City Paper is not for tourists
Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli gets touchy when discussing the Washington Post Magazine.
On Sept. 28, he sent out a memo to his staff marking an important occasion in the paper’s transformation. One day before, the Post launched a redesigned magazine, complete with a stylish new logo and various new shortish regular features.
The top dog was thrilled with the product: “Colleagues, over the weekend, readers got their first look at WP Magazine, the re-envisioned and redesigned magazine, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.”
Really? Not if you were reading Brauchli’s own Web site. An online chat on washingtonpost.com earlier that day focused on the changes to the magazine. Magazine editor Debra Leithauser and Art Director Janet Michaud took 51 comments/questions from chatters, and 32 had negative things to say about the fresh product—some of them were outright slams: “Kensington, MD: Luv the Rdrs Dgst lk. Fts rit in w/r attn span. By by.” Later in the chat, Kensington chimed in again: hope you realize that was an insult. Well deserved, I might add. the new magazine is awful.”
The editors responded: “yeah, we got it.”
Last month furnished another example of Brauchli’s frantic magazine-related spinning: Post media writer Howard Kurtz broke a story on whether Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth may have helped to kill a piece that had been assigned for publication in the paper’s magazine. The pending piece concerned the struggles of a quadruple amputee, and when Weymouth caught wind of the story, she blasted it as reflective of a too-depressing trend in magazine content. The piece was killed.
In a discussion with Washington City Paper, Brauchli stated, “Whatever Katharine may have felt about the piece was immaterial to the editorial process.”
Yet a newsroom source reports that Weymouth had spread her distaste for the amputee story in several settings—and that it was precisely her opinion that doomed it.
So why is Brauchli locked in such a defensive crouch when it comes to the Washington Post Magazine? Why does he protest so much about public response to the redesign and Weymouth’s editorial incursions?
Perhaps he’s eager to beat back the real story of what’s happened to the magazine—that it has been captured by the commercial side of the Washington Post. In an institution of such high bars and thick walls, that’s something of a watershed. The default setting on the Post’s publishing model has long hewed toward the puritanical. Journalists do what they do best—put out a paper—and the advertising people do what they do best—sell it.
That division of labor drove the magazine from its founding in 1977, right smack in the reign of Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. The advertising team, recalls Bradlee, didn’t do a lot of boundary testing in those days. “The business side left me alone,” he says. “Someone may have told them, ‘Don’t mess with Bradlee because he’ll give you a lot of shit.’”
Of his stewardship over the magazine, Bradlee says, “It wasn’t my finest moment.” Correct: In September 1986, Bradlee & Co. attempted a spectacular, highly promoted relaunch of the magazine that backfired in the most public fashion. The debut issue featured two pieces—including a column by Richard Cohen sympathizing with D.C. jewelers who declined entry to young black males—that drew charges of racism and months of protest by area African-Americans.
The Washington Post Magazine would take years to recover. “Big Post advertisers loyal through thick and thin…felt they had been betrayed. This thing had blown up on them,” recalls a former Post insider.
Through all the downs and downs, the magazine had to labor under conditions unique for a section of the Washington Post. A profit-loss sheet, that is. As best they could in an organization so sprawling, the accountants at the paper broke out the expenses and revenues of the magazine onto their own ledger, the better to monitor the weekly’s value to the enterprise. Style, Weekend, Metro, what have you—other sections have never answered to spreadsheets.
Financial accountability didn’t always work out too well for the publication, whose editors shoveled copy against a backdrop of red ink for years. A breakthrough came in the late ’90s, under the guidance of Steve Coll: The numbers showed that the magazine’s revenues and expenses were breaking even. Officials on both sides of the biz-editorial divide rejoiced.
Over the decade since, the magazine’s ledger has seesawed. According to informed sources, it eked out some profitable years in the mid-2000s, only to rack up losses in recent years, along with the rest of the news industry.
Perhaps it’s because they run a glossy magazine, complete with all kinds of sleek platforms for big-dollar advertisers. Perhaps it’s because they have to produce several special issues per year, on travel, home design, food, education, and so on. Perhaps it’s because of the profit-loss thing: Whatever the reason, editors at the magazine have always worked more closely with the advertising people than do other newsroom section editors.
With the coziness comes a certain torture. Officials on the business side of the Post have never been shy about voicing their prescription for a more ledger-worthy Washington Post Magazine. Shorter stories, more positive stories, news you can use, more of a city magazine approach, like Washingtonian.
