City Paper is not for tourists
The memo that Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth sent to her colleagues on Wednesday is titled “The Road Forward.” It’s a title that summons expectations of a strategic map, complete with directions, specifics: After going 10 miles on Print Highway, take the first exit for Internet Boulevard, etc., etc.
Weymouth’s work product, however, had no such utility. More an iteration of the paper’s current direction than a departure therefrom, the memo featured the following graph as its central strategy point:
Being for, and about Washington, means addressing our local readers’ core needs. Strong news coverage, enterprise and investigative reporting, expert analysis and informed commentary will continue to be important tools in making sense for local readers of the world around them. On washingtonpost.com, we will need to up our efforts to cover breaking news, and to use video in that coverage, if video is how our viewers wish to follow the story.
A few points about this very paragraph. Let’s get into it:
Excerpt from Key Paragraph: “Being for, and about Washington, means addressing our local readers’ core needs.”
Skinny: Weymouth is sending a sentence like this to a group of people—reporters—who’ve worked their entire lives to break down and skewer the platitudes and nonstatements from officialdom. Yet she throws this line out there. Stunning.
Excerpt from Key Paragraph: “Strong news coverage, enterprise and investigative reporting, expert analysis and informed commentary will continue to be important tools in making sense for local readers of the world around them.”
Skinny: Two truisms in a row!
Excerpt from Key Paragraph: “On washingtonpost.com, we will need to up our efforts to cover breaking news, and to use video in that coverage, if video is how our viewers wish to follow the story.”
Skinny: This is the worst, most useless sentence in a graph in which that’s saying something. Look at what’s being said here: First of all, declaring that a news Web site needs to enhance coverage of breaking news is much like saying the following: “We are a news organization.” But that’s not even the worst part of this sentence. This is: “and to use video in that coverage, if video is how our viewers wish to follow the story.” Suppose you’re a Postie on the front lines of news coverage. Do you take this as a directive to do more video? Well, perhaps, but only if “our viewers” say so. So who’s going to figure out what the viewers want and then convey those viewers’ wishes to the staff? When’s that going to happen?
There are several other graphs that merit this sort of breakdown, a wordscape that prompted this comment from a Post source: “It’s B-school mumbo-jumbo….If you have nothing to say, say nothing.”
Another staffer commented, “I’m waiting for the document that spells out what this means to me….Otherwise, it’s just a lot of words.”
Making sweeping statements about Post newsroom reaction to something like this is tricky business. There are 700 laborers at the place, and 700 opinions.
But this much is certain: There’s a strong current of disappointment-bordering-on-disgust over the absence of details in the company’s strategy. One source said that top Posties appeared “suicidal” upon emerging from Wednesday consultations on the strategy—an assessment that sounds over the top, considering that upper management appears to be fully intact today.
“Withdrawn” may be a better descriptor for top Post personnel in the aftermath of the strategy’s unveiling. Sources who in the past have spoken freely about newsroom matters are making themselves unavailable to talk about Weymouth’s latest initiative. Can’t help you this time, one reliable source replied. Could the silence be a case of Weymouth’s peers not having anything nice to say and thus saying nothing at all?
Steve Reiss, deputy assistant managing editor/Style, had no trouble speaking on the record about the Weymouth memo. “I think it’s very useful to have a decided direction….You have to start with a philosophy and then come down to practicality,” says Reiss.
Whatever the reaction, newsies at the Post will continue looking for details on how the corporate strategy will affect their jobs. Budget cuts of various sorts are one surefire component of the Post‘s road forward, though there’s no indication at this point how they’ll be achieved. Weymouth reportedly said in Wednesday’s meeting that everything is on the table, including layoffs.
When asked to discuss the strategy, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli referred Washington City Paper to Weymouth, who didn’t respond to questions e-mailed to her this morning.
The say-as-little-as-you-can quality of the Weymouth memo is striking in light of its provenance. This is the document, mind you, that follows six months of brainstorming on corporate strategy, a process helped by the big-picture painters at Harvard Business School. And in October, the 40-member strategy committee reviewed a Weymouth product but rejected it for lack of specifics. Meaning that if this week’s document is the more detailed of the two, what did that October version look like? We are the Washington Post. We have provided news to the community and will continue to provide news to the community. (For all the specifics that Weymouth didn’t include, see this Washington Post reorganization scheme.)
Weymouth may take heart that she is following in the company’s grand tradition of doing things slowly and deliberately. Her first test she passed with high praise, having chosen a top editor—Brauchli—who’s already widely respected in the newsroom.
And perhaps she’d suffer a newsroom backlash no matter what document she sent around. Listen to Peter Perl, the paper’s assistant managing editor for training and career development: “People in the newsroom generally might have been expecting a level of detail that was a bit unrealistic. The plan was intended to be an overall strategy for the company and the newsroom is now going to…carry that out. Our people would be much more disappointed if a corporate strategy group had attempted to dictate specifics about news coverage.”