Farewell to Outlook, and nearly 70 years of essays, arguments and criticism

Outlook, the print section of commentary and analysis that has graced this newspaper’s Sunday edition for nearly 70 years, came into the world quietly on Dec. 19, 1954. No birth announcement appeared in that day’s paper. No explanation for curious readers as to why the section formerly called Editorials had a new name. Nothing to indicate that the change was more than cosmetic.

This is Outlook’s last edition. A few weeks ago, The Washington Post informed subscribers by email that “the essays and analysis appearing in Outlook will now be found exclusively in Opinions in the A section and online.” Befitting the mission that the section eventually embraced — to interpret and witness and seek out unheard voices, and perhaps help Post readers make a little more sense of the world — Outlook will end its run by telling its own story.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of material for a rich obituary. Outlook’s life was a full one. There were triumphs, embarrassments, hits and misses in the section’s weekly quest to provide a mix of significant reporting, opinions worth arguing about, occasional splashes of humor and tragedy, and new ideas that otherwise might never have made their way into the paper. The work of Outlook’s many editors and contributors provoked and enlightened generations of print readers.

It has fallen to the two of us, editors of Outlook from different eras, to give Outlook a proper send-off. We can’t pretend to be neutral. We loved our time running it. We’re proud of its accomplishments, humbled by its shortcomings and determined, with the help of our many Outlook colleagues, to stick with the mission, to provoke and interpret.

First, though, a pause to thank Post print readers, current and past, for letting us into your homes for more than 3,500 Sundays. It’s been a privilege. More than that, it’s been great fun.

Outlook was born in optimism and nurtured in prosperity. In early 1954, for the first time in the 20 years since Eugene Meyer had bought the failing newspaper at auction, The Post was on the verge of making money. Conditions were favorable. Washington’s postwar economy was booming. Advertising revenue was up. Circulation was steady at 200,000.

But the prospect of a modest profit wasn’t enough to satisfy the ambitions that Meyer’s son-in-law, Philip Graham, had brought to the paper when he took over as publisher. The Post still ranked third among Washington’s four newspapers. Then, in March 1954, came the “defining moment for the company,” wrote Meyer’s daughter Katharine Graham, who would later lead The Post to great heights after her husband’s death. The Post bought its only morning competitor, the Washington Times-Herald. It was a deal that Meyer and Phil Graham had been trying to make for years.

Overnight, the paper was transformed. Determined to retain as many Times-Herald readers as they could, Meyer and Graham put both names on the masthead and stuffed the combined edition with nearly every feature that had appeared in either publication. The result was a jumbled mess, but the formula worked. Times-Herald readers and advertisers moved over to the new paper. Circulation nearly doubled, to almost 400,000. Suddenly, Graham’s ambitions became something more than pipe dreams. The paper could expand. It could open its first overseas bureau. It could have a “brains section” — the term Graham used to describe the idea that became Outlook — to bring intellectual heft to the Sunday paper.

What would this new section contain? The country was changing, giving the “brains section” plenty of opportunities to showcase the work of Post journalists trying to understand those changes. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that said separate schools were inherently unequal, readers saw that Outlook had acquired a special interest: reportage on the South, race relations, resistance to desegregation. The July 15, 1956, issue featured “Old-New South Is a Troubled Land in Transition,” staff reporter Robert E. Baker’s impressionistic account from “nine weeks and 7000 miles in nine Southern states looking at the racial issue.”

Reading it now, one can see Baker struggling to break away from the conventions of news writing. “You hear clearly the shouts of defiance to the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision,” he wrote, “the vows that never, never will the South comply, and you see how tension has mounted…” Baker didn’t complete his thought. He didn’t make an argument. He quoted mainly White people, with the exception of one “elderly Negro minister” who said that “no white person anywhere can tell you how it feels to be a Negro.”

But Baker’s article, tentative and incomplete as it was, featured the reporter’s voice, something rarely found in news columns. Here was an early hint of how Outlook would distinguish itself — as a place where readers might find something unexpected each Sunday.

