The Washington Post is a bloated newspaper that should cut its voluminous and often dull output by a third to attract more readers, some say.
The Washington Post's rich offerings have attracted an incredibly loyal core of readers who would be alienated by a drastic personality change, others say.
The people who hold these divergent views all work for the capital's biggest paper, and they are firing away in daily in-house electronic critiques that have sparked an impassioned debate about The Post's future.
Business columnist Steven Pearlstein calls the critiques "almost revolutionary for this newsroom. It's allowing children into the adult conversation, and it turns out the children have thought about this and have some ideas, some of which [top editors] don't like and some of which they do."
Associate Editor Robert Kaiser says he was "quite skeptical in the beginning," but has been impressed that rank-and-file staffers "have the oomph to stand up and say what they think, which is often charmingly and radically at odds with what The Post is thinking."
But political reporter Dana Milbank is unimpressed, writing that with few exceptions, "this has been an elaborate exercise in navel gazing."
Who needs bloggers when your own employees are taking such shots?
Arguments about what readers want have become almost an obsession after an 18-year slide in national newspaper circulation and an economic squeeze that is prompting such giants as the New York Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer to cut newsroom jobs. Post daily circulation recently dropped 2.7 percent, to 752,000, from the previous year, down from a high of 839,000 in the early 1990s.
Some say readers have simply migrated to The Post's Web site (4.9 million unique visitors in August, according to Comscore Networks) and its free tabloid, the Express. But many staffers are using the forum to raise fundamental questions about the paper's mission.
The rhetoric heated up when Pearlstein wrote that Post staffers should "admit that a lot of what we do, and how we do it, is driven by a notion of good journalism that has more to do with 'dominating' a story and keeping up with the competition or, on occasion, winning prizes, than it does with what our readers need and want. . . . Too many of our stories . . . [have] 'obligation' written all over them."
Pearlstein called for a smaller, edgier paper and complained that the opinion pages have become "too tame, too predictable, too R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-L-E and, at times, downright boring."
Kaiser, while agreeing that some Post stories are too bureaucratic or duplicative, wrote that home subscribers have remained steadfast and "they love The Post. Do we want to change the paper in ways that might lose that loyalty in order to try to win the loyalty of people who in fact may never be inclined to buy an ink-on-paper newspaper? . . . I think the rich mixture that is The Post is perhaps our greatest single asset. Steve's proposal would undermine it profoundly."
Executive Editor Leonard Downie calls the critiques "a good dialogue" and says the paper has already been trimming the lengths of stories, trying to rein in overlapping pieces and using more graphics. He says Pearlstein "hasn't really thought through carefully" the impact of a one-third reduction, which would leave less room for advertising. "We want to be able to serve a lot of different kinds of readers with one newspaper. While people say the size of the newspaper bothers them, they all want to find what they want to read in the newspaper."
Dozens of staffers have participated in the critiques. Business reporter Sara Kehaulani Goo wrote: "Don't give me 4 stories on the same topic in one day because there's no way I'm going to read it all. (Exception: Hurricane Katrina). Okay, I'm taking on the Pope here, but we often have way too many stories here on the same official Washington news for one reader to absorb."
Style staffer HankStuever wrote that "we've overlistened to people who never read the paper. . . . Why are we obsessed with the paper being too much, too large?"
On Thursday, Book World Editor Marie Arana, noting that she had been "a Young Republican at 15, a marching SDSer at 20, and roundly disgusted by the blue-team, red-team political dialogue by the time I turned 30," criticized an article on what was called a "stealth evangelism" festival by saying: "The elephant in the newsroom is our narrowness. Too often, we wear liberalism on our sleeve and are intolerant of other lifestyles and opinions. . . . We're not very subtle about it at this paper: If you work here, you must be one of us. You must be liberal, progressive, a Democrat. I've been in communal gatherings in The Post, watching election returns, and have been flabbergasted to see my colleagues cheer unabashedly for the Democrats."
Downie says he is concerned if some staffers are openly displaying political preferences but that Arana's comments were valuable and "made clear that we do have a diverse staff when it comes to ideological backgrounds."
The straight-shooting Associated Press is trying to reinvent itself with a pilot program called "asap," a print and online service aimed at 18-to-34-year-olds that has attracted 200 newspaper clients so far. The stories bristle with voice and attitude: a multimedia presentation on "Reggaeton, a hybrid of Spanish rap and reggae"; "Small, sleek and so, so sexy: An ode to the Corvette"; "Idiot in the Kitchen," the culinary misadventures of a writer married to a professional cook; and a look at a book by baseball star Jose Canseco's ex-wife that provides "vivid descriptions of his cheating, sexual preferences and even his -- yikes! -- private parts."
"People can graze for the most interesting stuff," says the service's chief, Ted Anthony, who at 37 is the unit's second-oldest staffer. "If we do well in focusing on this particular audience, we're going to end up appealing to a lot more people than that. . . . We're recognizing that stories are told in different ways."
Salon gets flak from its most loyal readers when it does anything that is perceived as less than liberal.
