Last January, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser e-mailed the staff, effusively praising Karl Vick’s eyewitness account of the Delaware execution of murderer Billy Bailey. The article had certainly communicated the drama of the event. “The trap door opened with a thump. Five feet of manila rope followed Bailey through the hole and snapped taut 10 feet above the sodden ground,” Vick wrote in the Jan. 26 Metro story.
One problem with Overholser’s endorsement of Vick’s you-are-there approach to the story: He wasn’t. Vick used pool reports to assemble a first-rate story from secondhand sources. In theory, Vick did nothing different from the Über-writers at the newsweeklies who rely on notes from the field to write omniscient accounts of events they never witnessed. But those stories always include a “reported by,” something Vick’s story lacked. Overholser’s citation of the story as an exemplar of reporting had gums bumping all over the Post newsroom. “You could tell she didn’t know he wasn’t there,” said one reporter. Asked about the reaction, Overholser said, “People are mad at me all the time. I wouldn’t be terribly interested in kicking back up a debate about something that happened that long ago.”
Vick doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. “I heard through the grapevine that someone was complaining and that [Metro editor] Milton Coleman just said that Metro will start crediting pool reports the day National starts putting a credit on theirs,” he says. According to Vick, reporters were chosen as witnesses to the execution by lottery. “A lot of us were relieved [not to be chosen]. On the one hand, you don’t want to see someone die, but on the other, it will help you do your job better.” Six of the “winners” then served as the eyes and ears for those who didn’t get in. “I didn’t write off of a typewritten pool report like they do in campaigns. We had an opportunity to interview six eyewitnesses before they even filed, and I was able to gather important details off of each of them,” he says. In his original draft, Vick attributed visual details to witnesses, but cut them because he believed they interrupted the narrative. “I was not trying to give the impression that I saw something that I didn’t. I tried to write a good story based on interviews of eyewitnesses.”
Boy Island The announcement that Mike Getler will trade the Beltway for the Champs Élysées sparked much scheming in the Post newsroom. The most recent wiring diagram suggests that Coleman, longtime metro editor, will take over as deputy managing editor when Getler moves on to edit the International Herald Tribune. Jackson Diehl, foreign desk editor, has the inside track on the Metro slot, but city editor Jo-Ann Armao might point out that there’s a profound lack of gender balance on the Post’s management team. Don’t forget that Jodie Allen, editor at Outlook will be leaving to run the Washington bureau of Michael Kinsley’s new online mag, Slate. Who will oversee the elite’s soapbox when Allen departs? There’s been a suggestion that Howard Kurtz wants a crack at it, but projects honcho Steven Luxenberg has been asked to apply and seems the likely successor to Allen.
Newsbytes? Speaking of virtual raids on the print world, how ’bout that Jack Shafer? Shafer, who left Washington City Paper 16 months ago to run SF Weekly in San Francisco, will be moving to Seattle at the end of May to serve as Kinsley’s deputy editor. (David Plotz, Washington City Paper senior editor, will join the Washington bureau of Slate in two weeks.)
Shafer says it was a difficult decision made easier by his enormous respect for Kinsley.
“Kinsley mentored me from afar even though I never worked for him. Just reading him had a profound influence on my work. I have always been impressed by the daring of his journalism, by the icon-busting quality of his work, and by his piano playing, come to think of it,” says Shafer.
Shafer says he was having a fine time working for New Times, a chain of hard-hitting weeklies, but “this is the only other job in the universe that I wanted.” Will Slate feature some of Shafer’s much-missed media reporting? “That’s up to Mike. I’m the deputy editor, which means that I will assign, edit, and write, in that order. And when Mike is out of town, I get the keys to the car.”
Two-fer Let’s say you are the brilliant young editor of a weekly opinion magazine and you are being assisted out the door by your publisher. Do you: Smile and wear beige? Backchannel like crazy about what a meddlesome brute your publisher is? Or disclose your HIV status? Let’s just say it was a busy week for New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, who told the Post’s Kurtz last week that he was relieved to be both out of the HIV closet and out of a job.
Sullivan’s decision to go public with his personal health status on the day he left is odd. For years, people who are positive have struggled to make the case that HIV is a chronic condition that has nothing to do with a person’s ability to perform at work. By revealing he is HIV-positive on the day he annouced he was leaving his job, Sullivan created a subtext that suggests that the one had something to do with the other.
