The Post's readers were introduced to Thomas Derrick Ross three weeks ago. They had little choice, really, since his story, "Going Legit," took over the top of the front page, stretching across six columns and continuing inside for three full pages. At 24, this man-child was struggling to reform his life after a decade of criminal behavior and promiscuity that saw him father six children by five women. "Going Legit," by Marcia Slacum Greene, endeavored to show, as Managing Editor Steve Coll put it, "a life in transition."
Editors were understandably pleased with the story -- all 6,200-plus words. Coll described it as "a really special piece of work." But on that particular Sunday, many readers who called or wrote preferred giving prominence to the American soccer team's victory in the Women's World Cup the day before. They were miffed that The Post made Ross's saga the lead of the newspaper, while the soccer story was secondary, though still on the front page. Indeed, the headline was above the fold, a traditional sign of editors' judgment about a story's significance.
The placement of those two stories and what readers read into that speaks volumes about editors' goals for Page 1 and what readers have come to expect -- and are unwilling to see changed. Readers and editors are not, in a manner of speaking, on the same page. While lengthy stories have become the norm, some readers -- and former subscribers -- say they don't have the time or inclination to read them. While literary writing is highly regarded here, readers I hear from say they don't want their newspaper -- especially the front page -- to become the New Yorker.
A number of readers said that the soccer story was news: It told of something that happened the day before. The Ross story, they said, was a human interest piece that should have been in The Post's feature section, Style, and could have run any day of the week. "You should put real news on the front page on top," one reader said. But that is not exactly the thinking at the top. Under Coll's leadership, editors and reporters are encouraged to develop "enterprise " stories -- those that are not about what happened yesterday, that may involve extensive reporting over weeks or months, that may be more ambitious and experimental in form and that, in Coll's words, "make The Post different and essential."
Bill Hamilton, the national editor, was in charge of Page 1 the weekend that the Ross story ran. While he now says it was too long, he justifies the prominence given to it. "I thought we had [in the Ross story] a really interesting piece of enterprise that was different from anything else anybody was going to read. People who cared about the soccer game already knew what happened. The soccer story was old news." (By that reasoning, of course, one could say that daily coverage of the death of John Kennedy Jr. was "old news" in the sense that many readers already knew what had happened by the time they turned to the newspaper. Yet, starting two weeks ago, The Post carried Page 1 Kennedy stories for eight consecutive days; on the ninth there was only a photograph referring readers to a story inside.)
But the real point here is that editors have decided to turn The Post into a more "exciting" newspaper with a less traditional mix of stories on Page 1. Whether readers will accept or resist this remains to be seen. However, what is clear from those who have offered comments these past few weeks is that they want more news, not less; they don't want The Post to become a devotee of celebrity a la People magazine; and they want it to remain a family newspaper suitable for readers of all ages.
As always, I can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.