"If you are moving Salon to the right, then be prepared to lose a lot of subscribers," one wrote to Joan Walsh, who took over as editor of the San Francisco-based Web site in February. Another questioned whether "the neocons controlling all of the major media" have "now infected Salon as well."
Even on Salon's daily blog report, large numbers of readers click on the links to left-wing sites but most ignore the right-wing sites.
The question for Walsh is whether to edit the magazine for its 80,000 subscribers -- who pay $35 a year to view the site without first watching a half-minute or so of ads -- or 730,000 other monthly readers.
"There's really a robust conservative media," Walsh says in explaining why she runs fewer right-leaning writers. "The challenge is to find smart new voices on the liberal side. I don't think the world is crying out for me to find the next David Brooks," the conservative New York Times columnist.
The subscribers essentially saved Salon after a financial crisis in 2000 prompted founding editor David Talbot to appeal for donations. "David's most successful pitch was, 'Write us a check or I'll shoot this reporter,' " Walsh says. Salon roughly breaks even now, she says, but "the downside is we're not really a cause anymore."
Still, Salon is a shadow of its former self, with the dot-com-boom staff of 60 now down to 23, making each hire crucial. Walsh plans to beef up Washington coverage by adding a bureau chief to her two correspondents here. She says the former bureau chief, ex-Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, who left after 10 months, "brought a tenacious approach to our coverage." But he reinforced a perception of Salon as rigidly anti-Bush.
Salon also plans a daily video blog that will include television clips as well as original commentary.
Walsh defends such features as "Object Lust," "The Fix" gossip roundup and an advice column, but subscribers have been ripping them as "fluff" and "the dumbing down of Salon." Says Walsh: "My job requires trusting my values and my gut, not checking in with what could become a positive or negative focus group."
BREAKING NEWS: Some insta-reactions on Bush picking Harriet Miers for the Supremes this morning (USA Today was the first major Web site to post the AP story at 7:15 eastern):
One, she pulled a Cheney, having been heavily involved in the search for the next O'Connor, she winds up being tapped herself; two, it's refreshing in a way that she's never been a judge, and the confirmation plus is no paper trail of decision for opponents to pick over; three, she knows the confirmation process, having helped shepherd John Roberts through it; four, being a woman is a plus; five, at 60 she would not serve as long as the young whippersnapper, Roberts, who's 50; and six, the Democrats are now several minutes into a search to gauge her ideology and figure out how hard to oppose her.
In other news, Jack Shafer | http://slate.msn.com/id/2127240/?nav=fix says the NYT's reputation has suffered because of the Miller case:
"The biggest loser in Judith Miller's capitulation to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald isn't freedom of the press. And it isn't Miller, the New York Times reporter whose reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had previously sullied her reputation.
"It's the Times editorial page.
"Ever since Miller refused to testify before a grand jury in the Valerie Plame case and a federal judge issued her a contempt citation and the jail sentence that goes with it, the Times editorial page has aligned itself with her absolutist stance that she should never, ever be forced to talk . . .
"The page reiterated support of Miller with multiple editorials (Oct. 16, 2004; Dec. 5, 2004; Dec. 20, 2004; Feb. 17, 2005; June 28, 2005) and one on July 7, 2005, as she entered the Alexandria Detention Center. Nor did the page abandon Miller once she was behind bars, stridently calling for her release on July 19, 2005; Aug. 15, 2005; Aug. 29, 2005; and Sept. 19, 2005, drawing unintentional laughs by heralding the European petition for Miller's behalf signed by 'writers, journalists and thinkers including' Gunter Grass, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Pedro Almodovar. You can almost hear Fitzgerald say, 'If Gunter, Bernard-Henri, and Pedro want me to spring Judy, well, okay!'
"The page's Aug. 29, 2005, editorial universalized her plight: "If Judith Miller loses this fight, we all lose."
"We lose? I'm sorry, but the only losers I count today are Miller and the Times editorial page, which she left holding the soiled bag of her absolutism."
David Corn | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-corn/miller-a-martyr-for-a-mis_b_8144.html isn't cheering for Miller either:
"This is not much of a noble denouement to Miller's crusade for the First Amendment. Throughout this episode, she and her paper took what appeared to be an absolutist position against cooperating with subpoena-wielding prosecutors who yearn to poke around newsrooms -- while other reporters accommodated Fitzgerald. Now Miller and the Times have also elected to cooperate. But what distinguishes her case is that it seems she went to jail because of a mistake. Upon her release, Miller declared she had been imprisoned because 'a journalist must respect a promise not to reveal the identity of a confidential source.' She added, 'I am leaving jail today because my source has now voluntarily and personally released me from my promise of confidentiality regarding our conversations relating to the WIison-Plame matter.' This source was Libby . . .
"This suggests that Miller ended up going to jail due to a miscommunication. Could she had avoided jail had the lawyers done a better job? Was she a martyr because of a mistake? Her position now is the same as the other reporters who are known to have cooperated with Fitzgerald: If the source waives protection, then a reporter can talk. Her crusade is over."
