How to fix the Washington Post?

print_media_is_dead-746682Once upon a time, the editor of the New York Times wrote a memo (PDF here) to his staff in which he waxed philosophical on a number of matters important to his newspaper. The inspiration for his memo was a self-study document (PDF here) that followed an investigation into a number of ethical lapses at the old gray lady of newsprint.

These two documents include many interesting words of advice for those who care about religion-news coverage in the mainstream press, including wisdom about the abuse of words such as “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Still, the passage quoted most often by your GetReligionistas is this one that talks about two subjects dear to our hearts, starting with the need for intellectual and cultural diversity in newsrooms:

Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation …

I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

I bring this up for a simple reason.

This past weekend, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell ended her “term” on the op-ed page with an end-of-the-year piece entitled “Resolutions for a Better Post.” As you would expect, in these hard times for newspapers, there is a sobering sense of reality in many of her recommendations. This is not a good time — hello, nonNewsweek — to be running off thousands of readers.

Thus, she writes:

… I’d like to again point out ways that The Post can enhance its accessibility, credibility and appeal to readers in this time of economic stress. The Post needs to value each loyal reader and pay more attention to those who are turned off or don’t see themselves reflected in its pages. Can those readers be brought back? That’s unclear, but it’s worth the effort.

And later, sure enough, we run into some Howell remarks that sound oh so similar to the wisdom expressed years earlier by Keller. Let us be attentive.

* Devote more coverage to religion. When you see how many reporters cover sports and politics, it seems natural to add more coverage of a subject dear to many readers’ hearts. This region has a wealth of religions with interesting stories. Recent Page 1 stories on the antiabortion movement by Jacqueline Salmon and new Catholic rules on fertility by Michelle Boorstein and science reporter Rob Stein were good to see, but two religion reporters aren’t enough.

* Make a serious effort to cover political and social conservatives and their issues; the paper tends to shy away from those stories, leaving conservatives feeling excluded and alienated from the paper. I’d like those who have canceled their subscriptions to be readers again. Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed.

She has other advice, of course. But doesn’t that sound rather familiar? Of course, not all religious people are conservative, so it would be wrong to draw an iron-clad link between these two points. Still, many of the readers who feel abused and avoided are on the cultural and doctrinal side of the sanctuary aisle. So Howell is right to underline these points.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

Photo illustration: A popular sentiment with readers, but we disagree.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Larry the Grump Rasczak

    Can those readers be brought back?


    While the media is finally starting to notice, and give lip service to, the fact that they have been “leaving conservatives feeling excluded and alienated from the paper” the conservatives have been feeling excluded and alienated for at least a generation now. What has changed isn’t our frustration, what as changed is that we now have other ways to get our news.

    Electronic media such as Talk Radio, Fox News and the Internet didn’t lure away conservative readers with some irrestable siren song….those alternatives were all developed because there was a huge pre-existing pool of conservatives who felt excluded and alienated and angry and frustrated and all to often insulted by the “predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation” of the print and network media.

    The print media’s problem is not that print media uses dead trees and more energy. I used to work in the school library and I read back issues of Newsweek and TIME and LIFE from the 1950s and early 60s… I know what real journalisim looks like. People would gladly pay for that sort of journalisim, no matter the format. Print Media’s problem is the CONTENT, not the format.

    This isn’t the massively pro-Obama coverage of 2008 coming home to roost…this is anger and alienation that goes back to CBS’s coverage of Vietnam, Watergate, the slanted stories on Iran-Contra, the puff pieces on the Nuclear Freeze movement, the distortions and hysteria following Three Mile Island, The Day After, the love fest that was CNN’s coverage of the Sandinistas, and the millions of angry reader/viewer letters that were ignored over the decades.

    So NO! We aren’t EVER going back.

    The only problem with your photo illustration is that it failed to include me dancing on the grave.

    And for goodness sake, when the liberal dominated print media finally does die…PLEASE make sure to pound a stake through it’s heart, cut off it’s head, and stuff the mouth with garlic.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The Post needs to value each loyal reader and pay more attention to those who are turned off or don’t see themselves reflected in its pages. Can those readers be brought back? That’s unclear, but it’s worth the effort.

