Politics and Prose bookstore: A role model for the Washington Post, with potential Post-Kaplan synergies?

imageSomething bizarre is happening at Politics and Prose, and perhaps a few other bookstores in the Washington area—and therein may lie a lesson for the Washington Post.

These booksellers are prospering, even as many others across the nation are closing or cutting back. Sales at Politics and Prose have zoomed from $3 million two years ago to this year’s $7.5 million, and Danielle Douglas’s Post article gives us a few clues.

Manager Barbara Meade and her P & P partner, the late, much-missed Carla Cohen, "built a loyal following, hosting regular literary discussions and drawing a bevy of sought-after authors," the Post reports. That’s not all. A look at the Web site shows that Politics and Prose is holding classes on The British Empire in Fiction and History and Modern American Poetry, with, of course, the accompanying reading lists of P & P-stocked books. Add this to P & P’s strong community connections, including the encouragement of local book groups, and a clear-cut pattern emerges.

imageCould P & P serve in some ways as a role model for the Washington Post’s community outreach for the  forthcoming hyperlocal operation? And might some related new possibilities exist for the paper’s corporate cousins at the troubled Kaplan education branch?

In an earlier post I returned to a theme oft-repeated in my hyperlocal series: the need for the Post and its rivals to strengthen community ties. So far  TBD’s Web news operation has failed to live up to my hopes that it would grow close to communities everywhere in the D.C. area—I see precious little hyperlocal news affecting me, here in suburban Alexandria. But when the Post cranks up its hyperlocal effort next year, it intends to provide detailed  neighborhood coverage if speculation is on target. A community approach, in other words: one remindful of the strategy that has worked so well for Politics & Prose and certain other bookstores. This is significant since  books and newspapers are the ultimate “legacy media.” If you read one, you’re more likely to enjoy the other. As others have noted, both media require patience if you’re to appreciate them in full.

Now, with P & and P in mind, including the author appearances, consider the Kaplan possibilities and other education- and celebrity-related ones. As I wrote last month, “I might even see if synergies could exist between the hyperlocal side and the Post Company’s education-oriented Kaplan subsidiary. Why not offer free or low-cost courses as a way to reach out to the community and help people upgrade their writing and analytical skills—so useful in government and business, not just journalism?" I also said: "Perhaps the Post could even coax luminaries like Bob Woodward to appear from time to time at community events for a little added sizzle to help recruit prospective writers and other participants—for example, retired accountants who wanted to explore muni budget issues.”

The Post trotted out Woodward and his Watergate editor, Ben Bradlee, among others, to promote its well-done iPad edition in a hilarious self-parody grabbing more than than a modicum of mindshare in the blogosphere; and I suspect that the same creative use of well-known journalists could work on the hyperlocal scene, at least in certain communities. In a a good way, this would be the completion of a circle, given that Woodward started out on the local side. Here’s another wrinkle, which I may have mentioned earlier, albeit not in a Post context: Perhaps the Post could follow the example of other news organizations and establish relationships with local restaurants—where top Post people could speak and also interview newsmakers for print and multimedia. Talk about the Post simultaneously promoting itself and local businesses! Carol Joynt’s Q&A Café project could provide some inspiration here. On top of that, keep in mind that Politics and Prose bills itself as a coffeehouse as well as a bookstore.

Community outreach aside, the main key to the success of the Post’s hyperlocal operation will be old-fashioned, close-up reporting on topics about which neighborhoods care. Blog alliances, too? Sure. But given the paucity of truly civic-oriented local blogs right now,  I’d side with Robert Allbritton, CEO of Allbritton Communications—who apparently wanted TBD.com to focus a bit less on the blogosphere and the rest of the Net and a bit more on traditional journalism in the real world, only a fraction of whose inhabitants at this point are constantly Tweeting and Facebooking. I can easily see why Jim Brady left as TBD’s general manager after having favored a more radical approach, more appropriate for the future.  “Of the Web, not just on it,” is a catchy slogan, highly appealing to me, but with limited resources, TBD may have gone too far at the expense of on-the-scene reporting. In the interest of sustainability, TBD would also do well to be less trendy and pay more attention to bread-and-butter topics like the Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest system in the D.C. area with more than 170,000 students. I expect the Post to avoid TBD’s excessive hipness (I like the edgy approach myself, but then I’m not a Little-League-and-soccer parent).

Meanwhile  I’m wondering more than ever what might happen if—with P and P appealing to readers’ desire for self-improvement—the Post can also explore synergies between Kaplan and the forthcoming hyperlocal operation. Self-improvement and community go well together, just like books and newspapers, and could appeal to the same set of people. Will this work in every neighborhood? I don’t know. But ideally the Post can show flexibility. Suburbs with high levels of  education and civic participation, such as Falls Church, would be good places to experiment, although I’d urge the Post not to neglect Anacostia, either. Just use a different approach, consulting closely with neighborhood people.

Detail: The Post isn’t the only local institution trying to adapt to the Net in ways that traditional customers can appreciate. Politics and Prose is now offering Google eBooks. I myself think that P & P should actually go further and work with schools and libraries to help local authors publish electronically and via print on demand. If nothing else, they could alert them about the preferences of the local market.

Idea: Perhaps the Post should hire P & P’s Barbara Meade as a “community culture consultant.” Her Post work would probably have to be part-time, however, since she is hoping to remain on the job at P & P even after she finds a buyer for it (obviously a way to help a valuable community institution like  P & P outlast her, not just use the cash in the future for retirement purposes).

What this means or doesn’t for other newspapers: Yes, many of the above ideas might work at other newspapers. True, they don’t have resident luminaries like Bradlee and Woodward. But if their local columnists are good and popular, they could still play the celebrity card to some extent. Of course, there are other variables. Most newspaper companies don’t have education arms like Kaplan. Perhaps as substitutes, they could  partner up in some cases with education companies.

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David Rothman

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