The Washington Post might fairly claim to be the most successful and respected metropolitan newspaper in the United States. No other paper can match the popular support it receives in its local community. Its daily editions are purchased by 54 percent of all the households of the metropolis and by 73 percent on Sundays. It is not only Washington's largest daily newspaper but, in terms of circulation, is the leading daily in Maryland and Virginia as well.

In cities such as Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Chicago, no newspaper has achieved "household penetration" on such a scale. The New York Times, properly admired for its professional virtues, nonetheless is a minor presence in its own market. Its household penetration rate is a mere 13 percent daily and 17 percent on Sunday.

The Post is blessed, of course, with a prosperous and well-educated audience. But, unlike The Times, it is not primarily tailored to satisfy the tastes of a monied class. Its strength lies in the breadth of its appeal. The proportion of Post readers among black and white families is roughly the same. Its popularity among $25,000-a-year families is somewhat less than among the high rollers in the $50,000-and-over class, but the disparity -- about 10 percent -- is not glaring.

Its news formula is patterned after the smorgasbord: something for everyone. Last Wednesday, The Post consisted of 116 pages containing (at six columns to a page) 696 columns of space. It was allocated as follows:

Advertising, 64 percent; editorials and opinion columns, 1.7 percent; national news 3.8 percent; international news, 2 percent; local news, 4 percent; Style, 7.5 percent; sports, 5 percent; financial, 6.4 percent; comics and features, 2.6 percent; miscellaneous, 3 percent.

These numbers are bloodless; they communicate nothing of the essence or mystique of the paper -- or the "product" as the marketers put it. The point is that the formula and the way it is executed have brought great success and great profits to the enterprise (its circulation has quadrupled over the past 40 years) and have established it as one of those institutions through which a vast and disparate community identifies and understands itself.

These would seem to be not only sound business and social objectives but uncontroversial as well. That is not the case. There is a school of thought -- a small school, to be sure -- that sees the quest for "market penetration" and a broad base of readership as evidence of commercial whoring or "pandering," as Bill Kovach, curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation has defined the sin.

The newspaper intent on larger circulation, he argues, will popularize and trivialize its content: "It's the pressure to always grow that changes the nature of journalism. It has more territory and wants to offend fewer people ... {and will begin} pandering, chasing celebrities, at the expense of hard news and the progressive covering of institutions that change people's lives."

If it were a felony to be illogical, most of us would now be doing hard time. So the illogic in this argument -- that in growth and economic success there is weakness, in stagnation there is strength -- does not invalidate the concern. There is indeed evidence of trivialization in prototypes of the 21st century newspapers produced this year by a committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in the popular national newspaper, USA Today and in other dailies as well. But in the marketplace as a whole, the "quality" journalism Mr. Kovach and like-minded critics admire ordinarily comes out of deep pockets. Likewise his university; it is a strong institution because it is rich and because its smorgasbord curriculum attracts faculty and students from across the social and intellectual spectrum.

James Batten, chief executive of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, has been criticized and ridiculed for insisting that newspapers must "strain to please and satisfy our customers every day ... {despite} editors and reporters {who} think there is something demeaning and unworthy -- 'pandering' is the favorite epithet" in producing "entertaining and enjoyable" newspapers. But he is right on that and is right in insisting that without an engaged audience there is no point to the enterprise:

"Wafting earnest journalistic messages into the air is not enough. They have to land somewhere to matter."