The Washington Post in recent months has published several stories on a controversial sex-education curriculum proposed for the Montgomery County public schools. The stories have cited lots of key sources, including:
•John Garza, a representative of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. Garza & Co. opposed the curriculum, which features video instructions for putting on a condom.
•Judith Bresler, an attorney for the school system, who argued that the curriculum provides straightforward information.
•U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr., who issued a temporary restraining order against the curriculum on the grounds that it looks down on certain Christian sects that hold negative views on homosexuality. After the restraining order came down, Montgomery Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast scrapped plans to launch the curriculum.
The stories, however, don’t quote any kids. They’re the ones who would be sitting through these new sex-ed classes. In at least eight stories and around 6,000 words, though, the Post left the impression that sex ed matters only to adults. (One survey piece did manage to quote a Howard County student on sex ed.) “Far too often we’ve failed to tell these stories from the most telling perspective, which is the kids that are affected by them,” says a Post staff writer.
The student deficit in the recent Montgomery coverage surfaced in a meeting last week addressing a generation gap in Post readership. The paper’s KidsPost, which appears in the back of the Style section, is geared toward children from 8 to 13. All the pages around it are designed for adults. Is it time for TeenPost?
That’s a question for KidsPost editor Tracy Grant, who convened last week’s skull session and is working on Post teen appeal. “This is not a groundswell, not an initiative, not anything except a vague itch that I’m pursuing and scratching,” says Grant. She notes that she hasn’t even begun testing proposals with teenagers.
Lassoing a new demographic could help the Post counteract what has become a slide toward irrelevance, punctuated by seasonal updates documenting a circulation decline. The paper announced recently that for the six months ending on March 31, weekday circulation dropped to 751,871, down 2.7 percent against the same period a year before. The steady attrition of Post subscribers has generated industrywide attention and predictable statements from the paper’s brass. “We’re always interested in increasing audience whenever we can, especially young people,” says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
At least the Post knows what teen-baiting pitfalls to avoid. John Kelly, who founded KidsPost in 2000, says that the paper considered launching a teen page but backed off when it looked at the competitionand not because the competition was overwhelming. “What many other papers did for teens was so awful that we didn’t want to approach it,” says Kelly, referring to sections produced by teens themselves.
Kelly may well have made the best editorial decision in the history of the Post. Teen-produced pages are bad enough to repel readers of all ages. Just sample Voices, a weekly section of the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania. Voices is “For Teens. By Teens. About Teens.”a puerile formulation that is all too evident in its pages. For example, a recent feature titled “Beauty secrets from around the world” notes, “Many traits that people recognize as beautiful in others are universal. For example, dark eyelashes, a physically fit body, and high check-bones, among many other characteristics, are commonly considered attractive.”
The piece is illustrated by a picture of three girls, and the caption reads: “Mansi Shah, a junior at Wilson; Lauren Chubb, a junior at Wilson; and Maya Salloum, a senior at Wilson, show different cultural aspects of beauty.”
Since the Post won’t deign to explore the cultural aspects of beauty, it has two options in plumbing the teen reader market. The first is to direct its various news sections to elevate the routine presence of teens in their coverage. In the Post’s decentralized culturewhere section editors have a great degree of latitude over storiesthe newsroomwide approach will produce a flurry of teen-related stories for a few months, followed by an inevitable backslide to the general grind of adulty stories.
Stories with kids at their core, after all, take more work. “Sometimes you have to realize that we are constrained in getting some of those [young] voices,” says Jo-Ann Armao, the paper’s top Metro editor. “There are certain circumstances when a person under 18we could not quote them unless we have the permission of their parents. That’s a factor that we deal with.”
Yet the other optionlaunching a teen page produced by staffersties big-time Posties in generational knots. Says Downie: “Past research has shown that you have to be careful about how you do this, because teens are understandably suspicious of adults trying to produce something that is of particular interest to them.”
Such wariness may explain why last week’s Post meeting on the topic aired misgivings about attaching the word “teen” to any special section. “For some reason, there seemed to be some concern that teens wouldn’t want it to be called TeenPost,” recalls Valerie Strauss, an education reporter and a participant in the discussion.
Yeah, and what a bust the word “teen” has been in the magazine marketplace. Teen People has a circulation of only 1.6 million; Seventeen, 2.1 million; and Teen Vogue, 598,706, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
The honesty of “TeenPost” sure beats other teen-targeted titles currently on the market, which generally pander to youngsters via outdated puns and typographic tomfoolery. For instance: Generation NeXt, it! Magazine, NeXt, and Next Generation.
“I like ‘TeenPost’ better,’” says Nick Sutherland, a 15-year-old freshman at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Titles like “Generation NeXt,” says Sutherland, sound “kind of cheesy to me.”
And D.C.’s Grace Montgomery, 14, says she’d “definitely” read a page with “teen” in the title, brushing aside any suggestion that such targeting would turn her off.
The truth is that Posties haven’t determined what teenage readers want to read, much less how to package it. They have lots of company in the industry, too, which is struggling with the same problems.
Hell, they even have company among teens. Fifteen-year-old Austin Spies has been reading the Post since he was 10, with a laser focus on Sports. The Walter Johnson freshman never really looked at KidsPost and says he probably wouldn’t check out a new feature on teens. But what about his contemporaries? “I don’t really know if any of my friends read the newspaper,” he says.
No Credit, No Problem
If the Washington Examiner really aims to take a bite out of the Post’s readership, it needs to break an exclusive story here and there. At a mid-April newspaper convention, Editor John Wilpers said that his free paper had beaten the Post to scoops three or four times since the Examiner’s Feb. 1 launch.
On May 6, the paper appeared to have another. “MPD sued over off-duty jobs,” read the headline of a piece on a class-action suit filed by a group of D.C. police officers who claim that the department has elbowed them out of after-hours security gigs. The paper called it an “Examiner exclusive,” even though it was just another story on cops griping about their jobs.
About a week later, the Post tucked the story into its District Extra section, a repository for B material. The piece gave no credit to the Examiner’s “exclusive.”
Post Assistant City Editor Bill Miller reports that no one had proprietary ownership of the documents behind the story. “The story they had came from a lawsuit, and we had the same lawsuit,” he says.
Says Wilpers: “It’s not a big deal. We know we broke it, so we’re satisfied with our reporting.”
The Post Sports page, though, leads the pack in Examiner-snubbing. On April 10, Mike Wise wrote a piece on Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden. Among Wise’s observations on Bowden was that the GM “writes an as-told-to weekly column for a regional newspaper…”
Hmmmwhy not just name the paper? “My humblest apologies, and I will gladly take any free subscription they offer,” says Wise.
Wilpers wrote to Wise with an offer of assistance to “identify the paper that he wasn’t able to identify.”Erik Wemple