When a story goes off in the back yard of the Washington Post, the paper smothers it with bodies, inches, and, more often than not, excellence. Take the gunfight at the U.S. Capitol, which brought together several fiefdoms at the PostMetro, National, Styleto render the incomprehensible in reasoned, well-turned stories showcasing the paper’s inside-the-Beltway muscle.
When big stuff happens farther than a $6 cab ride from 15th and L, however, the Post might as well pull its coverage off of AP. Pick your exemplarO.J., Cunanan, the Jonesboro kid killers, the Unabomber, or, more recently, the 7- and 8-year-old murderers in Chicago. The paper may be a big, powerful weapon, but it can’t shoot very far.
To remedy the Post’s range problem, recently christened Managing Editor Steve Coll is creeping toward anointing an A-Team of proven news feature savants, the kind of stylists who can do rewrite or dispatches to conjure the big picture on the big story the very next day. The unit will be headed by Style writer Marc Fisher, who was vetted for the Sunday magazine job that went to Glenn Frankel.
Fisher’s mandate as special reports editor will be to find stories and writers to enliven a front page where competence is generally superseded by predictability. Other writers, including Joel Achenbach, Tamara Jones, and David Finkel, have been mentioned as designated hitters who might join Fisher for topical feature coverage that lands on the front page as a matter of practice.
“Marc’s job will be to try to create a body of good journalism that we wouldn’t otherwise do….There is a whole world of news feature writing that is outside of our circulation area, in around the big catastrophes and the big stories, that we want to be bringing to our readers,” Coll says in a phone interview.
In other words, just the sort of stories that have always appeared on Page Oneof Style. Over the years, the hot-dogs at Style have jumped in days after a story has broken and stitched together a narrative of what it all meanta model that Fisher says usually took place “late in the game and not in a clear way.”
“This formalizes the mission and allows us to rotate people through who can really dig in,”
Fisher sees it as a way to respond to the big news of the day, and, when there isn’t any of that, to bring quirky, narrative-driven features to the daily front of the Post. “Coll is very invested in moving this battleship, making it more compelling and more ambitious in a literary way,” Fisher says. “One of the great strengths of the Post is that each section has its own leadership and mission, but we have never had a lot of strong general-assignment people who can work the big story.”
Good point. The Post has been unable to project excellence because it doesn’t have the ready talent to go tactical. Great paperswell, the New York Times, anywayhave the ability to parachute in and come back with the wood for Page One. It’s a highly adaptive skill in the current publishing environment, an era of parochialism in which most readers don’t read foreign reporting and seem inured to government stories that don’t include euphemisms for semen. Average Americans want to read about other average Americans doing great and terrible things.
For the past few years, it has been Assistant Managing Editor for featuresand former Style EditorMary Hadar’s job to find and polish a single daily feature for Page One to adorn all of the earnest government reporting. Although she has had the title and portfolio, she has not had any horsesHadar fulfilled her mission by shopping the various desks in the Post building looking for material. Coll suggests that Fisher’s appointment enhances Hadar’s role, but Fisher will still be reporting to Style Editor David Von Drehle, not Hadar. And if Hadar was getting the job done, why the fix?
“This is meant to extend Mary’s role as someone who works across desks. Her job is a couple of years old, and while it has been endowed with space and mission, we needed a structure to provide the kind of stories that she is looking for,” Coll says.
The newsroom has responded with the usual hopeful kvetchery that greets even the most minute change at the paper. Beat reporters worry that it will institutionalize big-footing, wherein some honcho elbows in any time there is something resembling news on their beat. National types wonder whether they are being cut out of the Big Story loop. And Stylies wonder what the poaching of talent and stories will do to a section that isn’t exactly cooking right now.
A front page avec sizzle is bound to bleed Style in the near term. That’s where the feature writers who generate the kind of narrative Coll relishes reside. On Tuesday of this week, Style writer Frank Ahrens got a ride to the front page with a sweet, complicated portrait of a preacher up on Interstate 68 who is trying to build an ark. It was a clean pickpocket: Style was left with that all-important first-person take on night kayaking in the District. But Coll says that he is not about sticking up Peter to make sure Paul is fat and happy.
“David [Von Drehle] has been an architect of a large part of this, and neither of us wants this to come at the expense of Style,” he says.
Coll is undoubtedly headed toward having a distinct A1 team sometime into the future, but only admits to “trying to goof around a little here, to look at challenges in a playful and creative way, use some gum and paper clips to put together a new approach. I’m trying to communicate to people that we want everyone to run up the hill with us. I don’t want to get so tied up in structures that people get defensive.”
They are anyway, of course. Fisher’s appointment as “player-coach” on an ad hoc Page One squad prompted a few wiseacres to crack about the ascension of the “Miami mafia.” Fisher is from the Miami Herald, as are Von Drehle and Achenbach.
“In a sense, it’s nice, because it’s another place for talented people to go at the paper, but another level of bureaucracy comes with it. It feels sort of refracted and turfy to me, and I know there are a lot of people who are worried that the good stories will be given away to a new class of reporters,” says one Post staffer.
Another Postie suggests it’s worth a look: “Hey, we are papering over a fundamental weakness herewe have gotten our asses kicked on a lot of storiesand no matter what, it isn’t going to be pretty. Fisher is a smart guy, certainly among the best writers this paper has, and some good stories are bound to end up in the paper as a result. That can’t be all bad.”
Establishment Clause Although many people stopped thinking of Sally Quinn as a reporter some time ago, she apparently hasn’t forgotten where she came from. Quinn will reportedly be heading back to the Post this fall, perhaps to add some texture and verve to Style’s heretofore pale chronicles of the Monica story. It seems odd that a section built on covering politicians as celebrities long before Tina Brown caught on is whiffing on the biggest Washington story in a decade. (Quinn will write for Style but work with Hadar, while Fisher will deliver for Page One but work with Von Drehle. Got that?)
As a hostess, Quinn has been arbitrating Washington convention for some time. Perhaps it’s just as well that she get back behind the keyboard so the rest of us know how to act.
Columnity Metro columnist Steve Twomey is reportedly thinking about giving up his suburban soapbox for a new assignment, perhaps working at Style or with Fisher. Servicing the suburbs as a columnist may sound like a cushy gig, but you try to make Falls Church sound dynamic and newsworthy. David Carr
E-mail Paper Trail at email@example.com or call (202) 332-2100.