Sullivan’s unparalleled promotional moxie was never matched by a congruent editorial vision for the New Republic, but he successfully introduced slices of the broader culture into NR’s weekly wonkfest. He left behind a larger magazine, with a bigger editorial palette and increased ad sales, but his tenure will be defined by his intermittent last year. Sullivan was out of the shop a great deal while it was becoming apparent that rising star Ruth Shalit was really a misguided bottle rocket. Sullivan hung in with Shalit, racking up a year of bad headlines and a potentially expensive libel suit. He finally put Shalit on perma-leave the month before he left by the same exit.
Is it time to call the Plumbers? Like a lot of the Washington Times’ better reporters, Bill Gertz can be a royal pain in the ass. Last month, Gertz obtained a confidential State Department cable and wrote that President Clinton mentioned the Russian ban on poultry imports—a favorite topic of the Chief Executive sponsored by Tysons—during a discussion about terrorism with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake publicly encouraged the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate Gertz’s sources. According to Gertz, Attorney General Janet Reno said last Thursday that the Justice Department has the matter under review. “She said that they were collecting information, analyzing it, and seemed to indicate that it would take a long time,” Gertz says.
So, has Gertz—who covers national security when he’s not being a threat to it—noticed any FBI agents in the rearview mirror? “I’m still doing what I have been doing for the last three years, which is breaking a lot of information based on sensitive information, including intelligence documents. Obviously, we hit a raw nerve with this poultry piece. The politics of that private exchange is probably what pissed them off.”
Last June, President Clinton made a promise that he would investigate and prosecute any administration officials leaking confidential documents. That came after Gertz used confidential sources to break a series of national security stories that apparently didn’t sit well with the president’s men.
A paper-less future? In 1993, daily circulation at the Post boomed to 823,752—8,000 more than the previous year. But according to the Washington Post Co.’s annual report, circulation in 1995 dropped 16,000, to 807,818. The loss represents an ominous trend for the paper after decades of sustained circulation growth. According to the report, operating income for the newspaper division of the Washington Post Co. plunged from $134.4 million in 1994 to $109.7 million in 1995. The 18-percent decline was attributed in part to the cost of newsprint, which rose 29 percent in 1995.
The Post will fight back against profit declines by downsizing: not by losing people, but by trimming inches off the margins of the paper. Michael Clurman, Post vice president for production, told Columbia Journalism Review that the paper will shrink by an inch in width and by an inch and nine-sixteenths in length in the fall of 1997, when the Post switches to its new $250-million printing plant in Prince George’s County. That cramped, cloying feeling that arises every time the Post’s balkanized sections all weigh in on the same topic—even Sports got a piece of the Ron Brown story—should be intensified by the Post’s new tiny-town look.
Even though the numbers out of the Post are not encouraging, don’t worry about Katie Graham’s pin money. If you ignore the newspaper business (which I’m sure the powers that be are tempted to), the company is knocking them dead. Thanks to its cable outfit and broadcast stations, the company’s net income last year rose a tidy 16 percent. It was the first time since the ’50s (when the newspaper was in the tank) that broadcast profits have been the largest source of income for the company.
The annual report is a surprisingly snappy read. Give the ruling troika of Katharine Graham, Donald Graham, and Alan Spoon credit for the kind of clear writing that’s all too rare in the pages of their paper. In describing a $28-million write-off of a CD-ROM manufacturer that Donald Graham and Spoon had advocated purchasing, the annual report suggested the loss “simply reflects a lousy decison Messrs. Graham and Spoon jointly made in 1994.” That kind of unvarnished message is enormously charming in an age when most annual reports are so jampacked with bullshit that they can’t be shipped unless they are sealed in a plastic wrapper.
Boy Island II If you are a woman, you will have a lot better luck getting your picture on the front page of the Post than getting a byline. According to a survey by an interest group called Women, Men and Media, the Post ranks near the bottom of 20 newspapers surveyed in its use of women reporters and its coverage of women newsmakers. The Post didn’t shut women out altogther: Even though only 23 percent of the bylines on the front page of the Post were women, 46 percent of the photos on the front page depicted women. Smile ladies, and maybe you too can make Page One. But if you’re a woman of opinion, you can just forget it. A measly 13 percent of the pieces on the Op-Ed page were penned by women, the lowest percentage of all papers surveyed.
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