How The Washington Post Needs To Change

The front page of today’s Washington Post reports that its respected executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, will be replaced by Martin Baron, currently editor of the Boston Globe. Baron is a good choice: no other newspaper in America resembles the Post as closely as the Globe does in terms of content, readership, market penetration and even typeface. At a time when other big regional papers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Philadelphia Inquirer and San Francisco Chronicle are fading fast, the Post and Globe continue to set the standard for what daily print journalism can achieve.

Journalists at the Post and Globe often bemoan their decline in the face of plummeting print circulation and advertising lineage since newspaper revenues peaked in the 1980s. However, most of the reporters my age have long since taken buyouts, so the complainers usually don’t remember as well as I do what the papers were like in their heyday. Sorry to disappoint you folks, but they weren’t significantly better than they are today. They had more advertising so the layout was different and the news-hole was bigger, but they also wasted a lot of money on duplicative coverage of issues easily obtained from wire services and self-indulgent thumb-suckers designed more for the Pulitzer Prize review board than readers. There’s no question that many big papers like the Baltimore Sun and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have declined in recent years, but I can tell you as a person who has been reading the Post and Globe since the 1960s that they haven’t changed as much as their recent hires think.

For the most part, that’s a good thing. It reflects the fact that both papers are owned by people who take journalism seriously — unlike the advertising types at Gannett and that nutty real-estate tycoon who dragged Tribune Company into bankruptcy. But sometimes the weight of past accomplishments can impede an organization’s ability to change with the times. That certainly seems to be the case with the print edition of the Post, which still has a very sizable daily readership that includes me. It’s a rare day that I don’t find something in the Post I want to read, and although it will never be as colorful or content-rich as the online edition, in some ways it is easier to use.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like the people who put together the print edition are trying to drive me to the online product. For starters, the stories often seem like a rewrite of what I already heard last night on the CBS Evening News. I understand that serious papers need to cover the big stories of the day, but when you fill your front page with stuff people already know, that isn’t going to draw readers to the more original content inside. Second, whatever the Post’s pretensions may once have been, it is now a decidedly local paper and even in Washington most people are more interested in local news than Syria. So why is the A Section frequently dominated by overseas stories that only a foreign-service officer would care about? And why does the Metro section feel like an afterthought — something the editors included because they had to, rather than because they care? Finally, why are the stories so long? Personally, I would be better served if the average story length were cut in half and the number of topics covered were doubled. Does anybody really read the long thumb-suckers that hog the news-hole some days?

Martin Baron will recognize these problems, because detailed local coverage has always been a core feature of the Globe’s identity, and it has recently taken to carrying numerous capsule reports on national and foreign stories as a way of fitting more diverse subjects into the paper. I’m not saying items like Benghazi should be reduced to four graphs, but there aren’t many subscribers left that spend their Sundays reading the paper; expecting people to read three column-feet on relatively arcane topics is no way of maintaining print circulation.

Over the long run, hard-copy dailies will probably be doomed by their high production costs and the pervasive popularity of online outlets. But the print edition of the Post can still be a profitable, powerful force in journalism if the folks who put it together are ready to adapt. Perhaps the place to start in making it less of a chore to read is to ask readers what they would like to see in their paper. I’ll bet it isn’t more stories about Africa.