If a single word could be used to characterize Outlook and its history, that word might be “voices.” These were familiar voices at first, nearly all male and White, a mirror of the newspaper itself in the 1950s and early 1960s. Then, over the next decade, they tentatively came to include voices not previously heard.

But before the section could give voice to others, it had to establish its own. Looking through the archives, the June 10, 1962, issue stands out. On that date, Outlook went from hodgepodge to something akin to a magazine. It was a complete makeover, the first of many. Each page acquired a label. The Metropolis on Page 2, followed by The Nation, The World and A Further Outlook, suggesting new ambitions that were boundless. The editorial and op-ed pages occupied their usual positions at the back, but those weren’t Outlook’s responsibility. This hybrid structure — Outlook under the newsroom, separate from editorial — became a source of confusion for readers and contributors alike.

In the mid-1960s, civil rights and the war in Vietnam were the defining stories, and Outlook sought out voices on both. Perhaps the most important article ever published in the Outlook section — certainly one of the most closely read in official Washington — appeared on June 4, 1967. Its author was Ward Just, a brave and adventurous correspondent who was coming home after 18 months as The Post’s Saigon bureau chief.

The United States had decided that Vietnam was the front line in its anti-communism crusade, and Just had written hundreds of news stories about the mounting causalities and the chaos in the new South Vietnamese government. He had reported on an ambush in which he was seriously wounded. Now he wanted to sum up his experience, to share with Post readers what he considered the truth about a war that the Johnson administration and its military commanders insisted was going well.

His long dispatch for Outlook began powerfully: “This war is not being won, and by any reasonable estimate, it is not going to be won in the foreseeable future. It may be unwinnable.”

This was not conventional journalism. Just didn’t attribute his conclusion to “knowledgeable sources” or “senior officials.” Because he was a dogged reporter and a brilliant writer (he left The Post a few years later for a long career as a much-lauded novelist), he had the confidence to say precisely what he had concluded. Skepticism had crept into the work of other correspondents, but Just’s Outlook piece stood out for its absence of “on the other hand” qualifiers. He was exploiting the freedom that the Outlook section allowed.

Just’s article jolted colleagues at The Post, members of Congress, military officers, war planners and others in the news media. It depicted a corrupt South Vietnamese government and military, a society that did not share the Americans’ preoccupation with communism as the overriding evil, and a huge team of Americans that didn’t know what it was doing. “What is missing” among those Americans, Just wrote, “is a sense of purpose and a sense of priorities. No one can agree on what the situation in Vietnam is, except that it is surely unsatisfactory.”

After the article appeared, it wasn’t difficult to find Washington Post readers who had previously supported the war effort (as The Post’s editorial page then did) and who now said Just’s essay had changed their minds. The idea of Outlook as a venue for pieces that challenged conventional wisdom or popular belief had taken hold. Years later, one Outlook editor cheekily summed up the section’s mission: The best Outlook pieces, he said, are the ones that tell readers, “Everything you think about that issue is wrong.”

As the paper’s news, Style and sports pages opened up to more experimental writing, contributions to Outlook from staff reporters weren’t as plentiful. By the 1990s, the section’s editors were working harder than ever to find outside contributors. Some options arrived “over the transom” — in the mail or, later, via email. Few of these unsolicited offerings made it into print. As the editors routinely explained in phone calls and rejection notes: “That’s not an Outlook piece. An Outlook piece is not just an op-ed in more words. It’s a reported essay that takes us to places we haven’t been before.”

In the constant hunt for unheard voices, Outlook editors became skilled ghostwriters. It was unrealistic to expect a polished piece from someone who had never thought of trying to write for a newspaper. Outlook’s archives abound with first-person stories crafted from in-depth conversations between editor and storyteller. Often, it was the only way to hear the voice of someone surviving nightly bombardments in a war zone, a nursing home resident describing how the coronavirus made her a prisoner in her room or a professional baseball umpire on what it’s like to call balls and strikes.

