Ask the Post: Executive editor takes your questions

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Marcus Brauchli
Washington Post Executive Editor
Monday, October 19, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli will be online Monday, Oct. 19 at noon ET to take questions about The Post redesign (PDF) and the current state of the news industry.

A letter from the executive editor (Post, Oct. 18)

The transcript follows.

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Marcus Brauchli: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining the conversation today. Let's get to your questions.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why can't you people leave well enough alone? There is a comfort in the familiar, and you keep moving things around and changing them. For crying out loud, stop it!

Marcus Brauchli: The redesign we rolled out today was intended to address a number of things that we (and many readers) thought needed addressing. People spend less time reading newspapers when the arrive in the morning, and look through them faster for articles and information they want. So we took steps to improve the navigation, adding marquees at the tops of section fronts directing readers to material inside. We'd been told that readers felt the inside pages were badly marked, so we now label each page's content. Different sections had different visual identities, and the print edition of The Post was quite different from the online edition, and we felt we should have a strong visual identity that transcends sections and media.

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Washington, DC: Why did you get rid of the identification of Washington Post staff writers under the bylines?

Marcus Brauchli: We did that in part to save a line of text, to maintain as much space in the paper for our content as possible. It also fit better with the new design. The lower decks of headlines and bylines are now centered. Including an additional layer looks cumbersome. We're mindful that we need to identify writers who don't work for The Post, so you'll see that we sometimes will have the affiliations or descriptions of contributors at the bottom of articles.

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Washington DC: I've been reading the Post for almost 30 years. The irony is that your most dedicated readers are not your target audience, because we will subscribe pretty much no matter what you do.

That said, my first reaction to picking up the paper was, "Wow, what copyeditor forgot to capitalize the main headline?" My second was, "Well, it looks pretty good, it could have been as bad as the Magazine, which now confuses me and give me a headache." (That might be my advanced age, however: I'm pushing 40.)

Two small requests: Please capitalize the headlines. The new format suggests to me that we should not take the article too seriously. Second, drop the photos. We want columnists who write well, and we don't - or at least shouldn't - care what they look like.

Marcus Brauchli: Thanks for being a longtime subscriber. In fact, you and other subscribers very much are our target audience. We've heard from readers for years about elements they don't like or would like to see changed, and we've addressed many of those things in this redesign. The new approach to headlines--so-called down-style, or lower-case, headlines because they follow sentence capitalization rules--is more readable and allows us to write slightly longer headlines. The old headline style, in which most words were capitalized, was formal and just isn't as readable. I know some people will disagree with that, but we looked at a lot of research and the experience of other papers, and are confident of this approach. On the images we're running of columnists: this, too, is something readers have asked for, and something that helps distinguish between news content and commentary or perspectives. We've been running images of columnists online for years.

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Alexandria, Va.: You did a real nice job with the redesign. I opened the Post this morning to find a refreshing and better design. Reminded me a lot of the WSJ! No surprise. I also want to comment that it seems recently the news sections have got a little richer. Maybe more stories, but not sure. All in all, I think the Post is really doing a lot to build a great product.

From, a subscriber of 21 years.

Marcus Brauchli: Many thanks for the kind words. We've heard from some readers that our new design looks like the Journal or even like the old Los Angeles Times. The elements that people point to are the additional layers on the headlines (which is actually a throwback in approach to The Post of many years ago; I was just looking at a 1912 copy of The Post, and it has the same layered headline style we used in column six of the front page today); the photos of columnists, which are black-and-white screened images that some readers think look (quite unintentionally, I assure you) like the old Journal's stipple portraits; and the centered bylines, which are also used by the Journal and the New York Times. All true. But we didn't derive any of these elements from other papers. We wanted a design that was clean, elegant and drawn on the 132-year history and traditions of The Post. The result is quite distinctive, we think.

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Bylines: You wrote: "We're mindful that we need to identify writers who don't work for The Post, so you'll see that we sometimes will have the affiliations or descriptions of contributors at the bottom of articles."

Isn't this just an insidious plan to cut your newsgathering staff even more than it's already been reduced? Without IDing whether one is or is not a staff writer at the top of the story, you can, going forward, hide the fact that a particular piece has been taken from the wires.

Marcus Brauchli: No, that would be totally counterproductive. Our reporters are what make The Post a great newspaper.

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Arlington, Va.: Now that the redesign is out, what do you feel still needs work? Or does this redesign solve all the problems?

Marcus Brauchli: There are myriad things we still need to address, probably including rethinking some of the elements in today's redesign that, in the cold light of day, may not work as well as we'd hoped. You'll notice that some articles start with indented paragraphs, for instance, while others do not. I think we should indent stories when they don't carry datelines or special typography at the beginning. We also are introducing a new section on Thursday, Local Living, so there's still plenty to do on this project before we think about what to tackle next.

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Arlington, Va.: Why reverse the page numbering? Instead of A1 and B2 and C3, we now have 1A and 2B and 3C.

Marcus Brauchli: Good question. Something we should review.

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Washington, D.C.: What was the process you used to select the new print font? I was immediately struck by the increased legibility, though the change was so subtle it took me some time to identify precisely why.

Marcus Brauchli: We tested a number of fonts that were similar to our previous typeface, showing them to readers and examining them for readability. Not everyone, I should say, thinks the new typeface is easier to read. It is slightly larger and airier than our previous typeface. But one of the qualities that should make it more readable--it's cut a little thinner--means there is less ink in the characters on the paper. If our ink isn't dense, that can make the type look faint. Our objective was to improve the readability. If we conclude that we aren't doing that, we may have to shift to a slightly thicker version of the new typeface.