House of Shame
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9557669/site/newsweek/ eviscerates what he calls Tom DeLay's "House of Shame":
"Never before has the leadership of the House been hijacked by a small band of extremists bent on building a ruthless shakedown machine, lining the pockets of their richest constituents and rolling back popular protections for ordinary people. These folks borrow like banana republics and spend like Tip O'Neill on speed.
"I have no idea if DeLay has technically broken the law. What interests me is how this moderate, evenly divided nation came to be ruled on at least one side of Capitol Hill by a zealot. This is a man who calls the Environmental Protection Agency 'the Gestapo of government' and favors repealing the Clean Air Act because 'it's never been proven that air toxins are hazardous to people'; who insists repeatedly that judges on the other side of issues 'need to be intimidated' and rejects the idea of a separation of church and state; who claims there are no parents trying to raise families on the minimum wage -- that 'fortunately, such families do not exist' (at least Newt Gingrich was intrigued by the challenges of poverty); who once said: 'A woman can't take care of the family. It takes a man to provide structure.' I could go on all day. Congress has always had its share of extremists. But the DeLay era is the first time the fringe has ever been in charge."
Extremists? Fringe? Very rough stuff. Alter adds, for good measure, that this is the most corrupt House in history.
In his LAT column, Jonathan Chait | http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-chait30sep30,0,2573493.column?coll=la-news-comment-opinions is very much in the Alter camp:
"It's hard to imagine how DeLay could function without at least coming very close to breaking the law. His indictment is an indictment of the whole way the Republican Party operates. The central theme of DeLay's tenure has been to break down barriers to greater corporate influence in American politics.
"Some of these barriers are mere social norms. It once was considered completely beyond the pale to, say, threaten political retribution against corporations that give donations and lobbying jobs to the other party. DeLay and his 'K Street Project' made this a regular practice.
"Some of these barriers are formal rules that lack the force of law. The House of Representatives forbids its members from accepting trips from lobbyists. DeLay regularly accepted such trips, financed through transparent front groups . . . The central vision of DeLayism is of a political system whereby business gains almost total control over the Republican agenda, and in return the GOP gains unlimited financial influence over the electoral process."
Byron York | http://nationalreview.com/york/york200509291814.asp says in National Review that DeLay's prosecutor is ready for his close-up:
"For the last two years, as he pursued the investigation that led to Wednesday's indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Travis County, Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle has given a film crew 'extraordinary access' to make a motion picture about his work on the case.
"The resulting film is called The Big Buy, made by Texas filmmakers Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck. 'Raymond Chandler meets Willie Nelson on the corner of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in The Big Buy, a Texas noir political detective story that chronicles what some are calling a "bloodless coup with corporate cash,"' reads a description of the picture on Birnbaum's website | http://www.markbirnbaum.com.
The press may be getting a little carried away with those end-of-an-era stories, warns Bill Kristol | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/147otrqb.asp .Noting a slight Bush bounceback in the polls, he says:
"It is startling that during a period in which headlines featured the stock sale of GOP Senate leader Bill Frist, the indictment of GOP House leader Tom DeLay, the CIA-leak testimony of Judith Miller, and the arrest by the FBI of Jack Abramoff-Grover Norquist associate and White House official David Safavian, the president seems to have done fine. What lessons are to be drawn from that?
"Not, we hasten to add, that sleaze is good. It isn't. Not that there aren't real problems with the ethics and the policies of some of those associated with the Republican majorities on the Hill or the Bush administration. There are. And not that Republicans and conservatives shouldn't be worried about the reality, and the perception, of a 'culture of corruption.' They should be.
"But the poll numbers do remind us that while 'corruption' matters, it doesn't necessarily trump all. The media love scandal stories, but citizens put them in perspective. The citizenry tends to reserve judgment on charges and accusations about which they don't yet know all or even most of the facts. Sensible people don't leap to generalize from a few cases about a whole administration or an entire political party. And they tend to care more about substantive policies and real-world results than they do about alleged sleaze or even corruption."
Kristol is at least consistent; he was one of a few prominent conservative commentators saying the GOP couldn't only run against the Clinton scandals.
Democrats are mistaken if they think DeLay is all that important, says the New Republic's Ryan Lizza | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050926&s=lizza093005:
"The history of the congressional Republican leadership since it took power in January 1995 is one of coups, scandals, and early retirements. Every time a Gingrich, Livingston, or DeLay gets knocked off his perch, a Hastert, Blunt, Wamp, or similarly unremarkable and unknown pol instantly emerges from the shadows of obscurity to replace him. Republicans in the House are like an army of the undead. No matter how many get picked off, more are always on the way . . .
"The lesson for Democrats is that the source of GOP strength in America is not the House Republican leadership. It's George W. Bush. The Republicans' current control of Congress can be divided into two eras. The period from 1995 to 2000 was marked by a string of legislative failures and electoral defeats that chipped away at their majority. But 2001 to 2005 was marked by a remarkable series of legislative and electoral successes. It's not hard to figure out what the difference was between those two eras. George W. Bush rescued and reinvigorated his party. It was only under the cover of his popularity that Hastert and DeLay were able to quietly consolidate GOP control over Congress."