The section also thrived by dreaming up recurring features. Outlook’s contrarian impulses were embedded in Five Myths, which debuted in 2006 and evolved into a permanent and popular format for challenging received truths. Another long-running Outlook innovation, launched on a lark for the 1982 midterm elections, appeared only once every two years. It was the Outlook Crystal Ball competition, which returned for 15 more cycles. A dozen professional pundits, pollsters and campaign consultants were asked to predict how many House, Senate and governors’ seats the two parties would gain or lose that November. In a presidential year, their ballots included their guesstimates for the electoral vote.

In the early Crystal Balls, experts were eager to compete. But over time, Outlook editors found it harder to fill the field. What was supposed to be a bit of fun turned out to be serious business for prognosticators who didn’t think it was good for their reputations to whiff in such a visible contest. In 1996, the editors decided to branch out. They invited a couple of local high school classes to participate. Two years later, the 71 students from the 10th-grade communication arts classes at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., won the Crystal Ball, garnering national news coverage as they beat the pros. Ten years later, in 2008, another crop of Blair students did it again.

Nothing delighted an Outlook editor more than discovering writers and watching their stars rise. One exceptional example was Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at what was then T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. An Outlook editor had been looking for a teacher to write from the front lines of the classroom, and he invited Welsh to come up with a series of pieces on high school life. That led to a relationship with the section that lasted 30 years. Under the standing headline “Tales Out of School,” Welsh wrote more than 90 pieces and became an education celebrity. He appeared often on PBS and published a book that grew out of his Outlook pieces.

Outlook also remained a place where Post reporters — proscribed from expressing their opinions — could at least share first-person accounts and reported analyses. In 1992, staff writer George Lardner Jr. wrote the most difficult story of his career for Outlook. He investigated the murder of his daughter, and how the criminal justice system’s failures in Massachusetts had contributed to her death. His nearly 10,000-word account, “The Stalking of Kristin: The Law Made It Easy for My Daughter’s Killer,” won a Pulitzer Prize, the first of two for work that appeared in the section. The other went to book critic (and former Outlook editor) Carlos Lozada in 2019, for what the Pulitzer Board called his “warm emotion and careful analysis in examining a broad range of books addressing government and the American experience.”

Outlook has always been a team effort. Since the 1990s, that effort has revolved around a handful of story editors, an art director and a copy editor. Eye-catching pages have long been central to Outlook’s identity, as well as the headlines. For decades, a visitor to Outlook’s office on Friday afternoons would see the entire staff huddled around a computer, debating headline possibilities for the week’s pieces.

The decision to retire the Outlook section, and to consolidate the paper’s opinion journalism in the editorial department, is a measure of how dramatically the newspaper business has changed in its march from print to digital publication.

Twenty years ago, the Sunday edition was key to the paper’s prosperity. More than 900,000 people bought a copy every week. It was bursting with advertising — inserts, pages and pages of classifieds, and so many display ads that the main news section routinely added more pages to accommodate them. Outlook was a vital part of that Sunday package, which at its peak was delivered to more than 70 percent of households in the Washington metropolitan area. No U.S. paper anywhere could match that figure.

Today, The Post has nearly 3 million paying subscribers. Fewer than 275,000 take the Sunday edition. This article will be read primarily by that dwindling and aging print audience, as well as online readers who might bump into the story while browsing the internet with their phones, tablets or laptops. Many of The Post’s digital readers don’t know an Outlook section ever existed. They know only the many discrete Outlook articles that went viral. And the unheard voices that Outlook editors were among the first to seek out now crowd the internet, where social media offers instant access to all.

After years of shrinking revenue and circulation, an economic transformation is again underway at The Post. The newspaper’s staff has doubled since Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the paper in 2013. The Post has opened new bureaus all over the United States and around the world. Editing hubs in London and Seoul allow The Post to act as a global news service, constantly refreshing its stories, photos and film clips. The Post’s YouTube channel, featuring the work of the video division, has 2 million followers.

The “brains section” fulfilled its mission, a mission designed for a print audience. The Post now plays in a different league, which requires new strategies. But wherever Post journalism goes next, Outlook’s spirit of inquiry will live on.

Robert G. Kaiser, a former managing editor of The Post, edited Outlook from 1982 to 1985. Steve Luxenberg, a Post associate editor, was Outlook editor from 1996 to 2005.