Q&A With Steve Coll

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Todd Cross/TWP)
Tuesday, May 26, 1998

Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." Iím Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, your host.

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. Itís your chance to talk directly to key newsmakers and to top Washington Post reporters and editors.

Our guest today is Steve Coll, who will become managing editor of The Post on June 29.

He has been a member of the staff since 1985. He served first as a staff writer in the Style section. He later was assigned to Wall Street, South Asia and London. He has been editor of The Washington Post magazine since 1995 and publisher since 1996.

Steve Coll
Steve Coll
(file photo)
Coll, 39, is the author of four books. He won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990.

Today, weíll be discussing the future of The Post, Steve Collís vision for it, his sense of how washingtonpost.com fits into the picture and his opinion of what needs to be changed, expanded and contracted.

Your questions and comments for Steve Coll are welcome throughout the hour.

San Francisco, Calif.: Two questions: Like the New York Times, will The Washington Post ever print a West Coast edition? I have lived here for two years and have yet to find a decent, well-written, well-thought-out paper like The Post. Every time I visit my family in Virginia, I soak up The Post. And second, are you going to continue with your black-and-white photo format or are you planning on going to color, also like the Times recently? For what it's worth, I hope not. Thank you for your time.

Janet Kincaid

Steve Coll: It seems doubtful that we'll ever print a West Coast edition of The Post -- at least not in the forseeable future. Actually, we're hoping the Web will become a kind of national and international printing press for us -- witness this exchange! As to color, I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you by reporting that yes, we are installing new presses as we speak that will provide us with the ability to print some color beginning next year. But while we hope to use that capacity to make our photography and graphics more attractive, we don't expect to alter in significant ways the classical look of The Post.

Bob Levey: You're a creature of the suburbs -- raised in Montgomery County, educated in suburban Los Angeles. Does this foreshadow new or additional suburban coverage in The Post?

Steve Coll: Well, it's certainly true that I'm real interested in the suburbs, and that interest will run in lots of directions in the years ahead, I think. Among other things, I'm interested in taking the suburbs seriously -- in trying to find ways to get under the surface of the demographic and other changes underway in our area and across the Suburban Nation, and to write in-depth and with literary flair about the interiors of middle-class American life.

Chicago, Ill.: Given that print news is competing on new ground, what are The Post's biggest strengths and how can they be used to keep the newspaper effective -- and circulating?

Steve Coll: Great question. Hard to answer in a short space. First, we are and will continue to be the main news source for lots of our readers, so we must be first and best across a wide range of subjects, from local to international. But to flourish in a world of proliferating technology and diminishing attention spans, we have to be best also at what readers expect uniquely from The Post: enterprise, investigative reporting, exceptional writing, depth, independence of mind, journalistic courage. We can't afford to be pulled along by the tide of other media.

Reston, Va.: Steve, in your interview with AJR, you said that part of the reason you believe you were selected for this position is because you advocate a narrative approach to journalism. Could you expand on this? And what role do you see the Internet having on the way people see the news? Has the Washington Post staked out its position on the Web?

Steve Coll: Narrative storytelling is one --but, of course, not the only -- way to report and write about complicated subjects in-depth. It's a natural form in the sense that it often involves telling stories in chronological order, in a balanced way; it often makes for stories that are easy and pleasurable to read. The Post does a lot of such reporting and writing now, and I think we can do that stream of our work better and more creatively. As to The Post and the Web, you bet, here we are, staking out our position in real time, as it happens. Seriously, we have made a major and substantial commitment to take our product and our journalism onto the Web even without being certain where all this will lead. We have no intention of wavering from that commitment. As journalists, one of our driving hopes is that the Web will allow us to develop a new and global audience for The Post's work.

Savigliano, Italy: The Post has gone through changes over the years since Mr. Meyer['s] ownership and i[t] now stands as one of the best in the world. What new ideas do you want to introduce to perhaps take The Post into the next century?

