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Washington Post columnist Donna Britt’s voice mail fills up pretty quickly these days. Casual tips from readers and plugs from PR types, though, are only partly responsible. The rest of the chatter comes from Britt’s most ardent fan, a man who insists on filibustering into her message system.
The 48-year-old Metro columnist says that Post techies extended the recording time of her voice mailbox to accommodate other callers. But the fan, proving the principle of elastic supply, uses that tape for himself. “He seems to like me,” says Britt.
The voice-mail squatter, say Post editors, falls into a long queue of readers who’ve developed a connection with Britt. When Britt takes an extended break, Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao says, readers scream louder than they do for any other absent Metro columnist.
Britt, who calls herself an “intimacy girl,” eschews the wonkery of most Washington scribes. She writes about movie stars who repulse her, artists who inspire her, and babies who fill her with wonder. Anything, in other words, that’s on her mind.
Here’s the first line of a Britt column from February 2002: “Smack in the middle of lunch Tuesday with a lovely friend, I fell in love.” The piece describes how the travails of her lunch friend made Britt fall in love again with her own life.
If it all sounds personal, says Armao, that’s the plan. “She talks about issues in the world through her individual prism. She’s different. I think that that’s what makes her good,” argues Armao.
Britt says she lives a bona fide multicultural life that she wants to share with readers. The columnist talks about an outing last year when she, a black woman, was “going out with white friends to a Thai restaurant to see an Indian movie and stopping off to hear an Hispanic author….I like inviting people into my life, to see how cool that mix of people is,” she says. Britt recalls reading her hometown daily as a child and “not seeing anybody in the paper who remotely resembled me or the people I loved.”
In the words of Post Managing Editor Steve Coll: “So much of the newspaper lives in public spaces. It’s attractive to have a column that lives in private spaces.” Private is right: Much of Britt’s classic work originates from her Silver Spring living room, her son’s Silver Spring school, and her friends.
But Coll and Armao might want to take a good look at the recent work of their 10-year column writer. In a startling trend uncovered by an extensive Washington City Paper survey, Britt appears to be straying from her quote-a-friend roots and drifting into the territory of impersonal, bootstrap journalism. The salad fork and coffee spoon are still present, but more and more, the writer displays an unsettling willingness to put them down and pick up a pencil.
In reaching this conclusion, the City Paper examined sourcing in all of Britt’s 2002 columns vs. sourcing in a previous year chosen at random—1996. The results show a remarkable 30 percent uptick in sources that required Britt to do some legwork or phone work. Here’s how it breaks out:
In her 1996 columns, Britt quoted a total of 37 enterprise* sources, for a per-column average of .84. In 2002, though, she rang up a total of 49 such sources, for a per-column average of 1.2.
Those numbers wouldn’t surprise her editor. “My impression is that over the past year, she has been broadening out the column a little bit,” says Armao, referring in particular to a post-sniper column this past November in which Britt visited a Kensington gun shop to sample high-powered rifles. “[E]xperiencing what the sniper felt physically—the metal’s unyielding heaviness, the narrow peer down the barrel’s length—felt eerie. Felt…wrong,” wrote Britt.
In discussing the religion of arms, Britt quotes the store’s owner, Bill Printz, as saying that one of the sniper’s slayings “made me feel just as bad as it made you feel, if not worse.”
Quoting merchants and authors and college students—as Britt did in 2002—is all fine and well, but there’s only so much space in an 800-word column. So for every Bill Printz who makes his way into Britt’s copy, there’s less room for the author herself.
To wit: In 1996, Britt quoted herself in five separate columns—a tally that dropped to a dismal one in 2002.
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Britt purists, though, need not fear that the columnist is wearing herself out on the beat. The survey showed a roughly comparable presence of family, friends, and neighbors in Britt’s copy in the two years. Britt herself says that an admirer once told her that her work gave him insight into the workings of a black family. And the insights just keep coming: Last year, Britt quoted her mom in three columns, her sons on numerous occasions, and even her husband’s late grandfather.
