There’s a reader lurking in the greater Washington region who’s haunting news executives at the Washington Post. He’s a youngish man, a recent law-school graduate.

When presented with a copy of the Post, this fellow fumbled with it, according to sources. He professed that he didn’t know how it was organized. And the kicker: He expressed wonderment at the spread known as the editorial/op-ed pages.

How could this well-educated man be so clueless about his local newspaper?

Well, he’s not. He reads the Post constantly on its Web site, WashingtonPost.com—“sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours,” according to a Post source.

This profile in traditional-media ignorance comes courtesy of a recent series of focus groups that the Post has conducted with prospective subscribers in the Washington area.

According to Deputy Metropolitan Editor Keith Harriston, the Post organized six such sessions in early and mid-September, with more to come. The focus groupers are largely young folks—all of them are under 45—who’ve arrived in the area within the past five years. Most have either dropped their subscriptions or never had them to begin with—and the Post wants to know why.

The answers, as filtered through a one-way mirror, aren’t exactly pumping up morale in the Post newsroom. Says Post national editor Liz Spayd, “It’s pretty intimidating listening to these people—the mission we have ahead in trying to draw new subscribers in the region. It’s an invigorating challenge for us.”

Editors everywhere are saying the same thing. In markets large and small, newspapers are pandering to new, young readers, only to watch them walk away. Readership desperation hit such an extreme that in June, three papers—Newsday, Hoy, and the Chicago Sun-Times—admitted to padding their circulation numbers.

Having company hardly comforts Post honchos. The paper, after all, covers a fast-growing and highly educated region of 7.6 million people. The Post has plowed untold resources into reaching them, but recent circulation figures show declines that are beginning to steamroll the company’s business plan. Daily circulation (paid subscribers plus single-copy sales, Monday through Saturday) held fairly steady from 1999 through 2002, dropping from 775,005 subscribers to 767,843.

Then it fell off the trucks. As of June 2004, the daily circulation tally had hit 721,100.

So some people don’t care to hear that 5:30 a.m. plop at their front door. Many focus groupers, in fact, said they wouldn’t even accept the hard-copy version for free. The explanation offered, in many cases, was that they didn’t want a bunch of newsprint “piling up” around the house. “People are saying, ‘Why is it so big?’” says Gabriel Escobar, the Post’s city editor. “It was as if they wanted it almost the size of the short versions of Shakespeare that you can buy at Wal-Mart.”

And this was before the Post ran nearly 50 articles on the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian!

Via focus groups, Posties are learning that nonsubscribers haven’t lost touch with their journalism. On the contrary, these folks are ferocious, regular readers. It’s just that they don’t want to touch the paper or pay for it. And the company offers a perfect platform for the free rider—its Web site. “The good news is they’re extremely familiar with the paper. The bad news is that they don’t want to buy it. News is like air, and we’ve taught them that,” says a Post source who has watched focus groups.

Certainly Posties can’t feign shock at the popularity of their dot-com operation. The site is a news-spewing monster, always brimming with updates on big stories and easily scannable. According to July figures supplied by Nielsen/NetRatings, WashingtonPost.com’s 114 million page views that month placed it behind only NYTimes.com among individual newspaper sites. And that’s for a paper that isn’t even distributed nationally.

In a region dominated by white-collar types, WashingtonPost.com has a distinct office-cubicle advantage over paper. When a salaryman spreads out a newspaper at his desk, he’s goofing off. But when he reads the latest Michael Wilbon dispatch on the Redskins online, he’s doing research—a dynamic documented in the focus groups.

But Internet-generation slackerdom doesn’t fully explain why young’uns won’t pay for the hard-copy Post. Says Harriston: “There was a real concern in that group with the recycling issue, and they did talk about it in terms of recycling and the environment and the availability of news online.”

Other focus-group miscellany:

The Post should run fewer pictures.

The Post should provide more coverage of the constitution of the European Union.

The Post should expand all of its foreign news briefs into full-fledged stories.

The Post is good for its coupons.

According to Posties, the imperative of making the Post a more navigable newspaper drew the most nods from focus groupers. That means more news summaries, indexes, keys, and so forth. “For a few of them, [the paper] looked kind of like a foreign object, and they looked at their companions to see what they were doing,” says Spayd. “A lot of people at the Post talked about various ways of helping them figure out what’s in the paper and how to find it.”

Already the navigation aids are popping up in the Post. The far-left column of last Saturday’s Metro section, for instance, featured a box highlighting the goodies inside—although Metropolitan Editor Bob Barnes said its appearance was unconnected to the ongoing save-the-subscriber campaign.

Even if the Post bests the Wall Street Journal and USA Today on the navigational gimmick front, rest assured that such tinkering won’t deter the roughly 4,000 paying readers who are leaving the Post every month.

