City Paper is not for tourists
In 2001, Washington Post Metro reporter Sylvia Moreno joined a group of young local basketball players on a trip to Guatemala for a cultural exchange. Organized by a nonprofit group called Hoops Sagrado (“Sacred Hoops”), the trip was intended to expose the locals to a distant culture and teach Mayan children a few new moves on the court. For anyone who’s read Metro feature stories, it was a familiar tale—cultures mixing, a bit of conflict, and perhaps redemption at the end.
It would have filled the front-page Metro space very nicely, and that’s what the plan called for. “When we sent Sylvia down, we thought we were going to have one story,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao.
Yet the dimensions grew when Moreno returned from Guatemala. The exchange program, it turned out, had yielded various “twists and turns and some drama,” in the words of Armao.
Voilà! A five-part series was born: “Ambassadors of the Playground.”
As Post readers learned in November 2001, those twists and turns consisted of the following:
•“[T]eenagers who don’t know each other don’t magically get along and…even the most well-meaning adult counselors can clash.”
•The kids from Washington cursed a lot, drawing a rebuke from an adult sponsor: “That doesn’t represent this group and what we came to do.”
•A man at a saloon “patted” one of the female campers on the ass.
From one scene to the next, Moreno attempted to infuse struggle and meaning into what was essentially a bunch of hoopsters on a junket. (She declined to comment to the Washington City Paper for this story.) The low point came early, with this ploy to keep readers interested enough to pick up the second installment: “The road from Washington to Guatemala and back was marked by tears, turmoil, anger, doubt and misunderstanding.”
Add a round of snickers in the Post newsroom. “People at the time were saying, ‘What the fuck?’” says a staffer who requested anonymity over fears of alienating the Guatemala-series team. Says another: “It was one sort of nice Metro feature completely and utterly inflated into a chronicle of the trivial and mundane.”
Metro editors seem aware of the series’ reception. “I’m not sorry we did it, even if there are some people like you who have a problem with it,” says Armao.
“Ambassadors of the Playground” was one of at least 107 series that the Post has run since January 2000. During the same time period, the New York Times clocks in with 42 and the Los Angeles Times with 81.
With each fresh edition, the Post cements its place as MVP of the series, at least on the basis of output. On May 9, for instance, the paper kicked off two series on the same Sunday front page—a three-parter on the Abu Ghraib scandal and a four-parter on a Silver Spring basketball team. Other recent series focused on the politics of Ohio, World War II veterans, and the plight of people residing in Virginia’s assisted-living facilities.
The Post’s February 2001 eight-part takeout on the Florida recount inspired Slate commentator Mickey Kaus to inaugurate his Series-Skipper, a sort of Cliffs Notes for serial journalism. Kaus fears that too many series may distract reporters from day-to-day reporting. “That’s the worry, and if the series are as boring as the Florida series, it’s not worth it, even if it wins the Pulitzer Prize,” says Kaus.
The glorious side of the Post’s run-on journalism is that it has won the paper Pulitzers, along with many other distinctions. But the paper’s relentless serializing of the news has fed a long-running internal debate over the paper’s readability. The dissenters in recent years have found a champion in Ombudsman Michael Getler, who frequently reminds the paper’s management of readers’ finite attention span. “There’s a temptation to allow reporters to just empty their notebooks and provide so much supporting documentation or reporting that [the series] become endless,” says Getler. “Part of the problem…is that people simply don’t have time to read as much, and when you confront them rather routinely with three-, four-, five-, even six-part series, it puts a burden on the reader…even though the information itself is first-rate, first-class.”
Leonard Downie Jr., who has served as the paper’s executive editor since 1991, isn’t worried about series overload. “We think of this newspaper as a supermarket or big tent that has so many things. We have more comics than any other paper I’m aware of, but nobody thinks that the Washington Post has too many comics….[A series] is only a fraction of the day’s newspaper,” he says.
From Tom Wolfe to Kate Boo
The Post’s glories in serial investigative reporting began long before the paper’s ’70s heyday. In the summer of 1960, the newspaper ran a seven-part series by Tom Wolfe (writing as Thomas Wolfe) on post-revolutionary Cuba under the title “Castro’s Rule.”
