In the ombudsman's column on the editorial page yesterday, a reference to the San Francisco Chronicle was incorrect. It should have said the San Francisco Examiner.
Bylines appear and disappear in The Post and while Post editors rarely report why, other Washington publications take pleasure in noting who's up, who's down, who's coming and who's going -- and sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong.
The Washingtonian, Washington Times and the City Paper seem to have a Post-watching beat. There aren't that many Post staffers willing to pay for inside gossip, so it's probably more motivated by the joy of jabbing the big fellow if they can. (For the record, Mark Potts, lively Post business-section writer, left a few weeks ago to become business editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.)
But apart from gossip, when readers see the same name over and over again at the head of reports on familiar subjects, they may wonder about his or her whereabouts when the name disappears, or they may have a flicker of curiosity about a new byline. Editors are concerned about news stories making reporters into celebrities, but then editors use bylines to establish certain levels of competency and responsibility with readers while newspaper promotional ads brush close to glorification. There is an ambivalence.
A new byline has been turning up in The Post's news section -- Lionel Barber. Behind it is a 30-year-old summer reporter on leave from the Financial Times of London. You may have seen his reports here on the South African economic crisis and the foreign aid dispute over family planning assistance.
Barber, who comes from a journalistic family (his father was a BBC newsman and his brother is with Reuter's news service in Moscow), is "loving every minute" of his Washington service.
Asked how Washington reporting is different from covering similar stories in London, he responded quickly: "I'm absolutely amazed at the amounts of information that the press can obtain. It's wonderful. I've never had so much inside information before." (This view of Washington, where journalists constantly complain about closed doors and unavailable sources, demonstrates a big difference in expectations of American reporters and their foreign counterparts.)
Barber illustrated by describing his efforts to get a look at a government report in which he was interested. In Washington, he not only got the report but also a half-hour private meeting with the author. "In Britain, I wouldn't even know who wrote the report, and I certainly couldn't talk to the man," he said.
"It's important for us to keep bashing away to get information. How are British journalists to do their job if they are not properly informed? I'm talking about British government access."
A second difference: "People here are much more articulate -- more confident in dealing with the press." Barber included "U.S. gent people, private groups, banks, for example." He described a contact with a press representative of a foreign government, whom he found uninformed about events and inexperienced in dealing with reporters.
Writing a news story in Britain is a "little easier" since he can blend in rather than "hold back" interpretive material. At The Post he likes "the clear labeling of news analysis" and the occasional prominence given to an interpretive article. He cited the front- page play given the Aug. 20 Allister Sparks article, "Rhetoric or Reform," analyzing the intentions of the South African government on apartheid. "It helped readers understand."
On the other hand, "what I miss here is the piece that pulls everything together and gives you the big picture, tapping a number of reporting sources, knitting the whole thing together in a 2,400-word piece. It has to be done really well if it's to come off, but it's needed." (I agree. Piecemeal reporting forces readers to attempt to assemble a complex story day by day.)
Barber, an alumnus of Oxford University, the Edinburgh Scotsman and the London Sunday Times, was a month late reporting to The Post because of a gall bladder operation. He thinks it arose from the pressure of co-authoring, in his spare time, a book, "The Price of Truth -- The Story of Reuter's Millions," which he expects will be available here next year.
The book experience helped him "breach the 2,400-word barrier," but he still gets anxious when he has to produce even 800 words at deadline time -- in Washington or London.