And if you’re thinking that her friends and family members represent too narrow a slice of the American pie, remember that Britt last year worked in plenty of service personnel, including her manicurist, her hairdresser, clerks at the local Giant, and a trainer at her gym.
“I live that [multicultural] mosaic—at the grocery store, at my kids’ schools, where I get my nails done…” says Britt.
I asked my brilliant journalist colleague Tom what he thought of the columnist quoting a personal trainer at her gym and her mom in Metro columns. “Where else in the Washington Post are you going to hear the voice of the personal-trainer community?” he shot back. Tom, a son, continued, “Motherhood is one of the great human experiences—either at the receiving end or the giving end. Everyone can relate to it.”
*Defined loosely as any quoted source who is: (a) not your mom; (b) not your husband; and (c) not your “selfless friend Desda.” Britt’s opus creates several methodological challenges in this area. For instance, in one column, Britt quoted an imaginary baby talking back to her about race and discrimination. On one hand, the columnist in this case didn’t have to network for this source; on the other, it did require some imagination. In the end, the survey team decided to place the articulate baby in the nonenterprise category.
Out of Pocket
Reliable Source columnist Lloyd Grove incurs a lot of expenses in the pursuit of gossip. Lunches, drinks, whatever it takes to get local luminaries to dish on their friends and enemies.
Grove, however, learned just before Christmas that he’ll have to eat his latest round of out-of-pocket expenditures for the final quarter of 2002. Post management has notified Grove and other staffers that they won’t be getting reimbursements because their paperwork came in past deadline. In previous years, say Posties, late expense requests were always honored.
Managing Editor Coll would not say how much money was in play, but he did say that the rumored tally of 20 to 30 out-of-luck staffers “is not wildly off.” The miserliness qualifies as a veritable trend story at the august daily: Last year, it stiffed staffers over cell-phone usage and stonewalled the newsroom labor union on salary hikes. And on Christmas Eve, Post management circulated a snippy e-mail to staffers on budget-trimming measures. “I realize that there must seem to be a constant drumbeat of belt-tightening, tougher rules and more paperwork for you, and I appreciate the cooperation and understanding most of you have shown during this time of economic recession,” wrote Post Assistant Managing Editor for Planning and Administration Shirley Carswell.
Key word: “most.” “Most staffers” presumably doesn’t include chief Post humorist Gene Weingarten, who wrote a satirical letter to management after losing more than $100 in expenses to the new policy. “I understand that in the days and weeks preceding the deadline there were numerous email communications, of increasing stridency and pinched tone, warning us that if we failed to meet this deadline we would not be paid, we would be fired, we would be SET on fire, etc.,” wrote Weingarten.
Grove said that he couldn’t afford a sense of humor over the problem, because his unpaid expenses are far greater than Weingarten’s. (Grove declined to specify the amount.) “I guess I will take a tax loss on them if they continue to insist on their new policy,” says Grove. “Despite all these cautions, they’ve always been paid in the past. This is a new experience.”
Post spokesperson Eric Grant says, “The Washington Post is no different than any business that wants its employees to submit their expense reports in a timely fashion. We make sure that employees are clearly aware of all deadlines.”
When asked if the expense squeeze could lead editors to revolt against tightwad administrators, Coll replies, “We’re still discussing this.” —Erik Wemple
Mom, Is This on the Record?
Washington Post columnist Donna Britt maintains a delicate balance among key sources: family, friends, and people she runs into at the supermarket. Here’s the breakdown of quoted sources in her 2002 columns.
Category Includes: mom, son, husband’s late grandfather, a reference to “cool cousin Joann,” others
Category Includes: “stunning journalist pal,” “thoughtful friend Rodney,” others
Service Personnel/Errands: 7
Category Includes: “my manicurist,” “my hairdresser,” others
Social Sources per Column: 1.2
Category Includes: Silver Spring family therapist Fred Brewster, Silver Spring salon owner Dave Singleton, Silver Spring artist Ellen Jacobson, others
College People: 11
Category Includes: People that Britt met at screenings and lectures, friends of her children, others
Category Includes: A woman who goes to Britt’s mom’s church, folks Britt met at the hospital where her son stayed, others
Enterprise Sources per Column: 1.2