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Late last week came the news that editors at the Washington Post had discontinued Dan Froomkin’s popular White House Watch Web-only column after a five-and-a-half-year run.
This wasn’t just another media-personnel story for the trade publications. The act of a powerful news organization cutting off the head of a Bush-bashing media figure gave the Internet free license to indulge in Idiot Time.
Leading the charge was Atlantic.com’s Andrew Sullivan, who connected the move to—-what else?—-politics and ideology:
Dan’s work on torture may be one reason he is now gone. The way in which the WaPo has been coopted by the neocon right, especially in its editorial pages, is getting more and more disturbing. This purge will prompt a real revolt in the blogosphere. And it should…
Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald saw something scandalous here as well:
Why was Froomkin deemed “liberal,” inappropriate and biased? Because he pointed out that the Bush administration’s claims were false and their policies radical — i.e., he wrote what was factually true. But that — writing what is factually true and pointing out false statements from those in political power — is the number one sin in establishment journalism.
And here’s a commenter on washingtonpost.com:
You publish Dana Milbank’s pap column, you publish 14 part articles on Chadra Levy, and you can’t put one honest voice in?
I am appalled.
At this point your paper has become simply a tool of the Washington establishment. Yet another place to read the same garbage I can get anywhere else.
There are obvious problems with these theories. To address Sullivan’s point: Why would the Post bag Froomkin over torture when its own editorials have opposed the practice? And to address Greenwald’s point: If the Post were really canning this guy over his Bush-related rantings, wouldn’t Froomkin have been pushed out sometime during Bush’s terms in office?
All the conjecture amounts to fantasy. It would be wonderful, that is, if the Post‘s move had really been motivated by partisan politics. Or, better yet, by a fear that this iconoclast was just too dangerous for the paper. What a Washington story that’d be.
Too bad that Froomkin’s firing is a far less spectacular story, one that hinges on money and resources, with a side of standard newsroom conflict. Everything, in other words, except for ideology.
Froomkin started his online White House coverage for washingtonpost.com in January 2004, just as public skepticism of the Bush administration was starting to surface. His column’s launch coincided with the publication of Ron Suskind‘s book The Price of Loyalty, which took a dim view of the reigning administration. “As it happened, that day was essentially the beginning of the Bush critique,” says Froomkin.
Is it a touch arrogant for Froomkin to position himself as the catalyst of a political movement? Perhaps, but it’s accurate, too. Other commentators, to be sure, bashed the Bush administration with great regularity. Froomkin, though, established a new standard for regularity. Each morning, he’d start his work at 6 a.m., as any good Web journalist must. He’d grind through just about everything that’d been written about the White House over the past news cycle. “From six in the morning on, I am reading voraciously and analyzing and synthesizing and writing. I finish filing by about one most days and start the next cycle fairly soon after that,” he says.
Froomkin’s synthesis rarely ended favorably for the Bushies. Here’s a snippet from a February 2007 column:
President Bush has all but vanished from the national and international radar. But Vice President Cheney is everywhere and in the thick of it all.
His credibility may be shot, he and his boss may be lame ducks, his signal achievement — the war in Iraq — may now be almost universally disparaged, his former chief of staff may soon be found guilty of multiple felonies, but it would appear that rumors of the vice president’s demise as a political force have been greatly exaggerated.
Consider the following:
* Cheney’s latest stops on a highly-publicized world tour have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he is said to be belatedly but forcefully pressing government leaders to be more aggressive in hunting down Al Qaeda operatives.
* Since the British announcement of a troop withdrawal from Iraq last week, Cheney has been the administration’s point man in a fervid but inevitably fruitless attempt to spin that as a sign of success.
* Cheney has also become the foremost defender of the administration’s Iraqi policy in general — though in doing so he has further fueled criticisms that his assertions are often unsupported and sometimes misleading.
* In an interview on Friday, Cheney defended his assertion in 1991 that invading Iraq would result in a quagmire — reopening speculation about what Cheney and Bush knew before they went to war in Iraq, what they told the American people, and the gulf between the two.
* Last week, Cheney suddenly spoke in highly critical terms about China, scolding it for behaviour he called “not consistent” with its stated aim of a peaceful rise as a global power.
