What’s Going On at the Washington Post?

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Post editor Martin Baron has given the paper a jolt of new energy. Photography courtesy of Andrew Propp/Washingtonian.

By Mike Feinsilber

Maybe it is Martin Baron’s brains. Maybe it’s Jeff Bezos’ bucks. But something is going on at the Washington Post: It has become a far better newspaper.

Take a look at the front page of the Post for Monday, June 30. A story by Tim Craig, headlined “Paradise despoiled” tells what happened after Taliban militants executed 10 foreigners who were climbing snow-topped Nanga Parbat. Visits by foreign climbers and tourists nosedived, cutting off crucial tourist dollars. “As a Pakistani, I look at it as our Sept. 11,” said one, the first Pakistani to climb Mount Everest.

The story and pictures filled an inside page. One striking photo took up a third of the page. A useful, informative piece.

A local story, by Nick Anderson, tells about a Catholic University freshman who asserts she had been raped when, after an evening of binge drinking, she asked someone to walk her back to her dorm. After the university’s inquiry dismissed her complaint and found she was “not incapable of giving consent,” she filed a Title IX complaint with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

The Anderson story has fine detail, a reflection of skilled, careful reporting and editing and uses one student’s experience as a means of exploring a national problem that’s a dilemma for everyone involved. Time was when one did not expect to see terrific reporting from the Metro staff, the paper’s backwater. No adrenaline seemed to be pumping there. One felt the paper considered news of the area an afterthought.

Another front page piece Monday, by Scott Higham and Kaley Belval, discussed how some government agencies push employees to sign nondisclosure agreements that keep them from reporting wrongdoing or getting rewards for doing so—undercutting whistleblower laws. A solid piece of reporting that would be of intense interest to Post readers who work for the government or its contractors.

Veteran Post reporter Karen DeYoung took over a front page corner with a close look at a rare success story: the international undertaking “to find, verify, pack transport and ultimately destroy” Syrian poison gas and other weapons of mass destruction—a matter that troubled the world not so long ago but has drifted out of our attention span.

DeYoung wrote: “Never before have such lethal substances been packaged in bulletproof containers and carried on flatbed trucks through the front lines of a war zone. Never before have such weapons been destroyed at sea.”

This is heads-up journalism. We saw some of it in the old Post but not so consistently and rarely in such depth. And not so often on page one.

The rest of the paper reflects the new energy of the new Post (although the Style section sometimes seems stuck in the ’60s and obituaries are shamefully late and have a fill-in-the-blank quality; the paid death notices, written by grieving family, often out-tell the obits.)

These four stories all fall into the category newspeople call enterprise pieces, or workups, or situationers. (Newsroom cynics call them thumbsuckers.) What’s surprising about Monday’s front page that it carried only one hard news story. It concerned the imminent appointment of a new VA chief. The New York Times matched the story on its website and credited the Post for being first with it.

To be sure, Monday’s front page had so much room for workups because Sunday is usually a slow news day and not much happened on Sunday to crowd out the enterprise pieces. In the olden days, the Post would have filled the front page with secondary news.

I don’t have any inside information. I don’t know what accounts for the zest with which the Post is doing its job, although I suspect the editorial energy arrived with Martin Baron. Nor do I—or anyone else, not apparently even Mister Amazon—know what the financial future holds for the Washington Post. But I want to think that the new commitment to good journalism means that someone in charge thinks journalism has a future.

And that’s good news.
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Mike Feinsilber has been a seven-day a week reader of the Post for 46 years and invites your comments: If you’re a Post reader, have you noticed improvements in the paper? Let me know at [email protected]

Comments

  1. CS Thomson says

    And what of local news?
    In a city where it seems half the elected officials are in jail, under investigation or indicted, where the school system is in need of intervention, where the Metro system no longer delivers–and in some cases kills its riders and workers–a robust local reporting staff is needed.
    Sadly, the city is being ignored for the greater “click glory” of national and international coverage.
    How is THAT good news?

  2. I have to agree with Feinsilber, and recently posted a comment to that effect underneath a long Columbia Journalism Review story that discussed Bezos and the Post. The writing and reporting is better, the pictures better, the headlines better. As for local news, I’d like to see more of it, but the Post is hampered by space. I think it should do more to aggregate from other sources and let people know what’s going on without necessarily delving “story-deep” into everything that’s happening. County and other local governments are always doing things that affect people, but most aren’t important enough to warrant a full-blown article in the Metro section or on the front page.

  3. Jane Birnbaum says

    The Post under previous owner devoted not one word to Fenty’s firing of city rent administrator Grayce Wiggins, who was actually doing something for District renters. As councilwoman, Bowser, our next mayor, ugh, prevented enforcement of D.C. building safety laws (at least in the Kennedy-Warren apt. building where I currently reside). Will anything be different now when it comes to critical local issues? Haven’t seen it yet.

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