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The Washington Post: What Happened to a Once Great Paper?

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After relocating from New York City to Washington, D.C. for a position in the Carter Administration in 1978 one of the first things I did was have the Washington Post delivered to my door seven days a week. Not wanting to give up my connection to New York I also got the Sunday NY Times both for news and the magazine with its great articles and crossword puzzle. I hadn't read the Post regularly but knew of the many stories they broke including Watergate. I read about Katherine Graham and admired her gutsy leadership at the Post.

I found it an enjoyable and informative read with in-depth reporting. I scanned the headlines over coffee each morning, read some columns while sitting on the lifecycle, and then continued reading various articles the rest of the day. It was a good cross section of local, national, and international news. There were well written pieces and value in reading them all the way through. Editorials were concise, well written and made you think, which I believe is the purpose of an editorial.

As the major newspaper in the area, at least the major paper with a progressive bent, the Post had enormous impact on national opinion makers and on local elections. This influence continued for many years with a Post endorsement making the difference in a close election. Locally in the 1990 Democratic primary for Mayor of D.C. the Post did a surprise endorsement of Sharon Pratt Kelly, running three lengthy editorials, and she won. Unfortunately for the District her term in office was less than stellar but she could fairly claim, "I got my job through the Washington Post."

For better or worse (depending on your point of view) over the years that kind of influence is no longer there. Today an editorial endorsement in the Post, even one that runs multiple times such as the endorsement of Adrian Fenty in the 2010 D.C. mayoral primary, couldn't get him reelected. Some people say that it is simply that the Post picked the wrong candidate, but it is more than that. It has to do with the waning influence and trust in what the Post editorial board writes and of course the fact that there are so many other places for people to get their news.

On Sunday, February 12, 2012 the New York Times ran an interesting page one story in their Sunday Business section, A Newspaper, and a Legacy, Reordered. It was about how the Washington Post has changed and is changing to meet a new world order in the news business. But it also told of a once 1,000 person strong newsroom down to 670 people and how the paper is often now being driven not by how great their stories are but by how many hits their online site receives. While they can still claim some Pulitzer prizes, we are told editors are now being informed in the middle of the day that their section of the online site isn't getting the required hits and they then need to go looking for something to put up that will capture an audience. That something could be another story on Kim Kardashian or another scandal but it is rarely a well reported story. The Post online is also a work in progress. Though I have asked it seems that the Post can't do what the New York Times website does and have a market update on their home page that makes sense. They simply post percentages up and down for the S.&P., Dow and NASDAQ but don't say where the markets stand. Seems that this would be easy to do and they actually did it before they 'improved' their site.

You would never know from reading the Post what a vibrant arts community exists in Metro DC (more theater tickets are sold than any place other than New York). To add insult to injury, apparently their main theater critic lives in New York and reviews of productions often don't appear until well into the run.

Readers can be justified in thinking that the Post is now less interested in giving its reporters time to do in-depth reporting and is focused more like a tabloid on glitz and headlines. Many stories only require a glance at the headline and a read of the first paragraph to know what they are about and the rest of the column seems like filler.

That isn't to say there aren't many good reporters still at the Post. Examples include Dan Balz covering the national political scene; Lori Montgomery on finance; and Metro reporters Mike DeBonis, Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig. But often, especially on the local level, they aren't given the time to develop a story and are writing for the daily online blogs competing for those all crucial hits. More and more it seems the Post is relying on columnists and opinions to fill space that once was taken by news. Editors are being given blogs and one columnist has done double duty with a column one day and reporting the next, often confusing the reader with what is news and what is merely opinion.

In the Metro section an example of a lack of focus is the April 3rd at-large Council primary in the District of Columbia less than six weeks away. If the Post is where you get your news this race is practically non-existent. There has been no major story on any of the candidates in the printed edition of the paper and it's hard to find anything online except in some of the blogs.

There are still good editorials on national and international news, but they seem less focused and what is lost is the Washington Post as a progressive paper. One example of that was the excessive and incessant support of the Iraq war which has continued long after most progressives realized it was a mistake. Another is their multiple editorials supporting education vouchers for private and parochial schools. Now their editorials apparently want to be all things to all people. The editorials on local issues are totally predictable, and often repeated over and over, and seem more about personal clashes with local politicians than about issues. This may be why the relevance of the Post to individuals and opinion makers both in the District and around the nation is diminishing.

It is sad to see a once great paper go downhill and I hope that slide can still be reversed. It may just be a sign of the times but the New York Times has managed to remain relevant and interesting and even worth its ridiculously high price.