The Washington Post has a big plan to duke it out with the New York Times. The plan calls for extending the Post’s reach into national and international news markets where the Times has always had an edge. Nimbler deadlines, more aggressive reporting, and sharper writing are all part of the formula.
And to pull it all off, the Post will hire two additional staffers.
The new hires will be reporters-cum-rewrite-specialists whose names may not appear too often in the Post’s print editions. They’ll be working on the paper’s freshly constituted Continuous News desk, a cluster of about five employees charged with feeding the paper’s Web site, WashingtonPost.com, and making it a household name from Boise to Berlin.
Headlining the operation is Bob McCartney, a veteran of all four hard-news desks at the Post and the former managing editor of the International Herald Tribune. “This is the way journalism is going,” says McCartney, the paper’s assistant managing editor for Continuous News. “You can’t imagine having a serious quality newspaper anymore without having a strong, effective Web site.”
The guys responsible for that strong, effective Web site may be hard to find in the sprawling Post universe. Other assistant managing editors command scores of staffers: The Metro section, for example, has 225 employees; financial approximately 80; and foreign around 40. Yet the five members of McCartney’s continuous-news pod may force the entire organization to adjust its rhythms.
Their mission is to use the Web to showcase Post-branded accounts of breaking news stories minutes after they happen. Currently, wire-service reports linger on the site for hours, often leaving little distinction between WashingtonPost.com and, say, Yahoo! News. Web users aren’t going to flock to the site just for that killer chat with Michael Wilbon. “Everybody has the wires,” says McCartney. “People come to the Washington Post for original coverage.”
McCartney’s ascension to the Post’s upper management follows a period of soul-searching among the paper’s brass. Last fall, the Times forced the Post to withdraw from their 35-year partnership running the International Herald Tribune. This spring, the Post matched the Times in covering the Iraq war and then watched as Jayson Blair took a torch to the Gray Lady’s credibility.
All of a sudden, the Times’ national news hegemony looked like a big fat target. “It’s certainly a discussion that we had over the last six or eight months, after the Post sold its interest in [the International Herald Tribune],” says Post Managing Editor Steve Coll. “A lot of people in the newsroom wanted to seize that event to re-evaluate our relationship with international and national audiences.”
Scorned and resurgent, the Post burped up an idea with a long history at 15th and L Streets NW: a national edition. High-level staffers this spring reportedly ginned up a study highlighting the urban markets where the Post would have to go head-to-head with the Times.
But nationalization proposals didn’t even make it as far as Washington Post Co. Chairman & CEO Donald Graham, who has for years chanted about the urgency of keeping the paper a regional news force. (Graham did not return a call for comment.)
“I continue to be pleased that, for Don
Graham, a large part of his heart is in local news,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao.
Coll would say that at least one of Graham’s ventricles beats to the Web. “During the war, he was driving us,” says Coll. “He was down here beating the drums for night reporting. He is more aware of the global audience and the global clock and the power of Post journalism on the Web worldwide than many of the rest of us down here.”
In the coming months, Coll and McCartney will be doing their life-during-wartime act in the paper’s newsroom. They want WashingtonPost.com to perform during regular news cycles just the way it performed during the Iraq hostilities. Peak monthly page-views in the Iraqi conflict reached 255 million, compared with 139 million for the 2000 election. This year, the site has averaged more than 6 million unique visitors per month.
And to keep those numbers up, McCartney & Co. will need more than just a couple of rewrite staffers: They’ll need all 336 reporters at the papernot all of whom share management’s Webcentric values.
Where management sees strategic imperatives and more branding opportunities in better Web journalism, some Post reporters see only more work. In a recent meeting with the national-desk staff, for instance, Coll and McCartney fielded gripes from at least four employees about Web-related workload, according to newsroom union activist Rick Weiss.
McCartney came away from the meeting with the impression that the union may have orchestrated the barrage. Weiss, however, offered the Web boss a different version of events. “I had to tell him,” says Weiss, “‘That was not organized. What you saw there was actual, spontaneous anger and frustration that had reached a level that looked like it had been planned. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.’”
At stake is nothing less precious than the journalist’s leisurely morning. For reporters at the Post and other news outlets, an 11-ish saunter onto the newsroom floor compensates for burning countless night hours perfecting copy for the print edition. McCartney & Co., though, want to get more staff-generated content on WashingtonPost.com during the critical morning hours. That’s when regular people settle in at the office, lighting up the Post Web site from their cubes. A recent study by Mori Research said that local newspaper sites are positioned to “own” the “daytime media audience.”