Tom Shroder, who edited the magazine from 2002 to 2009 and left the paper via buyout, heard plenty of it: “From the day I began editing a Sunday magazine in Miami 25 years ago, there were always some on the business side who believed the stories were too long and too depressing. This remained a constant both there and when I came to the Post.”
Says another ex-Postie who felt the pressures from the biz folks: “They’d say there should be Top 10 lists and happy things,” says the source. “They’d whine that if we didn’t have stories that made people cry, we could sell more advertising.”
Like any self-respecting ideology, this approach to wringing money out of the magazine acquired a title. “Levity and brevity,” went the thinking, would go a long way toward making the Washington Post Magazine behave more like a traditional magazine, complete with spunky, positive, bite-size content blocks that advertisers would love to play with. Long, dark narratives, meanwhile, could easily find a place in other parts of the paper, like the front page or the Style section.
For years and years, the newsroom managed to keep “levity and brevity” at bay. The goal-line stand against a strong advertising team derived a lot of its strength from the market position of the newspaper. The Washington Post throughout the ’90s and the early 2000s was a very viable property, with margins healthy enough to ward off calls to turn the magazine into a local version of Men’s Health.
Then: The media economy tanked, the entire economy tanked, and the Post newsroom welcomed its new leader, Brauchli. “Levity and brevity” was poised to break through for the score, and it did, via a vacancy announcement for the magazine:
With Sydney Trent’s departure for Style, we are looking for an experienced and highly creative editor and team player to help manage the Magazine. As we redesign and shape the Sunday magazine as an essential guide to Washington that mixes levity and brevity with smart, sophisticated reporting, writing and presentation…
Leithauser says that “levity and brevity” refers to the smaller features in the front of the magazine, not to the “well stories” that may be heavier and longer.
Even so, Leithauser is working under the eye of a levity-and-brevity proponent. Publisher Weymouth has stumped all around the Post in favor of a break from what she and the ad people view as a long, dark period in magazine content.
According to Post sources, Weymouth on several occasions lashed out against death and misery in the feature pages, and she even had a hit list of sorts:
• Gene Weingarten’s dark-yet-gripping dark-yet-gripping piece that took apart the epidemic of parents leaving their children in their car seats, with often tragic consequences
• A story by Caitlin Gibson about a girl born with dwarfism who undergoes painful limb-extension surgery
• A piece discussing the trials of a woman suffering from a horrible disease and those of her husband, the caretaker
• This year’s Mother’s Day issue, which had features on a mother and her autistic son and on the quadruple amputee, which was in process at the time that Weymouth attacked it as typical of the magazine’s tenebrous tendencies.
Those opinions notwithstanding, Weymouth says via e-mail that she had “nothing to do with setting the specific vision for the magazine. Marcus and his team set the vision. I am excited about our relaunched magazine and think our readers will appreciate its new, more local flavor.”
The publisher and her top editor strike a consistent tone. Says Executive Editor Brauchli: “There’s nothing in the redesigned magazine that I’m not comfortable with.”
Including the mediocrity?
The new-look Washington Post Magazine represents a horizontal move, in the most sunny of assessments—not a promotion. Let’s start with the new logo, which is a “WP” in a regal font. It’s fine until you realize that it’s a rip-off of the logo on the New York Times’ Style magazine.
Inside, there’s a lot of new and different stuff, which is about the best you can say about the whole shebang. The contents page betrays a yearning for young and hip sensibilities, to limited effect. The fresh front-of-the-book features are forgettable and shoo-ins for the trash bin the next time a seat-of-the-pants redesign is in order. And if their presentation gives you a sense of deja vu, you haven’t gone crazy—it mimics New York magazine, which Brauchli has held up as an aspirational model in discussions with Post staffers.
Then there’s the Date Lab treatment. Hold on—what Date Lab? When I first turned to this WaPo mag instaclassic feature, I thought I’d alighted on an advertisement for a hair-loss product. The “Date Lab” banner, you see, had been shrunk and marginalized in favor of other, criscrossing graphic elements. Not a good match for my eyes.
As for the content, the new magazine has been around for just three weeks, so it’s way too early to assert that the emphasis on levity and brevity has robbed the publication of its edge, that it’s all about puff now.
The feature on “go-go legend” Chuck Brown, titled “Still On the Go,” was idle puff, embarrassing puff. An adjacent feature written by Washington sniper ex-wife Mildred Muhammad was book-excerpt puff. A story profiling the cool young hipsters working in a cool D.C. building was pandering puff. The piece on the sexy local blogger was really well-written stock puff. Plenty of levity in these parts.
