The Post spends more than $51 million a year to collect and process the editorial content that makes it a great daily newspaper. My job as ombudsman is to criticize the handling of this material, gathered at huge cost and with great skill -- foreign news from the four corners of the world, sports, finance, national and regional developments, feature stories from Tahiti to Toulouse and, of course, local doings.
Awesome as this array of activity may strike you, what commands my priority attention are comics, acrostics and the weather, all three items purchased from outside commercial sources. Their dollar cost to The Post accounts for an infinitesimal part of the vast annual news budget, yet they occupy a disproportionate amount of the ombudsman's time, most of it in recent weeks. Complaints, complaints, complaints.
The "Bloom County" strip is a case in point. Cartoonist Berke Breathed used an unfortunate phrase two weeks ago. Last week, he used it again, as though determined to push the readers' collective nose into what so many feel is muck. The obscenities my delicate ears have been exposed to by outraged callers urging the use of decent language, you wouldn't believe. Executive Editor Ben Bradlee assures me that "Bloom County" in The Post will henceforth be as pure a political entity as Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Well, almost.
Quote-Acrostic is not a puzzle; it's a cult. A few weeks ago someone goofed, and the Saturday Quote-Acrostic misfired, creating chaos. Angry callers were told different stories of what the trouble was. Amid this external turbulence, it happened again. Hell hath no fury like a deprived Quote-Acrostic cultist. At this juncture, the cultists could be assuaged only by the assurance of the ombudsman that the errant puzzles would be dispatched to them by special delivery.
Weather must be a recent phenomenon on this planet. Once upon a time, a newspaper's daily weather story was assigned to the newsroom buffoon, and scant attention was paid to the nonsensical account of his conversation with a hapless government forecaster. The editor had only one guideline: keep it light and keep it brief. Newspapers gradually began to take the weather seriously. The Post's weather data, usually handled by any low-level copy aide who happened to be available, were ex-panded over the years with little planning. Statistics were piled, one on top of the other, as readers requested them.
Early this year, big decisions were made. The largest private weather firm was hired, and a full-grown editor was assigned to plan a new weather page. Much thought was given to it -- which is when the trouble started.
To conserve space, the daily temperature forecasts in many cities, domestic and foreign, were wiped out. Cleveland was dropped, for example, because Columbus was only 150 miles away. Orlando went down the weather tube, but folks planning a trip to Disney World had no trouble reversing that decision. In the foreign field, Ottawa and Aberdeen had more supporters with muscle in Washington than anyone had imagined. But Juneau, Alaska, was given the cold shoulder and Harare, Zimbabwe, got the hotfoot; neither has a prayer of getting back on the page.
Schoolchildren and teachers who use the weather page for science lessons quickly formed a lobby, and as a result, isotherms -- those squiggly lines on the map that link cities of identical temperatures -- are back. So are cold and warm fronts and river stages on the Potomac, which tell you how safe or dangerous it will be for boaters -- all reinstated, or about to be, by popular demand.
Parents in Washington pleaded for return of their home towns in the temperature tables so they'd know how children at school were faring with the elements. Children with power jobs in the capital were anxious to know the climate for the doddering parents they left behind. The foreign population -- diplomats and business people -- rose up in inclement wrath at not knowing whether to take an umbrella as they prepared to enplane for Cairo or Kabul.
The social satirist and humorist Will Rogers once said of the unpredictable weather in Washington: "If you don't like it, wait a minute." He would have liked The Post weather page. It is in a state of transition and change. Editor Paul Hodge tells me that if you don't like it today, be patient and have another look tomorrow.