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The last time big shots at the Washington Post talked about improving their service journalism, they came up with a new section called the Sunday Source. Now approaching its third anniversary, this section is essentially a weekend-planning tool that comes out on Sundays.
These days, the paper’s editors are talking about another revolution in service journalism. The project has assumed the unofficial moniker “The Daily Source.”
Does this mean that Post subscribers should prepare for cute doggie pictures and pieces on hot 20-somethings seven days a week?
No telling. Posties won’t get into details on the paper’s next landscape change. “It’s premature to say we’ve decided on a format or a name,” said Managing Editor Phil Bennett in an interview late last year. “We are interested in trying to figure out a way that the paper can reflect a mix of things that touch readers’ daily lives.”
Editorspeak notwithstanding, the following changes are under serious consideration at 15th and L:
•Ditching the Health, Food, and Home sections, which currently run as separate broadsheet sections in the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday issues, respectively, of the Post.
•Creating a new section that would encompass these three areas and would run at least three times per week.
•Infusing the section with coverage of other lifestyle topics, most notably spirituality and parenting. These two areas, says Bennett, “don’t have a consistent home in the paper but…are very important to many readers.”
Health-section staffers should demand an immediate apology from Bennett. After all, Health has totally nailed the parenting beat, from a recent blowout on parental depression to killer reports on vaccinations and the importance of breakfast. Here’s just a brief look at some exemplary service journalism for ’rents, from “Breakfast Is a Bright Idea” (8/30/2005): “After eating a bowl of oatmeal, boys and girls aged 9 to 11 showed enhanced spatial memory, a skill that helps with drawing and doing puzzles. Spatial memory can help not only with art, but also with geography as well as some technical skills used in math and science. Girls, but not boys, also displayed better short-term memory after eating oatmeal.”
As for spirituality coverage, please see Metro, a section that consistently gets religion.
So improving niche-lifestyle coverage can’t possibly account for management’s notion of ripping up three sections that have been reader destination points for years. Another impetus for the reinvention, suggests Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., is excellence. “Why we started this exercise is to see if we can have stronger sections,” he says.
Perhaps an even more compelling explanation lies in the increasingly budget-conscious newsroom. The Post’s circulation trends clock in just a hair north of free-fall: In an all-too-typical report, the paper announced on Wednesday that daily circulation had declined 4.3 percent in 2005, to an average of 694,100. Top editors commemorated the bad news by spending hours in closed-door consultations, with staff reductions reportedly on the agenda. “I’m not going to talk about that,” says Bennett.
The drumbeat of print-readership decline has stirred newsroom talk of austerity measures to come. These days, the chatter concerns a new round of spring buyouts for the Post’s veteran staffers. Downie declined to knock down the rumor. “I don’t discuss things like that in advance. I don’t know if such a thing will happen, and I can’t discuss that,” he says. Post Publisher Bo Jones was unavailable for comment.
Whatever the fate of the paper’s old-timers, the Daily Source concept dovetails with a management search for efficiencies. Under this scheme, three small staffs could become one smallish staff, and three upper-level editors could become one upper-level editor. According to the Post staff directory, the three sections currently employ approximately 25 full-timers, including editors, reporters, and aides. “The hope is that all of these subjects can be combined into a product that can be produced by a smaller staff,” says a Post staff writer.
Unless top editors come up with something special, the losers will be the foodies who will have to sift through a combined section three times a week to get a fraction of what they now get on Wednesday. Ditto for fitness fiends and homebodies. Happy will be that big demographic whose interests are split equally among health, food, home, parenting, and spirituality. “My message to readers who love these areas is that we love them too,” says Bennett. “We are trying to figure out how to be more useful and comprehensive on subjects that touch readers comprehensively.” —Erik Wemple