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

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/02/state-of-the-wapo-watch-two-articles-worth-reading/252961/