Aside from continuing commentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many of the phone calls and e-mails I received last week dealt with something that the business side of The Post did that had an important, and negative, impact on the content of the newspaper's big Sunday edition.
To the credit of the paper's news side, as complaints began to pour in Sunday, a reporter was assigned to write a story about it for the Monday paper. The lead of that story, which appeared at the bottom of Page B5 in the Metro section, below the obituaries, said that "The Washington Post sold too many advertisements for its newspaper yesterday and cut out two pages of paid death notices, angering many people who had expected to see them. Most of those notices are in today's paper."
The story, by reporter David Nakamura, explained that a robust week of sales of classified advertising led to two more pages than the production staff had expected -- and two pages more than the presses' capacity of 96 pages. The problem was not recognized until late Saturday, and it was decided to hold the death notices for later publication. The story quoted The Post's director for operations and planning as saying that cutting advertisements from the news sections would have been more difficult, and the Post official acknowledged that the paper would have lost revenue if it had cut out employment advertising, which reaches more people on Sunday than on other days. The story did not say whether the option of holding some editorial content in that section to make more room had been discussed.
After the story appeared, more calls and e-mails arrived with more criticism.
"Unfortunately, it appears that the management of The Washington Post favors its longtime advertisers over the grieving families of the deceased," one reader wrote. "At first, I thought that it was an honest error rather than a considered business decision." A caller said: "It was a poor decision, a poor choice of priorities, quite insensitive and painful." A former journalist wrote to say what all journalists know: "Obits take first priority. Nothing is closer or more personal to the readership than personal matters of life and death." Another called it "absolutely appalling" and compared it to news coverage about the hurricane and stories of the government's insensitivity to suffering people. "Don't people understand that death notices are not just little announcements? At the very least," this reader said, "one should print an apology."
While The Post as a news organization did the right thing in reporting candidly on this foul-up, what I found to be astonishing was that there was no printed apology by the paper's management. There were scores of death notices that were scheduled to run Sunday that got bumped into Monday's paper.
I asked about this and was told Thursday that the Advertising Department is preparing letters to the affected funeral homes and individuals and that these letters will be mailed starting Thursday.
For any big business, a production problem on deadline is a nightmare. There are usually no good answers, only ones that may be less bad than the others. In the broadest terms, I think the choice that The Post made last Saturday will turn out to be more costly in the long run than the alternatives.
Interestingly, this is the second time in two months that a Post business decision has become the focus of Post news stories.
In mid-August, the paper took a lot of heat from readers and its own staffers for a decision to help sponsor -- through the donation of free public service advertising -- the Pentagon's Sept. 11 "Freedom Walk." I was on vacation at the time and would have written about it if I had been here. But the news division, and reporter David Montgomery, covered its rise and fall quite well for readers.
Before The Post's management changed its mind, this event produced many e-mails and calls, more than any other single story or event that week, and readers made lots of obvious points: The Post covers the Pentagon and shouldn't take part as a co-sponsor; and the rally would be seen as political, and as supportive of the Iraq war and of the view that there is a link between Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.
The Post Co. makes a lot of generous, low-profile contributions to the Washington area. But this one should have seemed a bad idea from the start.
When President Bush, at a news conference Tuesday, said, "I take responsibility" for the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina, it was front-page news. But The Post's story, by Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman, turned immediately into a report on White House strategy aimed at getting beyond the initial political setbacks. What was missing in The Post but reported by many other papers was Bush's answer to a reporter who asked if Americans should be concerned about whether their government is prepared to respond to another disaster or terrorist attack.
Bush said: "Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm? And that's a very important question. And it's in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on . . . so that we can better respond." Many readers, properly in my view, criticized the paper for leaving out that exchange; it was an acknowledgment, they said, of uncertainty about being able to handle a terrorist attack after campaigning on the idea that this administration was the one best able to protect the country. "It's not important that the president doesn't know if we're prepared or not?" asked one reader.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.