Steve Coll: In the broadest sense (and hey, it's kind of an abstract question), I think the challenge we face is to remain both a great newspaper and a successful one at a time when technology and other forces are obviously challenging the place of newspapers in readers' lives. I think we can do that by relying on The Post's classical strengths -- quality, depth, independence, exceptional writing --while applying them in new and creative ways.

Bob Levey: Donald Graham (our Big Boss) said on "Levey Live" that The Washington Post is a local newspaper whose readers are unusually interested in national and foreign news. Is that Steve Coll's view, too?

Steve Coll: Yes, but not because it's the Big Boss's view! In truth, the privilege of working at The Post is that you can attack the world from every level, from neighborhoods through to global politics, and to do it in a cohesive and interconnected way. Anyone who lives in Washington knows that local IS national and international in lots of meaningful ways, but also that The Post is proudly a hometown newspaper that puts -- and will continue to put -- an enormous amount of resources into coverage of local news. That's our franchise.

Herndon, Va.: Does the new managing editor-elect have any major format or paper section changes in mind?

Steve Coll: Nothing dramatic is in store. The biggest change readers can expect will be a pleasant one flowing from our new presses, which we expect to be fully on line next year. Once they are, we'll be able to deliver the major sections and departments of the paper in a consistent order each day, and we won't have to do things like bury the Business seciton inside Sports now and then (at least not but once in a blue moon).

Bob Levey: You've never worked for either the National or Metro staffs at The Post. Big problem? Little problem? No problem?

Steve Coll: Those are certainly two very important staffs and coverage streams that I intend to pay lots of attention to as I bring myself up to speed. Having grown up in the D.C. area, and with lots of family still here, I feel like I have something of a head start on local coverage, given that I have not spent any time working on that staff. And there are some areas of the national file -- national security, diplomacy, economics -- that I feel comfortable about. But I'm not hesitant to say that I have plenty to learn from both of these staffs.

Washington, D.C.: Have you observed The Post's tone over the last couple of years? Would you consider it a paper that "District bashed" or "Barry bashed?" Now that Barry is out of the loop, to not District bash would be like an admission of bashing prior to. ... How do you handle this? If you're too D.C.-friendly, people will attribute it to Barry's departure and criticize the paper even more. Are you therefore forced to bash in order to show objectivity. Some paradox, huhhh?

Steve Coll: I'm a big fan of paradoxes but that one is even too complicated for me. I know that we will continue to cover the District closely and aggressively post-Barry, and I'm sure some people will see our coverage as biased in one way or another. We listen carefully to that sort of criticism and try to keep an open mind about our own blind spots, but we can't let that slow down our mission to provide strong and comprehensive coverage of the most dominant city in our circulation area.

Atlanta, Ga.: Do you feel the pressure from advertisers is different today compared to what your predecessors have faced? How do you handle the pressure from the sales department in covering stories that will affect your biggest advertisers?

Steve Coll: I don't have any sense that the pressure from advertisers is different today compared with the past. We handle the pressure by maintaining a strict and complete wall between the newsroom's news-gathering and writing and the advertising department. After so many years of separation of church and state around here, actually, I think the vast majority of advertisers understand that they have no way to influence news coverage, and are accepting of that--they understand that this approach is what keeps readers loyal to The Post.

Bob Levey: When you were chosen managing editor, you said you wanted to highlight "journalism that matters, the stuff that lasts." Now that you've had a few weeks to think about the job, can you be more specific about which journalism matters and which should last?

Steve Coll: That's a good question and a complicated one. I'll try to give a short answer. The Post has on the one hand an opportunity to be an honest witness to each day's events, to record with fairness and independence of mind an accounting of what happened yesterday. This increasingly is a rare mission in American journalism, and it takes resources and commitment to do it right. In addition, we are also lucky to have the people and the resources and the mission to go beyond yesterday's news and try to produce original work in-depth that changes the way we see the world we live in and that stands as a body of meaningful journalism for years to come. I take seriously the idea that The Post offers "a first draft of history," to use somebody else's phrase, and I want our draft to be as full and honest as possible.

Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, Steve Coll, the managing editor-designate of The Washington Post.

Warrenton, Va.: It seems that so much of The Post coverage and editorial[s are] race-based. In fact, there are some columns that it['s] all they focus on. Isn't that in itself racist?

Steve Coll: Your question reflects the truth that race is one of the liveliest and most challenging issues of our time. We are committed to unflinching coverage of the role of race and racism in all aspects of local and national life. It's hard to deal with your question in the abstract, beyond that.

Baltimore, Md.: Government accountability is in no small way dependent on fair and accurate reporting by the media. Fair and accurate reporting has at times been undermined by political alliances and beliefs. What are your thoughts on how to improve this situation?

Steve Coll: I certainly think it's true that it's hard, if not impossible, to undertake fair and accurate newspaper reporting if you are entangled in political alliances. We scrupulously avoid them to the extent humanly possible.

Bob Levey: Much has been made of your age. Of course, it never bothered Jack Benny to be (or to remain) 39. Seriously, do you feel "underseasoned?" Do you think others view you that way?

Steve Coll: I don't feel underseasoned, but then that's a matter of individual taste. It has come to my attention that I have been slapped with the nickname "Leo," as in the actor who dies in that boat movie. Let the record show that I am much, much older tha[n] him.

Potomac, Md.: Why is The Post so dull to read?
You[r] business section is not even up to par against USA Today. The readers are interested in reading "real business information," not lip services for your advertisers or under-the-table payers.

Steve Coll: Another satisfied customer! We try not to be dull, and we certainly try not to be mouthpieces for under-the-table players. And actually, I kind of admire USA Today's business section -- it's a pretty smart and competitive general interest section. But I like ours better.

Rockville, Md.: When will The Post be able to get all scores from late games in the early editions? With home delivery, why can't [I] get a final paper? I know the process of getting the early editions out by 11 p.m. I thought that by living this close to the District that more final papers would be available...

Steve Coll: I'm disappointed to hear that a Rockville subscriber doesn't get enough late scores. The Final may be beyond our ability at this point, but we have been pushing hard to get the maximum number of late scores out to the maximum distance from the center. As we bring our new printing plant in College Park on line next year, we expect to improve our performance further. We take this mission very, very seriously -- it's a high priority -- and I hope that we will do better in your neighborhood in the months ahead.

Bob Levey: If we both had a nickel for every time The Post has been accused of tilting one way or another, we'd never need to buy another Powerball ticket. Why is this view so widely held? What can be done about it?

Steve Coll: Our readers are smart and they recognize spin of one kind or another when they see it, I think. I think they often misinterpret this spin as reflecting some coherent political agenda or slant or another, when in fact, it often reflects just inadequate editing or our failure to label a story as analysis when it is taking an analytical approach. At another level, any newspaper that plays as large a role in its community as The Post does is bound to be a lightning rod for all sorts of dissent and criticism. That is how it should be!

San Diego, Calif.: How about publicizing the political affiliations and voting records of your in-house editorialists (every day)? Since objectivity seems to have been lost, it would be very useful to know, for example, that today's editorial was written by someone who has never voted for, say, a Republican in his/her life. This would also be useful for your "investigative" reporters, particularly those who inject analysis into their articles. It would enable all readers to put things in proper context. And for guest columnists, a short bio would be useful, too. E.g.: "former White House aide for XYZ."

Steve Coll: A columnist, of course, is not a reporter, and we don't expect them to adhere to the same standards as reporters. Columnists are supposed to express opinions when they have something to say; they are supposed to challenge and provoke us into conversation and even argument. Reporters, on the other hand, are not supposed to inject their personal opinions into their stories. As to disclosure of political affiliations by columnists, it's usually pretty obvious.

Washington, D.C.: Where did you go to college? Any grad school -- journalism school? And...Did you ever work for the government or either political party?