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Rockville, Md.: I like the new font. Saw it and thought "Wow, this looks different. Did I get a good night sleep last night? It's easier to read."

Marcus Brauchli: Thanks for this.

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Falls Church, Va.: This is a comment, not a question. Despite the harsh tone of my comments below, I'm a longtime subscriber, I love newspapers, I read not only the Post, but buy newspapers whenever I travel, no matter where and no matter how small or big the community, or how good or bad the paper. I'll subscribe to the Post until the bitter end and it's only good for lining the bottom of the bird cage. My comment on this latest redesign: the Post now looks more like a magazine than a newspaper. It feels like I'm reading Family Circle or McCall's, circa 1973. The editorial page has got some big problems, because the cartoon now obstructs the flow since you've stuck it in the middle. You used to have these long two-column blocks that you could read uninterrupted, but now it's like trying to watch a movie behind a person with a big hat. I really detest the headers or blurbs you decided to put above the editorials a couple years back, but that's minor compared to the choppy effect of sticking Toles in the middle. As far as the "going out" feature, leave that to Metro Weekly, it also feels shoehorned in. Do I really need huge WSJ-knockoff stipple-print busts of the columnists? They just create more empty white space around them. Overall, this tinkering over the last several years has shrivelled the paper and dumbed it down into the Prozac Post. I find myself skimming it or not reading it at all past a glance at the headlines in the morning. You've even reduced the usefulness of the capsule weather report that used to be upper left on the A section. Now it's pretty much gone, and just lists temperatures. The Washington Post Magazine is now a cross between "Family Fun" and "AARP Magazine." The Health section was great as a tabloid, I would take it with me on the Metro, now in its reduced form there's not much there to bother with, other than special reports like the one on H1N1. My husband loved the Book section, now that's gone. The Post has become a self-licking ice cream cone, it's going to lick itself right out of relevance. It's like the starlet who has a distinctive nose, then goes and gets cosmetic surgery and ends up looking like everybody else. Okay, I'm going to stop piling on now! I appreciate the opportunity to add my comments.

Marcus Brauchli: Thanks for the comment, which goes to the challenge we face in maintaining the depth and relevance of our content at a time of economic pressure. We are constantly mindful of the need to maintain the quality and range of content in the paper. Yes, Book World is gone; but we publish 80%-90% as many book reviews each week now as we did before, and in sections that have much higher readership. Our coverage of Health and Science remains strong, and you'll see in tomorrow's Post that we have reorganized it somewhat to give us more focus on those topics. We're also adding personal health (sometimes called wellness) coverage into our new Local Living section on Thursdays. You can be sure we are committed to maintaining The Post's quality.

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Rochester, NY: Obviously, you won't take this question, but I'd like to ask: isn't there a problem when the same reporters who were to be part of your health care "salon" are now essentially repeating insurance industry claims about the health care bill?

I'm referring specifically to Ceci Connolly. I write as a regular reader and fan of your paper -- are you aware how much credibility you have lost as a result of the salons?

Marcus Brauchli: Actually, I will take this question, because it comes with a silly premise that needs knocking down.

First, there were no salon dinners. They were planned and they were canceled. Second, Ceci Connolly, who is an absolutely first-rate, independent-minded reporter, was simply asked who might be worth inviting to a roundtable discussion on healthcare. There is no reason she should be taken off of this story. Third, while we appreciate your visiting with us on this chat, you should read what we write. We have scrutinized the insurance industry's claims about healthcare legislation extensively, including in a lengthy piece last week by Alec MacGillis. Finally, yes, I realize that the salon dinner episode was embarrassing and damaging to our credibility, but I would say to you: judge us by our journalism.

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Philly, Pa.: If you know a reporter has reported something about you which is inaccurate, are you not obligated to publicly correct the record?

I'm sorry, sir, but I lost all respect for you after reading the letter you sent to your former colleague. You knew that it was reported that you claimed to have no knowledge of the off-the-record promises, and you chose to allow that to stand. You scapegoated an employee, and misled the public. Of course, that version is being generous, and its every bit as likely that you just lied to the NYT's reporter, hoping not to get caught.

You lied to your readers. You lied to your employees.

I hope your retirement is happy and fruitful, and I hope it starts very soon.

Marcus Brauchli: When these events were planned, we intended that the information from them would inform and shape our coverage, without attribution. That is not, under our rules, off the record.

They were later promoted as "off the record," and I knew that before July 2.

As I have said repeatedly since then, I failed to reconcile the language and the intentions, which I should have done.

The notion that I lied to the New York Times "hoping not to get caught" is absurd.

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Arlington, Va.: What are your thoughts on the new local homepage?

Marcus Brauchli: Thank you for asking. We launched the new local homepage, washingtonpost.com/local, a few weeks back. It's aimed at people who live and work in Washington, whose interests are first and foremost this area, its news and local happenings. We update regional news throughout the day, we offer customized weather and traffic alerts, we have a number of features to help you navigate your life and find what you're looking for in this area. I hope you'll look at it and let us know what you think.

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Washington, DC: Why did the Post discontinue the Business section?

Marcus Brauchli: We dropped the stock-market listings, which reduced the number of pages in the section, and it made more sense at that point to put the business news into the main news section. We have kept up the volume of coverage, though.

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Arlington, Va.: Just passing on a comment from my husband. He really likes the redesign. He found it more readable and easy to navigate.

Marcus Brauchli: Many thanks, and thank you all for joining today's discussion.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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