Three ways to save the Washington Post: A few ‘Post Apocalypse’ musings from Alexandria

image My old friend used to handle some PR matters for a union in Northern Virginia, and people still pick his brains. Here’s a rule near the top of his list. Don’t waste too much time trying to get into the Washington Post, even on the most newsworthy stories. L Street probably will just ignore you.

Similarly when an obituary dissed local history and I complained, the Post ombudsman would not even acknowledge receipt of my e-mail. The obit writer had at least given me the courtesy of a short explanation. But no more details came. Hmm. Wasn’t ombudsman Andy Alexander himself worried about the Post’s aloofness? Yes, I gave him Web links—from this site—which hundreds and perhaps thousands of surfers had clicked on. Is Mr. Alexander really Net-blind enough not to e-mail me even a few words?

The above two examples came to mind as I read a New Republic piece with the cheery headline of Post Apocalypse: Inside the messy collapse of a great newspaper. Actually the Post’s continued decline is not inevitable, and as a decades-long reader of the paper, I’d like L Street to thrive. Here are three partial remedies, overlapping somewhat with Gabriel Sherman’s TNR piece, but far from entirely. The first idea would help deal with the Post’s snobbery problem as well as with the sheer arrogance that the retired union man and I have been up against.

1. Stop Slate-izing and Politco-izing the Post. Members of the American elite are not the main local readership; teachers, project managers and GS-13s are. They want to read of issues affecting them directly. Even the most overpaid lawyers and lobbyists need to know more about such mundane matters as garbage collection.

The Post might even consider an Ivy League quota—a maximum percentage of of such people hired—and more emphasis on intelligence and performance as opposed to credentials. This could apply especially in the era of the Net when skill at using search engines may count more at times than whether Reporter X knew Public Official Y at Harvard. Snobbery at the Post is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. But it might be lethal when so many gifted people are kept out of the Ivies simply because their families cannot afford them. What happened—at least in regard to journalists’ family backgrounds—to the goal of economic diversity? That’s the real solution, as opposed to an Ivy League quota.

I’m not suggesting that the Post become the Duluth News Tribune, by the way; in fact, just the opposite. I want higher standards fit for a wired era and the newspaper’s readership.

2. Go hyperlocal but in an efficient way that does not siphon too much money and too many people from the Washington Post—so that it can still compete in national and international areas. The Post needs to tap the power of blogs, forums, wikis and other social media far more than it has.

The biggest problem in local news, as illustrated by my friend’s frustration, is that the Post doesn’t run enough of it. L Street could. And ironically, raw information from the masses just might help traditional journalism; the Post’s star writers would be in closer touch with local realities. The failed LoudonExtra didn’t offer enough precisely targeted news from enough locals.

Perhaps Chevy Chase, home to Katharine Bouchage Weymouth, the Post’s publisher, could be where the Post kicked off a renewed hyperlocal effort, so she could see for herself whether her people’s efforts were up to snuff.

3. Recognize that online and offline are to a great extent separate worlds despite overlapping readerships; context is all. Many people online want up-to-the-minute breaking news and a more interactive approach packaged in an easy-to-use way. The New Republic’s Sherman correctly griped about the paper’s printcentric priorities. I can’t navigate the Post’s Web site nearly as easily as I can the New York Times’s; oh, how I hate having so much information tucked away in that Byzantine bar at the top of the page. The material below the bar is a chaotic mess. Relying so heavily on the nav bar, the Post Web site is probably hell on many older people and other non-video-games players.

A better mobile edition, mixing strong interactivity with the superior presentation in the Times’s own mobile version, would also help. So would the Washington Post equivalent of the New York Times Reader for those who want a break from regular Web browsing and who hate the Post’s current desktop-and-laptop reader as much as I do. The Times Reader juggles text around, so you don’t have to mess as often with zooming and other tech-related distractions.

On top of everything else, the Times makes it easier for me to identify the stories that count (because of their popularity or relevance to me). Add that to the Times’s substance and abundance of content, and I find myself spending more time with the NYT than the paper right in my backyard.

Of course, breaking news isn’t enough; the Times in fact teems with wonderful, in-depth features. I know that the Washington Post is short staffed, but perhaps the Post could devote more money to freelance contributions, including some from bought-out reporters. Using more material from nonstandard sources might also be a possibility, as long as the Post took time to avert the transparency and balance problems that Andy Alexander laudably wrote up (here’s to praise when deserved!).

My three suggestions are not the only ways to save the Washington Post—which still has many first-rate people left—but they would help.

A different perspective: How to Save the Washington Post or any newspaper for that matter, from the Sophomore Critic.

Update, January 31: John Seidenberg, a D.C.-area writer, cites the above Scandals post along with a summary of the New Republic article and reaction from the Columbia Journalism Review.

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David Rothman

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