The Washington Post Discovers the iPod

A few facts about Apple’s iPod:

The iPod made its debut over four years ago, on Oct. 23, 2001;

Apple has moved more than 30 million iPods; and

the company recently released its fifth-generation iPod, a model with video capabilities.

Yet to judge from coverage in the Washington Post’s Metro section, the iPod still warrants a rather thorough introduction. Here’s the top of a story that ran in the paper’s Nov. 22 edition:

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Teen Accused of Stealing iPod From D.C. Metro Rider

By Allan Lengel and Martin Weil

An 18-year-old student was arrested at a D.C. school yesterday for allegedly robbing a Metro passenger of an iPod, an expensive music-playing device that has become a pop-culture icon, a Metro spokesman said.*

The electronic devices, which let people carry thousands of songs with them and listen to them through earphones, are about the size of a pack of cigarettes and have rapidly replaced the older portable Walkman-style stereos as the entertainment device of choice. Many people use them to alleviate the boredom of trips on crowded subway trains and the perceived tedium of many other activities.

Did Weil and Lengel just arrive from the Mars Bureau? Not exactly. They’re both solid reporters with decades of experience covering cops. Weil, who penned the encyclopedic iPod description, said the goal was inclusiveness. “It seemed to me that it was incumbent on us to give an account of what an iPod is and how it fits into the cultural constellation of modern Washington society and daily life,” says Weil, who adds that Metro’s audience “should include anyone from 3 to 103.”

Lengel says he found the description “amusing.”

The story was buried on Page B2, alongside a smattering of forgettable news items. It hasn’t generated a lot of talk. Even so, Dept. of Media is declaring it a watershed piece of journalism for the modern Washington Post. In short, the unhip iPod bio means that there’s at least someone at the paper who’s sticking up for a glorious constituency: the longtime paying subscriber.

The longtime paying subscriber is the fluorescent light bulb of the ongoing debate over how to save newspapers. That is: ignored, reliable, and absolutely critical. In light of the Post’s well-documented circulation troubles—daily levels had dropped to 681,600 as of Nov. 4, continuing a rash of 3 percent to 4 percent annual declines—editors obsess over how to lure the young, cool crowd.

This institutional imperative plays out on an internal electronic bulletin board where Posties have been writing critiques of each day’s edition since summer. Whenever the newspaper turns in an article on a topic such as rap music or video games, the whole newsroom bursts into a virtual standing ovation, excited that new ground has suddenly been broken in embracing an industry-saving demographic.

Case in point: On Nov. 18, the Post printed a front-page piece titled “Who Shot Cam’ron?” The story chronicled the mystery surrounding New York rapper Cameron “Cam’ron” Giles, who came to Washington in late October and went away with bullet wounds to both of his arms. Here’s the piece’s opening line: “The crime should be easy to solve: A blinged-out rap star is shot in his royal blue $250,000 Lamborghini on a busy Washington street during Howard University’s homecoming weekend.”

On the Post’s critique site, the Cam’ron story rated as an early candidate for Pulitzer nominations. Wrote Postie Chris Richards: “This story is a big deal to the young readers the Post so desperately needs, so I was thrilled to see this story on the front page.” Although one Postie said the story was late on key news developments, others praised the piece’s edge, concept, reporting, and writing, and the font size of its headline.

It took one Reynold Greenstone to interrupt the paper’s self-congratulation. In a letter printed in last Saturday’s “Free for All” page, the Brookeville, Md., resident wrote, “The Nov. 18 front-page article ‘Who Shot Cam’ron?’ certainly got my attention. It showed me how culturally deprived I must be. I was bewildered as I encountered in print: ‘blinged out,’ ‘street cred,’ ‘beefed’ and ‘flossing’ (not the dental activity). Is that the way Post staff writers intend to communicate with their readership?”

Robert McCartney, the Post’s top Metro editor, says the nonstandard usage didn’t sneak into the story. “The writers and editors wanted to sort of push the envelope on the language, and we thought it worked,” he says.

Just not for Greenstone, an 81-year-old retired scientist who has subscribed to the Post, Monday thru Sunday, since 1949. “They’re trying to appeal to a different audience,” he says. “They’re losing circulation, so I guess they’ll try anything.”

Indeed, the Post will bend here and there to accommodate the freeloading punks who hop on its Web site now and again for a few minutes at a time. In September, 90 percent of visits lasted fewer than 20 minutes, according to Eric Easter, director of communications for washingtonpost.com. “You think that’s enough time to read our political analyses, or Part III of our potential Pulitzer-winning series, or our Monday Redskins package or read our music reviews?” wrote Post staff writer Paul Farhi on the critique page. The average print subscriber, meanwhile, spends around 30 minutes on the paper, a number that rises on Sunday.

Greenstone estimates that he spends about 40 minutes each day with the Post. That’s enough current-events education to eliminate the need for an extensive primer on the iPod. “I’m well-acquainted that there is such a thing,” he says, though he has no interest in purchasing one. “I don’t see any reason to listen to music all day long as you do other things.”—

The Players

On Nov. 22, the Washington Post ran a 77-word description of Apple’s iPod, a landmark moment in the history of a paper in the midst of constant re-evaluation. Herewith, a rundown of key figures who played a role in the coverage.

Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor, Metro
Role: Murky—will not reveal whether he previewed story.Age: 52
iPod owner? No
Last music purchase: Not sure, but he listens to classical tunes on WGMS-FM and classic rock on WARW-FM, “the Arrow.”

Martin Weil, reporter
Role: Wrote iPod language and also edited the story.
Age: Recently celebrated 40th year at Post.
iPod owner? No
Last music purchase: Not clear. Says he has some “old 78s.”

Allan Lengel, reporter
Role: Shared byline on piece with Weil.
Age: 51
iPod owner? No, but has purchased one as a gift.
Last music purchase: Joe Cocker “singing other people’s tunes”

Pam Feigenbaum, copy editor
Role: Copy-edited story.
Age: 43
iPod owner? No
Last music purchase: Cut off interview before question could be posed.

*The Metro spokesperson, Steven Taubenkibel, claims he provided information only on the alleged robbery, not on the iPod’s pop-culture status. “I never said that,” he says.