* Even as I write, Cheney’s former chief of staff if awaiting his fate at Washington’s federal courthouse, and the verdict — whichever way it goes — will inevitably remind the public of Cheney’s important and unseemly role in the leaking of a CIA operative’s identity. (One juror was dismissed from the jury today, after being exposed to some sort of outside information about the case.)
* And then there’s Iran. The reports that Bush is gearing up for strikes against that country may be ambiguous and speculative — but there appears to be little doubt that Cheney is the lead hawk pushing for a more aggressive posture.
Equivocation, hedging, shading, tiptoeing—-none of those turn up in Froomkin’s toolkit. While the White House press corps was busy minding their editors’ standards, Froomkin was smashing mouths, and he had the traffic numbers to show for it. At the end of 2007, the Post published a list of its top ten most “popular opinions” of the year; Froomkin occupied three of the spots.
During that W. heyday, the column was pulling in a good 50,000 to 70,000 hits on a decent day. When it was really rocking, it would move to the 100,000 range, a phenomenal total.
The Obama administration has offered a less juicy target, in part because it hasn’t had quite as much time to screw things up. In the past six months, accordingly, hits on White House Watch have dropped to the point that Post officials cite traffic as a reason for bagging the column.
“His traffic had gone way down,” says Fred Hiatt, the paper’s editorial page editor. Froomkin himself uses the same talking point: “Traffic definitely did go down.”
And right there, the discussion hits something of a brick wall: Though washingtonpost.com’s overall Web-hit numbers are public information, the paper places breakout stats for columns and blogs in a secret cache, which complicates any effort to piece together Froomkin’s traffic trends.
A few snapshots from recent months, however, appear to corroborate the smaller Obama-era audience. Over three days in late March and early April, for example, White House Watch bounced from No. 3 to No. 7 to No. 11 on the list of top washingtonpost.com blogs. The hits for the column were 49,000, 29,000, and 15,000 on those days.
And over a three-day period in late May, Froomkin’s rankings came in at No. 6, No. 6, and No. 7. Hits for each of those days were right around 20,000. A Post source says that White House Watch’s traffic has suffered a two-thirds drop over time.
The traffic slump is apparently dire enough that Post brass could no longer justify paying Froomkin about $100,000 in contract money to crank out daily commentary—-a sum that falls short of what the Post pays many national political reporters. “We have had to make a lot of hard decisions about resources,” says Hiatt.
The Froomkin axing is a red-letter event in Post history because it’s the first time that a major personnel decision has hinged so squarely on Web hits. For years, the orthodoxy from Post leaders is that the paper produces journalism that it believes in—-mass popularity be damned. Perhaps that’s no longer the case. Questions on this matter were sent to newspaper spokesperson Kris Coratti but went unanswered.
One of the tricky aspects of judging people on Web hits is that the digital playing field is a tough surface to level. Some bloggers, for instance, plug their work on TV appearances; others don’t. Then there’s the issue of link visibility. “A chronic problem had been promotion of the column on the homepage. My readers complained that it was harder and harder to find all the time,” says Froomkin. Zero: The amount of sympathy Froomkin will get from other Posties on how visible and navigable his stories have been on washingtonpost.com—-that’s a common affliction at the paper.
Yet Froomkin was no stranger to prominent exposure on washingtonpost.com. Says former washingtonpost.com opinions editor Michael Newman: “If [White House Watch] weren’t on the homepage within a few minutes of publication, you would hear from Dan. I don’t want to overstate it—-sometimes it was good-natured, but sometimes it wasn’t.”
Special consideration was appropriate for White House Watch, argued Froomkin, because the column and the site benefited greatly from prime visibility for White House Watch. Equipped with this certitude, Froomkin wouldn’t let up on homepage play: “If he was unsatisfied with the response, he would keep at it till he got the response he wanted,” says Newman.
Froomkin and his editors clicked from the homepage onto other portals of conflict. Media criticism was a good one: The columnist considered commenting on how the media were portraying the White House a significant part of his job; his editors felt otherwise. “They told me they didn’t want me to do media criticism. I could never quite figure out how I could avoid it,” says Froomkin. The friction produced a series of spiked Froomkin columns, which generally got published on the Nieman Watchdog blog, including the columnist’s takedown of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner.
Marisa Katz, the paper’s Web opinions editor, says the dinner story “read more like a Howie Kurtz media column, or one of Dan’s Nieman Watchdog items, than a post focused on the Obama White House.”