To jam original reporting on WashingtonPost.com in the workday’s wee hours, Post reporters may have to say goodbye to that long morning workout at the Y or that visit to the neighborhood tot lot. It’ll be like working at an evening and a morning paper. Says McCartney: “We will be looking for copy on big stories in the morning and the middle of the day, and we’re adding these two writers so we have the resources to minimize any disruptions.”
Somehow those two extra staffers aren’t reassuring Posties. “We’re calling it the ‘Continuous Work Department,’” says one staffer.
And if you believe the Post ideology, any extra work will be voluntary. In their dog-and-pony sessions with reporters, Coll and McCartney insist that contributions to the Continuous News operation remain an enterprise decision on part of the reporternot a work requirement. Yet in the next breath, they tie Web stories to favorable performance evaluations and merit raises. The message: If you don’t do the Web, we have an idle keyboard in the Frederick County bureau.
In its pitch to the newsroom, says Coll, the Post is “not trying to trick anybody”: “We are signaling by that initiative that the Web matters.”
Another laugher: Reporters are hearing that contributions to Continuous News will help them write more clearly. The idea here is that if you get an early draft in circulation, you can spend the rest of the day beautifying it for the print version. In practice, the opposite is often true: Tight Web deadlines force writers to make hasty decisions about structure, lede, and pacing. Undoing any mistakes takes extra work. “The statement by management that this is good for us as writers because now we’re going to organize our stories so much earlier in the day and how much easier our lives are going to be is transparently disingenuous,” says Weiss.
Ever strategic thinkers, Post managers are imposing the Continuous News program a mere eight months into the paper’s three-year collective-bargaining contract with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. Last fall, union negotiators asked for a contract provision that would have required management to merely sit down with the guild to discuss Web equity issues. “They would not include that language in the contract,” says Weiss.
A Post editor insists that the union enjoys leveraging fears of Web oppression for its own ends. “They discovered this was someplace they could break some glass,” says the editor, who asked not to be identified.
Whatever the merits, Post reporters listen to spin all day long on their beats and don’t care to hear it from their bosses. “I would rather the company come to us and say honestly, ‘Look, this is going to be extra work at least for a while. We’re asking you to do this for the good of all of us’instead of trying to convince us that this is going to help us reporters,” says Weiss.
Counters Coll: “We need to change as a newsroom. It’s not going to be easy.”
No Ticket to Ride
The New York Times crusades against sexism at a famous golf club. The Washington Times crusades against…free subway fares for Metro employees.
Sure, all newspapers have their pet causes, but the Washington Times’ attack on this little-discussed transit perk sets a new standard for baselessness. Editors at the paper were apparently peeved that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) used fare and parking-fee hikes to close a $48 million budget deficit.
So they sent reporter Jon Ward after Metro officials to ask the following question: Why aren’t you revoking free fares for the 10,000-plus Metro employees? The paper’s jihad against area transit workers led to some odd-sounding copy: “Metro officials have increased fees for parking and riding buses and subways to reduce a $48 million budget deficit, but will not discontinue such perks as free rides for its more than 10,000 employees…” read the June 24 piece.
Traditionally, newspapers write about such perks when they come under attack from public officials. In this case, the lone attacker was the Washington Times. “They brought [the issue] to me,” says [Ward 1 Councilmember] Jim Graham, chair of Metro’s board of directors. “I wasn’t aware of it.”
Graham said he “expressed concern” about the perk only after learningfrom the Washington Timeshow much it might be costing Metro. Ward projected that the regional transit giant could raise up to $17.5 million if only it would charge its own employees to hop on the subway.
The paper’s methodology in reaching that figure marks the lowest point for local journalism since last year’s InTowner exposé on police brutality. Ward assumed that all of Metro’s employees take the train to and from work and pay the maximum fare. Perhaps those fumes from the New York Avenue overpass are seeping into the Washington Times HQ: Just 41 percent of trips into D.C.’s downtown core on weekday mornings come via Metro. No organization bigger than a vending kiosk has 100 percent subway usage.
A Metro source reports that Washington Times editors ordered up the story on the perk, an account confirmed by Metro Editor Carleton Bryant. “We don’t know all the perks that Metro board members and workers receive. This is just one of the ones we were aware of, and so we just asked the question,” he says.
A few days after running the piece, the paper had to admit that its crusade hadn’t caught on: “Metro board favors its free-ride policy,” read the story’s June 27 headline. CP