They’ll just keep logging on, free of charge, until the Post wagers that they’re hooked enough to pony up for the service.

Capturing the hard-copy deserters would help cement a legacy for Executive Editor Leonard Downie, who took command of the Post newsroom in 1991. Although he’s piloted first-rate political coverage and some penetrating—if bloated—investigative series in his years as top editor, Downie can’t afford to be remembered as the guy who lost the subscriber.

In addition to focus-grouping, Downie has created committees to examine the paper’s design and front-page presentation. “We’re looking at trying to increase readership of the newspaper—what to do to entice people into regular readership in a variety of ways,” says Downie.

Good idea. Yet Downie, at least for now, refuses to mess with the Post’s free-Web-site policy, the very heart of its circulation difficulties. In fact, Downie feels the same way about charging for WashingtonPost.com as he famously feels about elections. “That’s a very complicated issue, and I don’t have a position on it. I am focused on the newspaper,” says Downie, who doesn’t vote for fear of biasing the paper’s coverage.

In recent months, the press has burst with stories about legendary Democratic operative Bob Shrum, a top strategist and speechwriter for presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry. The stories generally note that adviser Shrum has compiled an 0-for-7 record on presidential campaigns. And that he’s a top-flight speechwriter.

After that, the commonalities disappear, leaving a set of vexingly disparate views of this monster figure in Democratic politics. To sort it all out, Dept. of Media offers this handy Shrum-profile-distilling chart, breaking down recent stories in the New Republic (Franklin Foer), the Washington Post (Mark Leibovich), the New Yorker (Ken Auletta), and the Atlantic Monthly (Ryan Lizza). —Erik Wemple

New Rupublic

Nasty Nut Statement

“Call it the ‘Shrum Paradox,’ whereby a fairly average consultant has achieved extraordinary predominance.”

Anonymous Slam Quote

“He’s far more tuned into focus groups and polling data than moral arguments.”

—“One consultant who has worked with Shrum”

Superfluous/Baffling Wardrobe Commentary

“Shrum…is known to amble into the Wayfarer bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, with a purple scarf draped over his shoulders.”

Fun Fact

“Shrum…is known to amble into the Wayfarer bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, with a purple scarf draped over his shoulders.”

Spelling of Nickname for Shrum’s Wife, Marylouise Oates

“Oatsie”

Shrum—Strategist or Speechwriter?

“[H]e’s a strategist.”

—John Kerry

Washington Post

Nasty Nut Statement

“Presidential candidates keep clinging to Shrum in the same way that [Red] Sox fans (like Kerry) cling to the faith that this year, surely, things will be different.”

Anonymous Slam Quote

N/A*

*From a February 2004 Post memo on reporting standards: “We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources. Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.”

Superfluous/Baffling Wardrobe Commentary

“Shrum, who is at once impeccably well dressed and chronically disheveled…”

Fun Fact

“He does not drive, a fact his friends attribute to his horrifying skills behind the wheel.”

Spelling of Nickname for Shrum’s Wife, Marylouise Oates

“Oatesey”

Shrum—Strategist or Speechwriter?

“Bob Shrum is not a strategist. Bob Shrum is a speechwriter.”

—John Kerry

New Yorker

Nasty Nut Statement

“…Kerry supporters have worried that Shrum’s populism, an intense focus on domestic issues like jobs and health care, may prove to be a fatal weakness.”

Anonymous Slam Quote

“Look at every campaign that he’s involved with. There are body bags.”

—“Senior official in the Gore campaign, who asked to remain anonymous”

Superfluous/Baffling Wardrobe Commentary

“Shrum wore a magenta cashmere scarf that his friend the attorney Robert Bennett had given him in 1999…”

Fun Fact

At the Democratic convention, “the candidate…invited Shrum and his wife to sit in the Kerry box.”

Spelling of Nickname for Shrum’s Wife, Marylouise Oates

“Oatsie”

Shrum—Strategist or Speechwriter?

“I don’t want to be known as a speechwriter.”

—Shrum

Atlantic Monthly

Nasty Nut Statement

“At issue is whether he is as valuable as he is reputed to be or whether his populist message has become shopworn and ineffective.”

Anonymous Slam Quote

“‘He wreaks havoc in campaigns,’”

—“A senior Gore aide who clashed with him in 2000”

Superfluous/Baffling Wardrobe Commentary

“In contrast to the chunky parkas of the Iowans he had just won over, Shrum wore a tan overcoat of lush wool.”

Fun Fact

Shrum has “tempered his youthful idealism”

Spelling of Nickname for Shrum’s Wife, Marylouise Oates

N/A

Shrum—Strategist or Speechwriter?

“To the extent that there is a Karl Rove in this operation, Karl is named Bob.”

—A “colleague” of Shrum’s