    Well, at least there is one person at the WaPost with some business sense. Of course, it’s Business 101, but it’s a start.

  • tioedong

    get rid of the Sally Quinn bunch, or at least try to balance it with believers. Right now it is at least 6:1 in favor of liberal non believers.

    The Catholics are especially unrepresented by anyone who actually believes and can articulate what the church teaches.

    and even the liberals seem to be chosen for their names not their scholarship. Superficial PC cliches are the norm, which often glibly dismiss the supposed beliefs of others as bigotry, not thoughtful discussions of the questions.

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  • Don

    An admittedly off-topic question… Who started this “And all God’s people said, ‘Amen.’” stuff?

    I read or hear that all over the place and it’s getting rather tiresome. Is it a Baptist or Pentecostal thing that Lutheran pastors are starting to pick up? Since when did all God’s people say Amen?

    A Terry is Eastern Orthodox, right? Don’t tell me it’s infected their quarters too!

  • tmatt


    Hey, I was raised Southern Baptist in Texas.

    Blame me.

    I can take it.

  • tmatt

    hey GRUMP:

    Who is going to fund the reporting of the information on which your talk radio/blog folks are going to riff?

    Who funds real reporting?

    As I keep saying here: The new media are the small sucker fish stuck on the flanks of the Great White Shark. The shark is the mainstream press that develops the real information. Who funds that in your new regime?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, as in every other industry, when there is an unfulfilled need, businesses will rise to meet that need. Like nature, the market abhors a vacuum.

  • FW Ken

    tmatt -

    The direct answer to your questions are “I don’t know”, but I’m pretty sure someone, in some organizational configuration, will step up to the plate. There’s money to be made, and stories to be told. People who want to make money will hire people who want to tell stories. This is not my usual cynical-about-journalism prattle: the job will get done, one way or another. To the degree that the mainstream press has become a propaganda machine, let it die. Someone will step up to do the job.

    I think you are missing the Grump’s point, which is that the decline of traditional print media, and the rise of the new media are reactions based on a perception that those media are fundamentally propaganda machines. By that I mean they are so tied into the culture that they can’t present a story accurately, in fact, that the stories they chose to tell are fundamentally wrong. You ask who will do the basic investigation and reporting; I ask who choses what gets investigated and what’s acceptable for publication.

    Perhaps, I’m slipping into cynicism, but this strikes me as a healthy process: Fox came along because people were dissatisfied with CNN and how many 24 hour news channels are out there now? You might say “too many”, but if so, they will die. So what if the New York Times dies? Or WaPO? Or any other paper. Cities used to have two papers, most now have one. Is that healthy? Who chooses the stories I read in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which is, by the way, sharing some resources with the Dallas Morning News and could, conceivably, become their local edition of the News. The News is sold all over north Texas, like the Houston Chronicle is sold all over south Texas.

  • Ben


    I’m curious. Could you please flesh out a bit what you saw in those old Time Magazines that you’d like brought back? I get the sense sometimes that maybe we have become such a politically and culturally divided nation that the only general readership publication that will satisfy people these days would studiously avoid “news analysis” and would merely print “hard news” items. Of course, if this is true, that publication would have to be Web only, because hard news has a shelf-life of hours now, and any printed publication would be way too old if all it delivered was hard news.

    News analysis is kinda journalism lingo, so maybe I should back up a second. Many of the stories written in today’s major dailies involve some amount of news analysis — the piece does report the basic Ws — who, what, where, when — but also endeavors to explain the why or “so what” of a story. Basically, add some value by putting the news in some context, call experts in a field and let them help explain and judge a news item’s meaning and try to do this in a balanced way. (This is considered within the business to be quite distinct from opinion articles, which have a clear and signaled advocacy slant.) The news wires like AP and Reuters on the other hand, tend in their initial reports to hew just to the bare facts and are more “hard news” outlets.

