads to stories with greater depth, nuance and impact.

Managing Editor Liz Spayd said these issues are being discussed.

While stressing that the "very newsy" District is of "infinite interest" to readers throughout the region, she said that geographic balance in coverage is "an issue we need to pay more attention to." Many in the suburbs "want to see their communities reflected in our coverage," she said.

And Spayd said moving more reporters to the suburbs is under consideration. "I feel that's what ought to happen," she said. Deployment decisions will be made soon after a replacement is named for The Post's top local editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who is being shifted to a new role involving digital projects.

Local news is complex and competitive. It's also being redefined on the Web as The Post battles new online rivals. Post editors say the audience increase for the "PostLocal" section of The Post's Web site has been exceeding the growth for the entire site. That underscores the inevitable shift to digital news, as well as the insatiable appetite for local news.

But whether in print or online, Post local coverage will succeed only if it is geographically rebalanced and more reporters are shifted from the newsroom to walk the beat.

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

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