Monday, January 25, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Post

The current New Republic's cover story, by Gabriel Sherman, narrates the "messy collapse of a great paper":

The Post, of course, is not alone; other large newspapers are suffering financially as well. And yet, the Post’s financial decline is only part of the story. Over the past few months, I have talked to about 50 current and former reporters, editors, Web staffers, and business employees. From these conversations, a picture has emerged of a paper suffering an identity crisis. Its peers seem to have coherent strategies for saving themselves: The New York Times is doubling down on journalism in the belief that it can persevere online as the global newspaper of record; The Wall Street Journal remains the country’s definitive chronicler of business; other large papers have tried to distinguish themselves by burrowing into local issues. But the Post seems to be paralyzed-and trapped. It can’t go completely local because the local news in Washington is, in many respects, national; and its status as the paper of record for national politics is under assault from numerous competitors--competitors it isn’t clear the Post can defeat. Meanwhile, the tense, even hostile, relationship between the print and online divisions hasn’t made the paper’s search for a coherent identity any easier. And so, in a new era for journalism, The Washington Post has yet to figure out what it wants to be. The result has been a lot of lurching--some of it (like salongate) embarrassing, much of it merely ineffective, but almost all of it suggesting a newspaper in disarray. . .

Beginning in the late 1990s, a debate over the Post’s identity developed in the newsroom, as the Web made it possible to reach readers anywhere, at virtually no cost. On one side was Steve Coll, a brilliant foreign correspondent who had been promoted to managing editor. After New York Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger strong-armed the Grahams out of the Post’s 50 percent stake in the International Herald Tribune in 2002, Coll led a task force that proposed using up to $10 million from the proceeds of the IHT sale to build up the Post’s national and international coverage. Graham rejected the idea. "Don’s feeling at that time was it wasn’t about the dollars; at that point, the paper was minting money," a former senior staffer says. "The fear was: If we invest in the national audience, the delicate balance will shift away from the local audience." . . .

[N]one of these developments, however promising, changes the fact that the Post remains a newspaper in distress--in late October, [new executive editor Marcus] Brauchli had to physically intervene when an editor punched a writer in the newsroom--and, most importantly, one without a strong identity. And so, the paper’s institutional lurches continue. On November 24, the Post announced that it was shuttering its remaining domestic bureaus to focus its resources in Washington--a sign that, once again, local journalism had won out. Then, in December, the Post printed a news piece on the national debt in partnership with a publication called The Fiscal Times--without disclosing that the organization is backed by financier Pete Peterson, a well-known deficit hawk. Again, the Post found itself at the center of an ethics scandal. And another attempt at experimenting seemed to have backfired.
The results, graphically, here. Read the whole thing.

(via reader Ken R.)

1 comment:

Marc said...

According to Michael Kinsley:

"...One reason seekers of news are abandoning print newspapers for the Internet has nothing directly to do with technology. It’s that newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point. Newspaper writing, by contrast, is encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news. Newspaper writers are not to blame. These conventions are traditional, even mandatory."

An example of a Washington Post story follows. Read the rest at