    So — was it a lack of news analysis that you saw in that earlier era reporting that you liked? Or was the analysis simply more conservative? And are you generally more happy reading news wire stories from the AP than the major dailies? Would your news diet by satisfied just with that? Should that be the end-all of journalism, and simply let bloggers (from university experts down to dittoheads) weigh in with their opinions and decide there’s no real need for news analysis?

    I’d be happy to hear from anyone still reading this thread. My own bias here is that the woes in the news biz have much more to do with the differential in value between print and online ads, but I’m willing to be wrong and to learn from people here what would be more satisfying for readers.

    Somehow I’m not sure we’d like a world with just wire copy. But maybe….

  • Don

    Thanks a bunch, Terry. The entire Missouri Synod has you to thank. In the last month I’ve heard that phrase at 2 different installations and an ordination. I even heard my district president say it. And some of the guys are starting to end their prayers with, “Amen… and Amen.”

    They sound like they’re trying to be Edward R. Murrow or something. Which, since Rick Warren is channeling Billy Graham, is evidently the cat’s meow these days.

  • Don

    Ben, I’m not the expert on this, but I sense that people would like to get the sense when they read a newspaper that the person who wrote it has a life pretty much like theirs. That he or she isn’t trying in some sneaky way to insult the values they cherish, but they’re just trying to help them understand the world better.

    That doesn’t mean just recording the facts, as the wire services allegedly do. But it might mean writing with a bit more sympathy for the reader’s point of view, even if you disagree with it.

    Journalism 101: How to get the sneer out of your writing.

  • Jerry

    FW Ken,

    I don’t believe that the market automatically operates in the rational way you describe. A few large corporations often form an almost impenetrable barrier to entry for start-ups. The current health-care mess is due, in part, to just that the ability of special interests to frustrate a rational process.


    Advertising is part of the issue but also a generational change to devalue print media. And that’s a shame as the great article that is reviewed in the blog posting just following this one illustrates.

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  • PNP, OP

    Some say that the most racially segregated place in America is any given Church on Sunday morning. That’s likely true.

    The most ideologically homogeneous place on any given day of the week in America is the editorial and writing staff of just about every major newspaper and TV newsroom.

    It will take more than tossing a few more positive religion stories onto the page to get Americans reading newspapers again. The Old Media are not anti-religion. They are more than happy to publish positive stories on Hindus, Wiccans, Muslims, etc. The Old Media are anti-Christian. Removing that deeply seated bigotry will take an act of grace.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  • FW Ken

    Jerry -

    Certainly monopolistic practices can interfere with industry development, but (as I noted), it’s the old media that functions like a monopoly, not the new. Certainly I’m no industry insider, but am quite optimistic about the future of journalism. When I don’t have to rely on the editors of the Fort Worth Startlegram to know what’s going on in the world, it’s a good day.

  • R.S.Newark

    it is truly difficult for me to actually believe the Post wants anything to do with the writers attitude towards religion. Neither Keller nor the Post are anything other than hypocrites

  • Larry the Grump Rasczak

    The grump responds…

    With regret t-matt, because I do genuinely admire you, I think you are mistaken on two fronts when you ask “Who funds real reporting?”

    First there is the case of liveblogging…such as this

    I’ve seen people live blogging from all sorts of places

    None of this “I’m the CNN reporter in Cairo and I’m reporting on something that is happening several hundred miles away and all I know is what I hear on the BBC but it LOOKS like I’m near the scene because I’m standing here in front of a palm tree stuff”. Nope, livebloggind is real people who are on the scene reporting what they hear and see live. Now they may not have gone to J-School….but there was a day before J-schools existed and newspapers got along just fine.

    Second there in Michael Yon

    He’s what used to be called a JOURNALIST. He’s funded on the public radio model and he actually goes places with the troops (even places where they don’t have room service! Yes he is the only reporter there normally…) and learns things and his reports consist of more than a regurgitated press kit spiced up with whatever the DNC/NYT is saying today.

    Lastly there is Little Green Footballs. It is funded off of ads…sort of like the New York Times used to be. ( couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys…. :) ).

