What the New York Times Doesn’t Understand About the Washington Post

By Jack Limpert

In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat tries to explain why the Graham family had to sell the Washington Post to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. In a column headlined “How the Post Was Lost,” Douthat blames the Grahams (the villain would have to be Don Graham) on two fronts:

Douthat said “even though the Grahams placed a fierce emphasis on being a local paper, the locality the Post covers is inherently national.” And he says the Post ceded the national political beat to upstart Politico: the Post’s leaders “failed to step into an online role that should have been theirs for the taking….And given that D.C.’s influence has only increased in the past 20 years, and the public’s interest in national politics has surged, it would have been entirely natural for the Post to become, in the new-media dispensation, the paper of record for political coverage—the only must-read for people who run the country, who want to run it, who think they run it, etc.”

The Politico website, with the Allbritton family’s many millions behind it, has hired lots of talent and has made its mark by its online coverage of political Washington. (Politico also exists as a small-circulation tabloid newspaper but that exists mostly to entice lobbyists to buy print ads to influence Congress.) Politico’s website generates a lot of heat, a little light, and causes conversation but it’s a reach to suggest that it’s pushed the Post into political irrelevance. And it’s guessing to assume that Politico is going to be a big financial winner for Robert Allbritton. He’s spending heavily but who knows whether Politico’s revenues equal its expenses, now or will ever. Politico is part of a private company, and only Allbritton and his accountants know the numbers. So give Politico credit for creating online buzz but will it ever be a profit center for an Allbritton media empire?

As a seven-day reader  of the Washington Post for 45 years, what I can say with a lot of certainty is that no alleged fierce loyalty to local news has prevented the paper from reaching Douthat’s promised land. Look at today’s Post:

The A section is relentlessly national and international. New editor Marty Baron seems to be sneaking a few more local stories onto the front page but page one is still very heavily national and international. The business section is included in the A section and its big stories are almost all national and international.

The Style section covers the local arts scene but its feature writers, and the popular gossip column, don’t find Washington very interesting. Style writers seem to like it if you’re on television or in the movies or you’re a cutting-edge character in Manhattan or LA.

The Sports section is mostly local—one of the paper’s saving graces—and it has a great columnist, Thomas Boswell, a terrific Nats baseball writer, Adam Kilgore, and it does a good job of covering local college and high school sports.

The Metro section? Don Graham is a wonderful local citizen and civic leader, but the Post’s Metro section is anything but wonderful or fierce.  It’s a small section (today it’s six pages with one page given over to paid death notices and a half page to weather) and it’s mostly staffed by young hires whose ambition is to cover national and international news. Metro covers DC (population 600,000) better than the surrounding suburbs (metro area population is close to six million). So close to 90 percent of metro area readers don’t get much local coverage. Stories that would be front page in newspapers in cities of 200,000 people barely get a mention in the Post. (Warren Buffett, a mentor to Don Graham, now is buying newspapers in cities like Richmond and Tulsa, cities where big local stories dominate the front page.)

And then there’s the Post’s attitude toward obits, one of the building blocks of local news. If someone dies in Hollywood, it’ll be in Style the next morning. If you’re a national or international figure of some note, you have a decent chance of getting 750 words in the Post.

Today’s Post did have one important local obituary: Laura Rinaldi, a lawyer at DC’s Children’s Law Center, was 38 years old. She had done wonderful work for children, coordinating medical and legal partnerships, providing free legal services to troubled children and their families. She was run over by a dump truck on a downtown DC street. Did this profoundly sad story happen yesterday? No, Laura Rinaldi died July 29 and it took the Post two weeks to tell its readers about it.


  1. Jack Limpert says

    Mike Feinsilber, a frequent contributor to this About Editing and Writing blog, takes issue with the headline, “What the New York Times Doesn’t Understand About the Washington Post.” He writes: “The New York Times isn’t failing to understand things about the Post; that’s Ross Douthat. The Times hires one Republican/conservative columnist to give space to a view not often otherwise represented on its oped page. As you know, the Times doesn’t approve or disapprove of what its columnists say and probably doesn’t know until it reads the paper. So it is a bad rap to pin Douthat’s views on the Times.”

    A fair point. But when I wrote the “What the New York Times Doesn’t Understand About the Washington Post” headline, I also had in mind a column that Times media columnist David Carr published on November 18, 2012. In that column Carr wrote that the Washington Post “has allowed its franchise on political coverage to disperse to other news outlets, many online, like Politico. The newspaper remains free on the Web, and its wait-and-see attitude on online subscriptions has left it on the sidelines. And by hewing to a strategy of local dominance rather than entering the national competitive fray, The Post now finds itself sharing a destiny with struggling regional newspapers.”

    So with Douthat echoing what Carr said nine months ago, it seemed fair to suggest that the Times newspaper doesn’t see the Post’s position in Washington very clearly.

  2. Joan Rinaldi says

    I just saw this article. Thank you for your perspective – totally agree. Unfortunate too that sensationalism is so prevalent in the media, and many readers are drawn to that – as a result much of the local news is not about good deeds and lives committed to making a better place to live. Laura’s write up was placed by a Post reporter who worked with her on a case several years prior to her death. I thank him and applaud any effort to shed light on the local community. Laura was an inspiration, and I’m thankful for the recognition she received. I will save this article for her young son. (Ironically, Laura’s Dad (deceased) worked for Post for 30+ years.)

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