Whatever the merits of banning Froomkin from the Romenesko beat, the move sure did anger the writer. “No journalist likes to have their work spiked,” says Froomkin.
There were also battles over the column’s direction, format, timing and length of its items, and chatting with followers. Says Katz: “The hope was for a feature that would be differentiated by Dan’s opinion and analysis and perspective and personality, and that would allow for greater timeliness, the incorporation of multimedia, and more opportunities for reader engagement, among other advantages.”
And speaking of reinvention, once Post editors decided that White House Watch was no longer viable, they gave Froomkin a chance to come forward with “ideas for potential features that would take him in a new and different direction and that might resonate more with readers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t interested in doing anything else for The Post,” says Katz.
On that point, Froomkin says, “I felt what I was doing was absolutely the best thing I could do for the Washington Post.”
Katz emphasizes that “artistic differences” didn’t drive a wedge between the Post and White House Watch. “It was about the need to make budget cuts in a bad business climate and a feature that wasn’t resonating like it used to,” she says. The columnist heard an honest accounting when he met with Hiatt and Managing Editor Raju Narisetti. “They didn’t think the column was working anymore and I tried to make the case that it was,” says Froomkin.
Yet just because the Post‘s decision wasn’t tainted by neocon ideology and the cowardly calculations of an “establishment media” operation doesn’t mean it wasn’t dumb, short-sighted, and self-destructive. It was all of those things.
The key number in this whole saga is not the $100,000 that Froomkin was making. Nor is it the 20,000 hits to which his daily traffic sometimes sinks.
It’s $500,000-plus. That’s what the Post invested over the years in White House Watch. That’s what it took to pay someone with the doggedness to mine every last detail about presidential coverage on the Web and turn it into something digestible. And that’s what it took to actuate thousands upon thousands of fans to bookmark Froomkin for as long as he stayed at it. And what a wise investment it was, to judge by the outrage that has spilled onto comments boards around the Web.
To fire the guy six months into a new administration reflects a jittery approach to building a Web site, not to mention a betrayal of the Post‘s venerable MO of patient, long-haul planning. As President Obama faces more and more difficult decisions in reforming Washington, he’s bound to alienate the lefty constituency that has formed a crowded party on Froomkin’s platform for more than five years. Three to six months more—-that’s all it would have taken for Froomkin to get back to his old traffic neighborhood.
And Froomkin, 46, should have seen this coming. He’s just the latest in a series of departures from the Web side of the Post. His first job with the organization was back in 1997, not long after the Post located its online operations in Arlington. Part of the motivation for placing Froomkin and other web people on the other side of the river was to keep their operation from getting swallowed whole by the retrograde print cluster. For more than a decade, washingtonpost.com’s producers, bloggers, and executives managed the site on their own, a separate power center.
Over the past year, top Post officials have decided to merge the print and Web operations. But “merge,” at this point, appears far too mutual a term to describe how the operations are conjoining: lopsidedly, that is. Over the past year or so, the site’s top talent has either fled or been elbowed aside, including online Publisher Caroline Little, washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady, Managing Editor Ju-Don Roberts, multimedia editor Tom Kennedy, and political editor Russ Walker. Their collective departure clarifies that the geographical separation merely delayed print’s annexation of washingtonpost.com.
What does all this institutional babble mean for Froomkin? It means that once his contract came up for review, he essentially had to rely on the print team to back him up. Yeah, like that was going to happen.
In fairness to print-centric Posties, Froomkin is a new-media animal that just about any traditional newsroom would have trouble appreciating. He calls himself an accountability guy, yet he doesn’t bang the phones all day and attend briefings. He does his work by reading and synthesizing what other journalists do. And he does it all from his Tenleytown home! How could a second-hand journalist like this guy become such a force on the Internet?
Via constancy. Day in and day out, Froomkin nailed the same themes and the same players—-and delivered his package at the same hour, not unlike the evening newspapers of yore. His franchise fused the basic principles of Internet success: define your beat narrowly, post consistently, be passionate. It’s a great formula, and the Post should be proud of having nurtured it. Pretty soon now, it’ll be the asset of whatever organization hires Froomkin to replicate it. The columnist expects to reach a deal with a new employer “within a week or two.”