The interplay between readers and The Post is more constant and more sensitive than may be perceived. Three changes in the paper's contents within the past month illustrate the point.
On June 29, The Federal Report first appeared. It was years aborning, but this spring it was approved and Thomas Reid was named editor. The five-day-a-week page has a small staff and frequently borrows other writers.
The idea is fairly simple. Mr. Reid puts it this way: "There are 2.9 million federal employees who raise and spend nearly $700 billion of our money every year. They produce rules that govern some part of everything we do: clothing, housing, education, the way we spend our leisure time, how we work, even where we work. We wanted to open up that world. In newspaper terms, it is buried. But it is important. Congress passes about 400 public laws every two years. In the same two years, 14,000 regulations, with the force of law, are produced, although there will be fewer this year."
Putting together a new section of a newspaper is risky. One of the problems is to identify its audience. "We are reaching for a general reader," Mr. Reid says. "We assume that he or she is intelligent even if that connection is purely economic. We are not attempting to produce page for the federal insider or the lobbyist, although we are finding that the page is read by the government's elite."
Concepts and planning are one thing. Reader reaction is another. "I found, as a reporter, that one letter in response to a story was average, 10 was exceptional," Mr. Reid says. "On the first day of The Federal Report we received 50 calls. That's astonishing, even though we solicited reader response. Now, three weeks later, we still get a lot of calls daily. The section is maturing. We feel that we're not where we want to be yet. But reader reaction is much better than we could have anticipated. And we get many tips."
On the same day Mr. Reid's page first appeared, there was another change. Bill Gold, writer of The District Line for 34 years, turned the column over to Bob Levey, who was excited but apprehensive. "I didn't know how they would take the change," he says. "I see the column as hometown news, and that's the way it's turning out." He is now receiving an average of 40 phone calls and 20 letters daily. "To my knowledge, I have never met any of them," Mr. Levey says, "but they seem to understand that I am trying for something about the foibles, frustrations and achievements of the people who live in this city." He estimates that three-fifths of the material that appears in the column comes from readers. Twenty letters were written in response to his questioning of the pronunciation of "nuclear." Mr. Levey was elated.
On June 22, The Post reduced its three comic pages to two. It was part of what Executive Editor Ben Bradlee describes as "general ordering of the paper to make it more readable." Some comics were added. Others were dropped. There was little reader protest.
But there was a mistake -- a dumb one, Mr. Bradlee says. The new placement of the crossword puzzle made it impossible to fold the paper twice and work the puzzle. Crossword puzzlers let The Post feel their wrath. In less than a week, the puzzle had been positioned on a bottom corner of the paper, and phone calls returned to readers discussing loftier topics.