'State of the WaPo' Watch: Two Articles Worth Reading

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I assume it was by serendipity rather than design that both the New York Times and the Washington Post had bracing articles today on the way the way the Post is being forced to, or is deciding to, "right size" its news staff to cope with unending business pressures.

High up in the Times story is an eye-opening quote from Robert Kaiser, a mainstay of the Post since the early 1960s and co-author with Len Downie, the Post's long-time editor, of a book on the future of the news business. As journalistically sophisticated a figure as Kaiser must have known exactly how it would sound for him to say the following, on the record, to a reporter from the traditional-rival news organization:

"The survival of the institution is not guaranteed," Mr. Kaiser said in an interview... Over the course of his five-decade career with The Post, he has been a summer intern, a metro reporter, a foreign correspondent and the No. 2 to Len Downie, Mr. Brauchli's [the current editor's] predecessor.

"When I was managing editor of The Washington Post, everything we did was better than anyone in the business," he said. "We had the best weather, the best comics, the best news report, the fullest news report. Today, there's a competitor who does every element of what we do, and many of them do it better. We've lost our edge in some very profound and fundamental ways."

Meanwhile, in this morning's Post, the paper's current Ombudsman, Patrick Pexton [disclosure: formerly of National Journal, part of the Atlantic's corporate family], has what is overall an even tougher item. It discusses the latest round of buy-outs for reporters, editors, and designers at the paper and ends this way:

But in looking at this buyout, I worry that The Post is moving away from local news and toward a publication that covers only national politics and government and the Redskins, one that relies too much on columnists....

Ultimately, readers, online and print, will be the judges of the downsized Post. The staff here is not happy. They ask, Where is the bottom? They hate the less-is-more bromides from senior editors, so I'll not quote those. I'll quote Brauchli's most telling statement from The Post's town-hall meeting on the buyouts: "This is painful."

I've never worked at the Post. But anyone in the news business knows that the phrases I've emphasized are extremely stinging judgments. Pexton, like Kaiser, is a veteran of this business who must have chosen his words knowing exactly how they would sound.

The Post's travails are not good news for anyone, including "competitors" like the Times and the WSJ. These two articles are worth absorbing as measures of the challenges the paper now faces. This will sound glib, but like Pexton and Kaiser I am also choosing my words carefully and am sincere: I hope that five years from now some big NYT feature on the Post can refer to them as marking an early-2012 nadir from which the Post as a first-tier news-gathering organization managed to rebound.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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