The series got deep into Havana politics and society, with one installment on the power brokers behind El Comandante, another on the war against the bourgeoisie, and another on the island’s raging anti-Americanism. Wolfe won the Newspaper Guild of Washington’s 1960 prize for foreign reporting, a distinction that he cites in the first paragraph of his official online biography.
But wait a minute: None of the seven articles carried a Cuba dateline. Only a couple of passages refer to Wolfe’s own travels in Cuba, and those refer to such propaganda excursions as an anti-American rally and a new home for troubled girls. To give his series a sense of immediacy, Wolfe stretched reporting standards:
“Put yourself in the sandals of Guillermo Gomez of Avenida La Palma, Miramar, Havana, who has just sat down for a wedge of papaya and demitasse of coffee and is rustling absentmindedly through the newspaper Revolucion when he comes upon an item he finds peculiarly gripping.
“This item, in a column signed by ‘El Jacobino,’ records in boldface type that one Guillermo Gomez of Avenida La Palma, Miramar, Havana, is a fink, an agent provocateur, an agent, a leech, a latifundista (a plantation owner) and a counter-revolutionary moneybags….
“The names have been changed, but such a real-life landlord is probably getting the boldface treatment this very morning…”
Before helping to create New Journalism later in the decade, it seems, Wolfe practiced a little phone-it-in journalism. The series ended with the prediction that Castro would soon be devoured by global communism. (Wolfe did not respond to several requests for comment through his publicists.)
These days, Posties don’t need to play games with their narrative subjects. As it progressed from a backwater to the top ranks of U.S. newspapers in the ’60s and ’70s, the Post picked up the staff and resources necessary to do stories with real people and real names. Today, the news staff numbers around 800, about twice its mid-’60s proportions.
Over the past decade, most sections of the paper have beefed up their contingent of enterprise reporters, those unencumbered by daily deadlines. The national desk, for instance, has added four enterprise reporters in the past four years. Metro has picked up five projects reporters in the past eight years. Their job, in the words of former Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, is to “tell the reader, ‘Look, settle down here—we have a good writer and good reporter writing a synthesis of what’s important in society today….This isn’t going to be something you can speed-read.”
The Post has plenty to show for its commitment to enterprise. Two of the paper’s serial projects in the past five years have earned Pulitzers. In a few high-profile cases, the paper has landed with immediate impact, forcing its targets to rethink the way they do business:
•A 1998 Pulitzer-winning series by a Post investigative team on shootings by the D.C. police force prompted retraining of all police officers, as well as new procedures for investigating such shootings.
•A 1999 Pulitzer-winning series by Katherine Boo documented tragically poor care for mentally retarded wards of the D.C. government. In response to the project, the District fired key bureaucrats and launched a reform of the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration.
•A 2003 Pulitzer-finalist series on the Arlington, Va.–based Nature Conservancy exposed the nonprofit’s practice of selling precious, ecologically sensitive land to supporters at discount prices as well as selling its name for use in promoting consumer goods. The group subsequently pledged to suspend the practices.
“Many of these projects have a great deal of impact on the lives of today’s readers, and that’s why we do them,” says Downie.
The Series Maker
Downie was a cub reporter at the Post in the mid-’60s when his editor sent him to find stories at the D.C. courthouse. The Court of General Sessions, his editor told him, was a “mess.”
“He said, ‘See what you find,’” recalls Downie. “I was making 105 bucks a week, so if I didn’t come up with anything, it wouldn’t have been a big loss.”
There was no such danger at General Sessions. In his visits, Downie found a place where whiskey was “consumed publicly,” where judges happily exchanged light sentences for guilty pleas just to clear out the calendar, and where lawyers had solicited business in the courthouse’s lockups.
When Downie brought his findings back to the newsroom, his editor remarked that he might have “the makings of a multipart series.” He was right. In February 1966, the Post ran Downie’s seven-part series on General Sessions, a place that the D.C. Bar Association president called a “jungle.”
Congress subsequently abolished General Sessions, the predecessor of D.C. Superior Court. Impetus for the change, says Downie, came both from his series and the Lyndon Johnson administration, which was concerned with the court’s shoddy management. “It wasn’t just me,” says Downie.