The brevity thing is working out as well. Word at the Post is that magazine features generally shouldn’t exceed 4,000 words. The three main features thus far have averaged 3,998.6 words. When asked about story length, Leithauser responded, “There is no official word count limit. Each story will be given the space it needs.”
No reason to doubt Leithauser on that front; she has the authority and ambition to rip up the template when circumstances warrant. And 4,000 words is a generous space for most features. Yet to pull off the killer stories that make a magazine memorable, Leithauser will have to do some counterprogramming. After all, everyone knows that the magazine has taken a turn toward lighter and brighter fare. Freelancers and Post insiders will respond to the news rationally, by pitching lighter and brighter stories.
In peril is the editorial tradition of the magazine. Years ago, top Post officials decided that the magazine shouldn’t try to be a classic glossy but rather should draw on the reportorial and narrative strengths of the newsroom. That principled decision hardly birthed a consistently outstanding magazine. It has often been shitty, uneven. (A while back, we bashed the publication for running too many weak narratives by Post staffers.)
And in between shitty iterations, it has reached perfection, especially under top editor Shroder. Weingarten’s 2006 story titled “The Peekaboo Paradox,” about a children’s entertainer called the “Great Zucchini,” is the greatest feature story ever written. The fact that it didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize—and that a subsequent stunt feature by the same author on how frazzled commuters don’t stop for a solo violinist did—shows only that the Pulitzers should take a seat right where they belong, behind the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) awards.
Other great magazine features come straight from memory: Joby Warrick on the lifestyle of West Virginia miners, April Witt on a police raid that upended the lives of a couple in Prince George’s county, Weingarten on the child seats, Weingarten on “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau.
And now for the word counts on these classics: Great Zucchini: 8,716. Joshua Bell plays Metro: 6,974. West Virginia miners: 7,466. Prince George’s raid: 7,948. Child seats: 8,462. Trudeau: 8,235.
With perhaps an exception or two, these stories have two things in common: long and dark. So if they were proposed these days, they’d have to make their way into the magazine through the back door. And yet they drove tons of traffic to washingtonpost.com. Says Shroder: “Often the stories the too-long-and-depressing camp complained about most bitterly had the most impact with readers.”
The architects of the new magazine feel a kinship with readers as well. Here’s an excerpt from Leithauser’s editor’s note kicking off the new magazine:
Why the changes? Well, because, if you’re anything like me, you also have a giggling, gurgling baby; a first-grader going on middle-schooler; and neighbors who wish they had more time for … well, just about everything.
That’s why we’ve reimagined the Magazine. It has more to entice, but takes less time at each stop.
Shorter, shorter, shorter. It’s a publishing canard that dates back years, if not decades. At the same time that it trivializes your content, it underestimates your audience. Without a shred of market research or focus group data, I can state that no one has ever looked to the Washington Post Magazine for brevity. You turn to the Washington Post Magazine when you’re waylaid at the auto inspection station or waiting for Mayor Fenty to ‘fess up to a minor error in judgment. Magazine readers don’t want to rush through this product. They want to rush through the Metro section, perhaps, or Sports, or the weather page. But stories in the magazine are supposed to slow you down. They’re supposed to be the reason that you have no time in your schedule. Oh no, I just spent an hour reading about the Great Zucchini—I’m screwed!
Weymouth, Brauchli, and Leithauser—they shouldn’t feel any shame in launching a product with an unprecedented degree of “cooperation” between business and editorial. Given the $143 million that the company’s newspaper division lost in the first half of 2009, perhaps it was time to explore a new model. It’s happening everywhere. As editor of Washington City Paper, I have signed off on all kinds of revenue-driven products that would never have seen a printing press three years ago, all in the name of slowing down the drawing and quartering of our staff (look out for our first shopping issue, coming Dec. 4!).
However, the Post already had strong evidence that short and sweet don’t pay. Back in the early 2000s, the paper’s executives were seeing troubling trends in Sunday circulation; the product wasn’t appealing to younger readers. So in 2003 it launched the Sunday Source, a broadsheet embodiment of levity and brevity. It had product reviews galore, how-to content, including a tutorial on building a bookcase out of used baked bean cans, not to mention road-trip planning—basically everything advertisers could ask for.
It folded in late 2008, after failing to impress readers and advertisers.
A footnote about the Sunday Source: It had entertainment listings designed to enable hipsters to plan their weekend, on Sunday. The new magazine has a new Going Out Guide, which does pretty much the same thing.