Ask the Post: Managing Editor Liz Spayd takes your questions

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Liz Spayd
Washington Post Managing Editor
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post managing editor Liz Spayd took your questions about the newspaper's coverage and contents, the Web site and the current state of the news industry.

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Liz Spayd: Hello everyone .... Thanks for joining us today. Let's get started.

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Local homepage comment: Good morning, I just wanted to note that I don't like the feature of clicking on a story on the main home page and instead of being directed to the story, going to the local home page. It feels like a cheap way to drive up viewership when I know what the local page is but would prefer to just go to the story I'd like to read. Oftentimes the headline on the two homepages are different so I can't even find which story I wanted. Thank you.

Liz Spayd:

Thanks for the feedback. We send you there when you click on a local story as a means to introduce folks to our dramatically improved local homepage. We've ramped up local coverage on our site, and want to make sure people in the area don't miss what we're doing. Because we have a unique local/national voice, we have to figure out the best way to give our readers both.

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Post's Snow Coverage: I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed the Post Now blog's live snow coverage during the big storms of the past couple weeks. I loved that there was not only important, updated info, but also very entertaining and heartwarming posts. It made being housebound almost enjoyable!

Liz Spayd: That's great to hear. As you can imagine, we sent a small army of reporters, photographers and editors out into the storm to keep people informed and entertained. Hopefully we achieved a little of both.

And with so many people like you housebound, and newspapers hard to deliver, traffic to the site spiked.

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Washington, D.C.: As a long time reader of the print edition of The Washington Post, I've given the new format a try. I still don't like the layout of the editorial page of the print edition.

It just doesn't seem to have the professional layout it used to have.

Liz Spayd: As I suspect all our readers know, we've redesigned the entire paper, trying to make it easier to read, easier to find what you're looking for, and generally more updated and elegant. The feedback has been generally good, but we're always open to hearing from readers about what's working and what isn't.

On the editorial pages, you should send any concerns to editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

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Bethesda, Md.: I have to object to the picture of the luger in mid-crash that appeared on the front page.

I understand that pictures can be powerful mean of conveying news and I don't object to pictures of Haiti post-earthquake or pictures from the wars or pictures of other major disasters.

However, this picture wasn't newsworthy. It was sensationalist and worthy only of a tabloid.

Liz Spayd: It's a difficult challenge to evaluate what photos are appropriate, for the front page, inside pages, or on the website. It's a balance between showing people the news -- visually -- and not being gratuitous in our selections. We lean toward a less varnished, uncensored view, particularly when the images can be widely seen elsewhere. I'm sure not all of our readers draw the line in the same place. And it's an issue our ombudsman has taken up in the past.

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Silver Spring: Two requests from those of us who read the WaPo blogs, and the comments on articles:

1. Please format comments so that older comments show up first, followed by newer comments. It's much easier to follow conversations that way.

2. Please allow your readers to click through to older blog posts more easily. Many blogs (not on the WaPo site) display the most recent posts, then have a link at the bottom of the page for "older entries." This link takes the reader to a page with a defined number of previous posts with just one click. Much simpler than having to click through to an archive, then try to select the correct date to continue reading.

Implementing these two minor changes would make some of your online content a great deal more user-friendly!

Liz Spayd: Thanks for the suggestions. A lot of what we're doing online -- on our website, and in mobile -- is getting a hard look so we can improve its look, ease of use and most of all people's ability to find what they're looking for. Stay tuned for more changes.

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Rhode Island: I'd like your take on something that occurred several weeks back. I took exception to some vile language that appeared in a tech column (for part of that day, it was one of the most viewed stories, and I was not the only person who posted in the comments that such unprofessional language had no place in the Post).

I also sent a note to the ombudsman, suggesting that Post editors might like to review that column and determine whether it was up to their standards. I received a curt reply that my comments had been forwarded to washingtonpost.com, with no response to the concerns I had voiced.

I'm not the only reader who reads the Post online assuming it is The Washington Post, but in an electronic version. I am disappointed that an editor would shrug off an issue by indicating it's the concern of the electronic side.

If there is a bright line between the two, can you make the contact information for the electronic side available on the Web site?

Liz Spayd: Actually, the print and web sides used to report up through different structures but the two newsrooms are now merged. I suspect the ombudsman meant that he was passing on your concern to the editors, I suspect in the Business news department, who oversee the blogger.

The contact information forusers of the site can be found at the bottom of the homepage, under "contact us." Or you can write or email the ombudsman.

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Washington, DC: Can you comment on why the Post so frequently quotes the American Enterprise Institute (and recently published a column by one of their employees, blasting liberals)? AEI is an industry funded (ie Exxon, etc) think take, which has been intentionally misleading people for years. Can't you find a more reputable group to fill your pages?

Liz Spayd: We quote experts and seek or accept columns from people on every side of issues, and from all manner of think tanks from the American Enterprise Institute to Brookings to Heritage. The one you're referring to was in the Opinions section, and I think clearly labelled as that.

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Washington, DC: I don't understand why you have Ezra Klein's column listed under the Business rubric. Its placement implies that he is covering business as a reporter, but it's very clear to any of his readers that he is a partisan liberal and Democrat who is expressing his own opinions, not merely reporting in any objective way. It misrepresents what he does to include him under the Business news rubric.

Liz Spayd: Ezra is a terrific blogger and addition to our coverage of social and economic issues. He is a bit of a hybrid -- falling between domestic politics and financial matters. But he is a blogger, and free to have opinions, which our staff writers can not. Unlike some columnists, Ezra spends quite a lot of time reporting, and breaks plenty of news. I'd say Ezra is more in the sphere of Steve Pearlstein, a business columnist who expresses plenty of opinion.