    Now LGF doesn’t just “riff off of the news” they actually do something literally unheard of in the predominantly urban, culturally liberal newspapers…their homework.

    It was LGF, that did the work on the documents CBS forged up to attack Bush with.

    and there is this…

    and this

    Also it was LGF that drove the Fauxtography story…remember that one about how Reuters was running FAKED photos and the sophisticated, intelligent, all wise news media was printing them?

    and then there is this

    and lets not forget that it was the NATIONAL ENQUIRER that broke both the Lewiniski scandal and the John Edwards Love Child story.

    So your assumption that the folks who get all tingly in the leg about Obama are actually doing any real reporting is, I am sad to say, quite questionable to say the least.

    and lets not forget this little turd

    which lead to this

    and this

    As for who will do local investigative coverage…well there will still be local TV stations, and there are some excellent local blogs developing out there. Sad to say it, but the “alternative” newspapers have pretty much picked up that ball already. Here in Houston it’s the PRESS not the Chronicle that does the real invetstigative reports.

    The predominantly urban, culturally liberal stopped being about NEWS decades ago…

    They won’t be missed.

  • Larry the Grump Rasczak


    I just posted a long reply to T-matt, but you have a great question.

    The old Time and Newsweek magazines I saw were very different. (And I mean OLD… I remember seeing the issue where they first included a PAGE on entertainment news! They had to justify it in an editorial by saying that it would NEVER come to dominate the magazine… I remember it because of the sheer irony). They put a premium on print over graphics for one thing…it wasn’t a “hot new look” the writing spoke for itself.

    How? First of all they used big words. They were written by educated folks for educated folks. That is the big difference. It wasn’t just little things (like they assumed you knew who the leader of the USSR was, they didn’t define it in the article), it was that they had a better grasp of the whole situation.

    Lets face it, the “model” of a “modern journalist” is that you take a generally bright person, put them on an assignment, expect them to “Get smart” on it by deadline and write a story. The problem is, these folks DONT KNOW ANYTHING. It is entirely possible to get a degree in “Communications” or “Journalisim” without ever having to study a really difficult topic or any topic in any real depth. You get someone who knows how to write in AP/UPI style and/or look good under key and fill lighting, and that is about it. No wonder all they do is regurgitate the press kit back at you.

    That sort of work simply can not compare to something written by a real subject matter expert. (Take a look at this for example. )

    Point is, in the old magazines the articles were a lot more like what you see on Closing Velocity and a lot less like what you see in People and Tiger Beat. What you claim is “news analysis” is anything but. Having lunch with your old buddy who works at a think tank and who wrote a politically slanted report about missile defense is not the same as actually knowing about the field.

    Same is true for the military… going to the Green Zone and covering the press conferences isn’t the same as what Michael Yon does.

    News analysis is not agenda driven…(unlike the predominantly urban, culturally liberal crud you see today) so yes it was more conservative… but only because almost anything short of Pravda itself is more conservative than what you see these days.

    It was also more conservative because it wasn’t yellow journalisim. There was a time when if you turned on the TV and saw CBS NEWS SPECIAL REPORT you knew something had happened. Now you see FOX NEWS ALERT every time they come back from commercial. It was “conservative” in the sense it was sober and responsible journalisim…it told you what was most likely to happen…not what the scariest and worst possible case scenario was. And it wasn’t just an excuse to put hot babes on camera either.

    Mostly though news analysis requires background that most J-school grads lack. The only areas of journalisim that require you to actually know something anymore are sports and finance. Look at CNBC. The folks at CNBC aren’t hired because they are cute (though some are VERY cute…. Huge crush on Becky Quick and Erin Burnett) they are SMART. They know their stuff. This means they are intelligent AND well informed.

    Most reporters are neither. That is why their news analysis is so universally poor.

    It didn’t used to be that way, but that is sure as shootin how it is now.

  • FW Ken

    Fr. Neuhaus has a bit in the new First Things on his cancelled New York Times subscription. It turns out the bias in the Times wasn’t getting worse, just tiresome. Perhaps that’s a factor dying papers and mags should consider: they are boring us away.