The lessons of Downie’s immersion exercise nearly jumped off the Post’s printing presses. Give a reporter some time, some support, and a fertile subject, and the paper can change the world—all in a week’s time. “It certainly shaped me as an investigative reporter and since then as an editor of a paper,” says Downie.
Downie and former Post Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser in 2002 laid out their dedication to enterprise journalism in book form, The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril: “The best…journalism is often produced by reporters and editors who have the luxury of pursuing topics they think are important without having to worry excessively about how much it may cost to report a story…” wrote the co-authors.
Downie’s lieutenants have responded to his cues on long-form stuff. Multiparters come from many sections at the paper, including Metro, Business, Style, National, and, of course, the investigative division, which produces more series “per capita” than anyone else, according to Downie.
And the series form works its way into all genres at the Post—investigative, reader service, news feature, feature—with uneven results. While investigative series have generated prizes and buzz in recent years, the picture on the feature front is a bit bleaker. The last time the Post hauled in a Pulitzer feature was 1993.
The feature problem is particularly acute on the Metro desk, producer of the Guatemala series as well as the recent series on the Silver Spring high-school basketball team. (See sidebar.)
City Editor Gabriel Escobar points to the serial feature record of the St. Petersburg Times as an inspiration for Metro’s approach to multipart narratives. In 1986, that paper published Thomas French’s famous series “A Cry in the Night,” a narrative about a murder in Gulfport, Fla. The whodunit multiparter was so successful that single-copy sales jumped by 4,000 on the days it ran, according to Neville Green, the Tampa managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times. The series’ popularity, French recalls, hit him when he looked at a stack of papers at his local supermarket. “The rest of the paper was there, but the feature section was gone” in all the papers, he says.
Escobar says Metro hasn’t looked into whether its features lure new readers to the paper. Nor has the Post generated any scientific data on the way readers respond to its frequent serial offerings. “I don’t know if there’s any way to study it, but anyway we haven’t,” says Downie.
The results of the Washington City Paper’s thoroughgoing investigation are inconclusive, as well.
Reader Laura Feldman, of the District, reports that she kept up with the recent four-part exposé of Virginia’s assisted-living facilities. “What I do appreciate about the Washington Post is that they do such thorough research,” she says. “They’ve invested a lot of time.”
But Jim Murphy, an Alexandria resident and Post reader, says, “I don’t have the time to invest in following a series through the week….[And] I don’t find a lot of series to be all that interesting.”
In Search of an Endangered Species: The Spiked Series
The Post’s series are as hard to characterize as they are to read from start to finish. Since 2000, readers who enjoy reading about the down-and-out could choose from the following series: child poverty, foster care, assisted-living facilities, global migrants, affordable housing, juvenile justice, the unemployed, wounded soldiers, and D.C. crime. And for those turned on by the elites, the paper ran multiparters on Abe Pollin, Michael Jordan, auditors, CEOs, brain-gain cities, and the stock bubble.
The sheer volume raises one question: Has the Post ever actually killed a series?
Of course, says Managing Editor Steve Coll: “We have pushed a lot of series ideas into the run of coverage.”
For example? Coll says he’ll think about it.
On the same issue, Downie insists there’s occasionally an idea that doesn’t “pan out” as a series.
Like? Downie doesn’t recall offhand. But he says it’s happened a “number of times over the years.”
Style editor Eugene Robinson, likewise, insists that “many series get proposed by reporters that don’t seem to editors like series.”
¿Por ejemplo? “I’d have to think,” says Robinson.
An exhaustive City Paper investigation turned up little documentation on killed multiparters at the Post. One Post staffer, however, recalls that longtime technology writer Joel Garreau once proposed a series that his editors rejected. “There was some series that he tried to get them to write that they were afraid of,” says the source. Garreau was unavailable for comment.
There is evidence that at least one series got a shave. In July 1984, Post reporter Leon Dash rented a roach-infested apartment in Anacostia to get close to his subjects for a story on what he termed “adolescent childbearing.” He stayed for a year. He gathered a quote or two.
“Leon wanted to write 11 parts,” recalls Steve Luxenberg, Dash’s editor.
Says Dash: “That sounds like me. They always had to rein me in.” The series ran at six parts.
