On Nov. 30, the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy wrote a column about a job fair that took place inside the D.C. Jail. The piece documented the challenges that inmates face in going legit following their terms behind bars. It also marked Milloy’s last column, ending a 22-year run as one of Metro’s anchor voices. “I’ve done it awhile, and I think it’s time to do something different, a different kind of writing,” says Milloy, who won’t write a column saying sayonara to his readers. “I don’t do farewell, and I’m not farewelling. I didn’t do a sign-on column.”
Are those the words of a disaffected reporter lashing out at his editors? Perhaps not—few journalists can survive a lifetime inside an 800-word straitjacket.
Yet Milloy’s abrupt resignation as columnist must be counted among the ravages of the Post’s newfound fetish with reader “navigation.” Last week, top Metro editor Robert McCartney informed Milloy and fellow columnists Marc Fisher and Donna Britt that their hallowed space along the spine of Metro’s front page had been annexed. Starting on Dec. 20, wrote McCartney in an internal memo, their columns would appear somewhere else on the front page, their exact placement to be determined by “news value and design needs.” That sounds a lot like the paper’s treatment of Style columnist Tina Brown—namely, about 120 words on the section front, followed by a jump to oblivion. Indeed, the Metro columns that begin on the section’s front page will soon always jump to an inside page, ending the elegance of the one-gulp column that starts at the top of the page and ends at the bottom. In certain editions, the columns might even start in the wilderness of the section’s inside pages.
Surely it would take a planetary force to uproot the Metro columnists, three veterans whose work is closely tied to the Post’s identity. Or it would take a “rail,” a column of text that explains what’s inside the section. Post readers are by now familiar with this design feature: Both the Business and Sports sections feature summary rails that run on the broadsheet’s spine.
Rails are sweeping the signature pages of the Post in response to reader research, which indicates that people need tools to help them find articles in the paper. “I think we’re searching for better ways to organize our content,” says Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett. “We’re recognizing the enormous volume of content we present to our readers.” Bennett insists that the rails free section editors from the pressure to crowd their opening pages, leaving space for more innovative treatments of feature stories.
“Pull the Business front from a year ago,” says Bennett. “The rail has liberated that section to be more inventive.”
Metro’s rail should debut Dec. 20 in the space long reserved for columnists. This prime real estate will go to a cluster of copy alerting readers to all those memorable Metro stories that aren’t already featured on the section’s front page. So what sort of teasers will the rail contain? If it had run in the Dec. 13 Metro edition, it could have plugged pieces on the following: quorum problems on the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors; the stabbing of a man in Prince William County; a trial in the slaying of a teen at a football game; the deaths of Bobby Newmyer, a film producer, and Roy Craig Cahoon, an expert in coinage at the U.S. Mint; the weather. Those stories appeared in an eight-page Metro section that weighed in at 1.3 ounces. Attaching a rail to such a tiny pile of newsprint would be a lot like putting a table of contents on a menu. The point here is that on the average day, even a paper with the resources of the Post doesn’t produce more than a handful of excellent stories across all of its sections—and the spacious “key” on Page A1 provides plenty of space for promoting those pieces.
But the notion that readers are thirsting for a section-by-section guide to the paper’s content is a case of classic Post overkill and a sign that the paper’s circulation losses have begun to drive top editors batty. “I don’t share their views about how this is supposed to help bring readers in,” says Milloy. “I’m not sure what the thinking is on that.”
Says Fisher: “I don’t think there’s a writer on the planet who’d be pleased to be displaced by an index.”
Certainly not Business columnist Steven Pearlstein. His column got bounced from the spine of the Business page by a navigational rail earlier this year. Readers didn’t react to the change, in the worst way. “My e-mail fell off after it happened,” says Pearlstein. “I surely saw the e-mail go off more than a third.”
Pearlstein’s e-mail drought exposes the irony of the Post’s design changes: In the name of navigational ease, the paper is bagging perhaps its most reliable and easy-to-find outposts. “I would say that column reading is more like cartoon reading than it is like news reading,” says Pearlstein. “There is a regularity to it, and [it] becomes a habit.”
Metro’s leadership at least pays lip service to this notion. In his memo to the Metro columnists, McCartney wrote, “All three of you have expressed concern about this change. Let me reemphasize that it does not result from any rethinking of the value of your columns. Yours are important, distinctive voices in our journalism, and vital to how we connect with local readers.” CP