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If you’ve been avoiding the incessant terrorism coverage since Sept. 11, the Washington Post is here to tell you: It’s safe to pick up the paper.
That, anyhow, is the message that the Post’s front page has started to deliver. With greater regularity than the past few years, the paper is putting off-pace feature stories on A1. For readers, the change breaks up the wall-to-wall coverage of international terrorism, politics, al-Qaeda terrorism, intelligence reorganizations, terrorism policy, Sept. 11 investigations, and threats of terrorism. “We were all overwhelmed by the demands of 9/11 and Iraq, and we threw everything at them,” says Post Managing Editor Steve Coll.
Now the Post is throwing a little less at Tom Ridge and a little more at the following:
•A hotshot contestant on Jeopardy!
•Sports-car marketing tactics
•The rise of accent-neutral Spanish television
•Youth violence in Japan
•Cultural-awareness programs for the children of immigrants
One thing they all share: front-page placement in recent issues of the Post.
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Another thing they share: They all fall into the categories of features highlighted by Post survey research.
According to an internal June e-mail from Assistant Managing Editor for Enterprise Bill Hamilton, the survey results, along with “intuitive thinking,” have identified seven priority categories for front-page Post features: science and medicine, entertainment, sports, immigration, technology, kids, and food.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer that entertainment, meaning television, movies, and videos…and the people who produce them and the creative process behind it are going to be interesting stories,” says Hamilton. And Post management isn’t defying the dictates of its survey research. In addition to the features identified above, the paper in recent weeks has fronted stories on the invasion of D.C. by American Idol wannabes, the citizenship quest of two deaf brothers, and the popularity of video games among girls—each of which falls into at least one of the approved categories.
Marc Fisher, a Metro columnist who formerly edited front-page feature work, says that in the late ’90s, the paper relied on market research “not at all.”
Is the Post now abdicating its editing decisions to market research? No way, says Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time,” says the Post’s top editor, referring to the diversification of front-page content. “We’re not going out and having readers tell us exactly what the front page should look like, because by and large they don’t know. We are interested in what’s read and what’s not read in the newspaper.”
Downie hesitates to relate the paper’s feature plans to its slow-bleed circulation slump—daily readership (Monday–Saturday) fell to 732,700 for the first quarter of 2004, a 3.2 percent drop. “I’m never certain exactly what matters to incremental changes in readership,” says Downie.
Yet there is a historical record of the Post trying to attract readers through feature fare. In 1996, the paper anointed longtime editor Mary Hadar assistant managing editor for A1 features. Although Hadar was short on staff, she did get two guaranteed columns of feature space in each edition of the Post. It amounted to a self-correcting device for a paper that tended to steamroll readers with the latest wonkery. “The fact is that for years, very strong features didn’t make it vs. weak news stories, because the tendency of top editors is to, you know, react to news,” recalls Hadar, who has since left the position.
That’s precisely the culture that Hadar fought with each edition of the paper. She lobbied to pluck four strong feature writers from the various news departments at the paper but never got them. “That was my dream plan, but that never came to fruition,” she says.
And whatever constituency Hadar built for spicing up the staid Washington Post didn’t survive Sept. 11, or its immediate aftermath, or its less-immediate aftermath, or its eventual aftermath. “What really happened is we woke up and realized it’s been almost three years since 9/11,” says Hamilton. “People cannot live on a diet of war, terrorism, and security policy.”