Good luck with the new job.

Steve Coll: I went to Occidental College in Los Angeles. No grad school. Never worked for the government or for any political party. Been a journalist all my professional life. I started out with a trade publication in L.A. about the music biz and found my way into freelancing and eventually to an investigative reporting group affiliated with public TV. Then to magazines and The Post.

Alexandria, Va.: 1. Can you promise tighter editing, particularly on long features?

2. Will the makeup be improved?

3. Will color be improved and expanded into news sections?

Steve Coll: 1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. Yes, next year.

Bob Levey: About prizes (including Pulitzers): Janet Cooke embarrassed this newspaper profoundly by lying in her prize-winning "Jimmy" story. I've always felt that the lesson of that mess should have been that prizes aren't all that important. Do you disagree, having submitted your own winning entry for the Pulitzer in 1990?

Steve Coll: I do not think prizes are all that important. Sometimes they measure quality, sometimes they don't. We all overestimate them in our business -- something that reflects the larger culture's overheated engagement with awards and award shows. That's my cranky view, anyway.

Washington, D.C.: What drives The Post to publish such unflattering photos of people? In case you can't remember, Nancy Reagan, Bob Dole, and numerous pictures of Hillary Clinton. Is this some kind of newsroom sport?

Steve Coll: It's certainly not a sport; it's a conversation that people around here take very seriously. Sometimes, as in the Dole case, we think what's depicted in the photo constitutes a newsworthy event. Other times what some readers find unflattering others find interesting and engaging. It's admittedly a subjective area, though.

Bob Levey: You have said that you want The Post to remain a writer's newspaper. I'll probably be stoned to death by writers for saying this, but every good writer needs a good editor -- preferably more than one. In that sense, shouldn't The Post be an editor's newspaper, too?

Steve Coll: In that sense, absolutely, yes. By "a writer's paper" I don't mean a Lord of the Flies place where editors are banished, but rather a place where great writers are encouraged and flourished, a place that honors and recognizes distinctive writing voices, and where reporters and writers lead our coverage from below, rather than having direction always imposed on them from the top.

Washington, D.C.: Your paper is wonderfully feature-heavy. However, the sports section is game-heavy and feature light. Will that be changing? Also, your sports section seems to rely on lots of special correspondents and non-staffers. ... Will that change?

Steve Coll: An interesting comment. Not sure the Sports editors would accept that they are feature light, but maybe in comparison to other sections, they would seem to be. They certainly cover an awful lot of ground awfully well over there, providing comprehensive coverage of everything from high school to professional and international sports. To do that, they do employ freelancers and stringers from time to time, but I'm not sure in any greater proportion than other sections. Worth pondering, I suppose.

Reston, Va.: Do you plan to have weekly sections that focus on the high-tech industry in the D.C. area? What about a daily section on wasteful government practices? I bet you could print a lot on that subject.

Steve Coll: We're continually focused on improving and expanding our high-tech coverage, especially given the technology centers developing in areas like Reston. We have the weekly consumer-focused section Fast Forward, inside the Weekend section, which also does magazine-sized specials on technology eight times a year or so. The Business section has made a major commitment to technology coverage in recent years and that commitment is growing all the time. Still, we are looking at whether there are new formats or sections that we should be developing to keep moving in this direction. More to come.

Bob Levey: Today's Washington Post reported that local TV news operations are being nudged to cover what viewers say (in focus groups) that they want to watch. Can you ever imagine The Post giving in to similar nudges?

Steve Coll: Nope. Certainly not in the sense of ever editing by focus group or survey results. I'm hungry for all the information I can get about who our readers are and what their lives are made of but I believe in editing newspapers the old-fashioned way.

Bob Levey: That's it for today. Our thanks to Steve Coll, soon to be The Post's managing editor. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, when our guest will be Ellen Sauerbrey, a Republican who narrowly lost to Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening in 1994 and is challenging him again this year.

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