Several years back, a group of Post reporters gathered with their editors to discuss something called “the black-man series,” a multipart look at the status of African-American men in contemporary America. The initiative came off the desk of reporter Robert Pierre, and veteran reporter Kevin Merida was recruited as a “sergeant” of the project.
Metro staffers Steven Gray and Michael Cottman were tasked with writing on black gay men and black cops, respectively. Darryl Fears, a reporter who participated in the discussions, says that the idea was to revisit the characterizations of black men in the mainstream media. “We wanted to do something a little more meaningful,” says Fears.
The project never advanced too far beyond those notions, however. Says Robinson: “There were some reporters who had good ideas for individual stories….It was unclear to me whether there was a unifying theme or a reason to try to go out and do a bunch of big stories that we would then present sequentially.” Participants also got bogged down with other work, and Merida says the project eventually “got consumed” by Sept. 11.
But the black-man series was never killed by management, which would have been happy to have added it to its list of enterprise projects. “I don’t put any blame on the institution,” says Merida. “If anybody, I blame myself.” CP
Watersheds in Post Series History
1960: “Castro’s Rule”
Years before becoming a “new journalist,” young Latin America correspondent Tom Wolfe penned a seven-part dissertation on Cuba under Fidel Castro. Even though he started one installment interviewing a pseudonymous or imaginary Cuban, Wolfe won a prestigious award for foreign correspondence.
1980: “American Portraits 1980”
During the two months before the 1980 presidential election, political reporter Haynes Johnson profiled American voters preparing to cast their ballots across the country, from a sleepy Southern town to a college campus to Wall Street. But Johnson’s eight-part weekly series never appeared on Page A1—Post editors took it to Style, a landmark for the fledgling section.
1994: “Rosa Lee’s Story”
Staff writer Leon Dash and photographer Lucian Perkins collaborated in this eight-parter to tell the story of Rosa Lee Cunningham, a Southeast Washington woman battling poverty, drug addiction, and illiteracy. It was the first time, according to Executive Editor Len Downie, that a writer and photographer performed as equal partners in a series. The following spring, the paper won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.
1999: “Invisible Lives”
Over two days in March, Katherine Boo traced the failings of the District’s privately run group homes for the mentally retarded. Within a week, the city had launched an investigation. For its coverage, the Post earned the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for public service. In subsequent years, the Post launched a sequence of son-of-Boo series examining other faulty local social services. Downie denies an attempt to replicate Boo’s success. “It’s not like we had a big meeting,” he says.
2002: “Homeland Security”
Calling the creation of the Department of Homeland Security “an organizational overhaul the federal government has not seen since the formation of the Defense Department after World War II,” the Federal Page profiled agencies newly folded into that department in seven installments. Highlights included dissertations on FEMA’s waning clout and the TSA’s jurisdictional challenges.
2004 “Transition Team”
This four-part series by reporter Brigid Schulte on a Silver Spring high-school basketball team squandered its credibility right from the tipoff, when it misspelled the name of 11-time NBA All-Star Charles Barkley—“Barkeley.” Powered by the tired conceit that a young basketball player was inspired by Michael Jordan, the series pivoted on the tribulations of Ben St. Ulme, the son of Haitian immigrants and a key player on an ethnically diverse Kennedy High School team. The series represented the Post’s fascination with young basketball players and its obsession with the old news that the United States is a country of immigrants.
About This Series
When Just One
Beleaguered group-home residents. A high-school-basketball player. A poorly administered courthouse. At what point does a Washington Post story blossom—or bloat—into a multipart series?
The Italics Job
Washington Post readers recognize the outlines of a routine story—headline, subhead, byline. Distinguishing the enterprise series requires space, photos, taglines, and lots of italics. Inside the packaging of a series.
The Green Mile
Chickens shit on farms on Delmarva. That’s got to be a three-parter! From polluted rivers to the troubled Everglades to the projects of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Post’s long record on the environment.
“First in a series of occasional articles.” What’s that? A series that really isn’t a series? A series written by writers who can’t get their act together to produce eight parts in eight days? A blow-by-blow account of the Washington Post debate on occasional series.
When Washington Post readers open most series, they find a spread of text, graphics, and photos. Overload or multiple points of entry?
The Serial Killer
Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler applauds the enterprise that goes into the paper’s series. But he frequently harps on their length. Have his concerns registered at the top?