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Washington Post Metro reporters Ruben Castaneda and Allison Klein didn’t intend to touch off a soul-searching debate about their paper’s relationship with the New York Times. They were just working their beats and trying to get to the front page.
On March 17, they succeeded, producing an A1 piece titled “‘Flash Point’ Killings: Murder Most Casual.” The story took a low-to-the-ground approach to documenting a trend in Prince George’s County whereby people end up murdered over trivial confrontations. One highlight explained how two men shot each other to death with .40-caliber handguns following an argument about a dog.
The piece looked like just the sort of enterprise reporting that inspires fist-pounding from Post editors, but its reception in the newsroom was uneven. On the Post’s internal message board for self-criticism, Metro staffer Lori Montgomery wrote, “i, too, liked the very well done casual-killing story. i would have liked it a whole lot better, though, if i hadn’t read it in the NYT a couple weeks ago.”
Ouch—nothing like getting accused of a clip job. The intramural elbow referenced a Feb. 12 Page One story by the New York Times’ Kate Zernike: “Violent Crime Rising Sharply in Some Cities.” As its Criminology Senior Seminar headline suggested, the story was essentially a survey of homicide statistics and quotes from experts on crime trends. Castaneda noted in his defense on the Post message board, “We could have had a story like the TImes had — all officials and experts — many weeks ago. We opted to try to go a little deeper and find victims and an actual ex-offender, which took a little more time, but I think was worth the effort.” (Full disclosure: Dept. of Media has played at least 200 tennis matches against Castaneda.)
“Brand X,” as the Times is known at the Post, is a proven conversation starter. Posties of all stripes jumped in to comment on whether their paper should cover a topic that the Times had already featured. Wrote one: “I don’t know about others, but my neighbors aren’t spending their days flipping between the WP and the NYT, checking to see which one had what feature when.” Wrote another: “the only people who read both papers are journalists and flacks. if we edit the paper with them in mind, we really will be doomed.” And another: “If we only printed stories on stuff the New York Times didn’t do, wouldn’t we be printing only the news that wasn’t fit to print?”
Genetic engineering will be required to cure the Post of its obsession with the Times. The Times, after all, has long been the benchmark that the Post uses to mark its ascension as a player on the national media stage. Whether the story is Watergate or the CIA’s secret detention centers in Eastern Europe, Post scoops are special not just because they break news but because they make the Times play catch-up. Ben Bradlee, who ran the Post newsroom from 1968 to 1991, mused on the rivalry in his autobiography, A Good Life: “[P]eople in the know, people in power, were already speaking of the New York Times and the Washington Post in the same breath, instead of just the New York Times. That had been a secret, unspoken goal of mine ever since I had returned to the paper.”
The obsession these days shows up at 15th and L in a big bundle. The Post newsroom maintains 88 daily subscriptions to the Times—or roughly one paper for every 10 staffers. On Saturdays and Sundays, the pile drops to 32 copies. The annual cost for all that newsprint comes to $18,108. Those figures washed up on the Post critique site courtesy of Health section editor Craig Stoltz, who had asked the newsroom budget people for numbers on Times subs.
The payments to the Times, Stoltz wrote, can go to more productive ends. Anyone who wants to check on the competition can do it for free on the Web, he said. “The more we and the Gray Lady watch each other, react to each other, scheme against each other, and hire each other’s disgruntled staffers, the more we become like a seasoned old couple that has been together for years and now shares each other’s mannerisms, values, friends and favorite movies,” wrote Stoltz. “We hardly notice that the youngsters don’t find us as interesting as we find ourselves.”
Another good reason to ditch the daily Times watch: According to Post research dating to spring 2005, a mere 4 percent of Post readers also read the Times on weekdays; on Sundays, that number inches up to 5 percent. “To say we shouldn’t do a story because the Times has done it is a very big mistake,” says Post Associate Editor Robert Kaiser.
The Times plays coy on how much love it returns to the Post’s circulation people. When asked how many Post subs the Times buys, Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis responds via e-mail that the “folks in the newsroom weren’t comfortable” with coughing up a number. However, well-placed sources in the paper’s main newsroom and Washington bureau yield a count of at least 65 Posts.
And the Times could well exacerbate the Post’s persistent circulation problems if a recent Times budgeting memo is to be believed: “We will be reviewing subscription accounts desk by desk in the coming months, with an eye to reducing the number of publications coming into the building.”
If Times folk don’t quite reciprocate the Post’s fascination with them, it’s perhaps because they have more fronts to monitor. “Our attentiveness to the Post is no greater than our attentiveness to the Wall Street Journal,” says Times Assistant Managing Editor and Standards Editor Allan Siegal.