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Bethesda, Md.: Not sure how muvh this has to do with you, but I absolutely love the Capital Weather Gang! Mad props to those guys. They did a great job during the "snowpocalypse" and I will continue to follow them from now on.

Liz Spayd: I can't take any credit for starting it, but I agree they're great. If you haven't checked them out, you should. They'll save you some headache.

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Ashland, Mo.: When writing a story what guidelines do you follow for achieving balance? For example, in some stories one side is presented for several paragraphs and then the other side. Do you try to go back and forth between the sides more quickly? And why do many stories on health legislation use the "obstructionism" message instead of a message of trying to defeat bad legislation?

Liz Spayd: Achieving balance in stories is one of the most important aspects of our jobs as journalists. Without it readers won't trust us to deliver their news. Still, we don't always get it right. Sometimes, sources one on side of an issue decline to comment, making balance more difficult, but still not impossible. Sometimes one side on a particular issue is making the news on any particular day, and their side can end up getting more attention.

On health care, we've done numerous stories accessing the legislation, what experts think will work and what they believe won't. We strive the present the coverage without bias, but we don't always clear the bar.

If an article isn't balanced, you should let the reporter or his or her editor know.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you believe online newspapers will continue to operate on advertising revenue or do you believe they will have to start charging for content?

Liz Spayd: There's a lot more experimentation going on in that direction. And our business side spends plenty of time evaluating the pros and cons, and the means of doing it. Hopefully anyone who comes to our web site sees plenty of news and content worth spending a little money for. That said, there's lot of calculations to make.

Not a satisfactory answer, I'm sure, but not an easy question either!

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Washington, D.C.: The Post frequently claims that its news and editorial/opinion divisions are completely separate and independent -- and the Post's Ombudsman uses that purported separation to claim that he can't watchdog the editorial/opinion side.

Yet a Post education reporter's blog post was recently yanked offline and replaced by a sanitized version after editorial boss Fred Hiatt complained that the reporter had written about the editorial side.

When that happened, the Ombudsman wrote: "Spayd told me that she thought it would have been fine for (reporter) Turque to explain the 'church and state' separation between the news and editorial sides of The Post. 'Going beyond that, I think, is not the job of a news reporter.'"

Obviously, if a news reporter cannot write about the editorial side of the paper, there is no "church and state" separation between the two. Obviously, if Fred Hiatt can get a news reporter's blog post yanked offline, there is no "church and state" separation between the two. So why does the Post claim there is? Is it just to shield the editorial/opinion side from scrutiny and accountability?

washingtonpost.com: An 'inappropriate' blog item causes a stir

Liz Spayd: The issue you refer to involved a reporter who wrote in his blog about D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee and why she spoke to The Post's editorial board about a particular story, but did not return his calls on the matter.

My decision to remove and edit the blog item was not because Fred Hiatt complained. Indeed, all Fred did was come into my office and ask me if I had seen the blog posting. It was clear he was angry, but he never asked that the item be removed from the website, nor would he. Even if he had, I wouldn't have based any decision on his opinion.

As I said at the time, the blog post went over the line in trying to get inside Rhee's mind about why she spoke to the editorial board side and not the newsroom. Of more concern was that it is not the job of our reporters to assess the stances of our editorial board or question their integrity. If I had seen the item before Fred pointed it out, you can be certain I would have had that portion of the post edited out.

Liz Spayd: The issue you refer to involved a reporter who wrote in his blog about D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee and why she spoke to The Post's editorial board about a particular story, but did not return his calls on the matter.

My decision to remove and edit the blog item was not because Fred Hiatt complained. Indeed, all Fred did was come into my office and ask me if I had seen the blog posting. It was clear he was angry, but he never asked that the item be removed from the website, nor would he. Even if he had, I wouldn't have based any decision on his opinion.

As I said at the time, the blog post went over the line in trying to get inside Rhee's mind about why she spoke to the editorial board side and not the newsroom. Of more concern was that it is not the job of our reporters to assess the stances of our editorial board or question their integrity. If I had seen the item before Fred pointed it out, you can be certain I would have had that portion of the post edited out.

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Bayville, N.J.: Is there any discussion among the editors about the increasingly liberal tilt of the WaPo's Web site, news and editorial pages? I mean, today radical leftists Eugene Robinson and Richard Cohen are featured on your editorial pages and flaming liberals like Charles Lane and Sally Quinn are featured on the website daily. Can we expect more conservative voices...soon?

Liz Spayd: That's another question for Fred Hiatt and the editorial and opinion pages. I'm not so sure those you mentioned would consider themselves radical liberals, but the opinion pages also have several regular conservative columnists.

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Olympic spoilers: I realize you are in the business of print, not television. However, it is very disappointing to see Olympic results plastered across the homepage before they are broadcast in prime time. Last night I learned about skiing results before I could watch them because it was a top story rotating through the main picture.

Isn't a spoiler alert possible? WTOP is running a site-wide spoiler alert that I find helpful.

Liz Spayd: It's an issue we're trying to evaluate right now. You aren't the only one frustrated. But it's a tricky one for a news site whose greatest value is to break news. We don't want to be the game spoilers, but when big news happens -- an unexpected gold for the U.S., for example, we want it prominently visible on the site.

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Liz Spayd: I'm out of here and back to the news....Thanks for joining.

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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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