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TinotopiaLog → Washington Post Reporters Don’t Like Feedback (11 Dec 2005)
Sunday 11 December 2005

Washington Post Reporters Don’t Like Feedback

Today’s Washington Post ombudsman column is headlined ‘The Two Washington Posts’, and it’s about the distinction between The Washington Post itself and the washingtonpost.com website. The content is largely the same, but each is produced by a separate subsidiary of the Washington Post Company.

The point of the column seems to be about shifting blame: Deborah Howell, the Washington Post ombudsman, is not the ombudsman for washingtonpost.com, which in an important distinction in some cases. Frankly, though, the explanation of the distinction seems hollow and lame:

The Post Web site is owned by the Washington Post Co., but it is not run by the newspaper. It is a separate company called Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive, or WPNI, with offices in Arlington. […]

There are cultural differences between the two newsrooms, which could be expected between a traditional newspaper and the more free-wheeling Web site. But Jim Brady, executive editor of the Web site, said he finds the Post newsroom “incredibly cooperative.” […]

Political reporters at The Post don’t like WPNI columnist Dan Froomkin’s “White House Briefing,” which is highly opinionated and liberal. They’re afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.

John Harris, national political editor at the print Post, said, “The title invites confusion. It dilutes our only asset — our credibility” as objective news reporters. Froomkin writes the kind of column “that we would never allow a White House reporter to write. I wish it could be done with a different title and display.”

Harris is right; some readers do think Froomkin is a White House reporter. But Froomkin works only for the Web site and is very popular — and Brady is not going to fool with that, though he is considering changing the column title and supplementing it with a conservative blogger.

‘Some readers’ think that Froomkin works for the newspaper, and this is presented as the readers’ problem. Each of Froomkin’s columns does say ‘Special to washingtonpost.com’ under the byline (instead of ‘Washington Post Staff Writer’, for instance) — but why should readers be required to unravel the Post’s organizational nomenclature to understand what they’re reading? Why is it okay for someone who writes for ‘washingtonpost.com’ to write things that would be irresponsible for someone who writes for ‘The Washington Post’? If the Washington Post Company were all that concerned about reader confusion and credibility, they’d call washingtonpost.com ‘The Clarendon Herald’ instead (WPNI Interactive is based in a part of Arlington, VA called ‘Clarendon’). Instead, they stick this on the top of every page:

Twplogo 125X20

If I stuck that on the top of Tinotopia, it wouldn’t be long before I got a letter from the Post’s lawyers telling me that my use of that trademark was likely to produce confusion. Maybe this is also contributing to this ‘reader confusion’ at washingtonpost.com, eh? Might be? You think?

I’m not entirely surprised to read this kind of sophistry, though. Every newspaper ‘ombudsman’ (with the notable exceptions, recently, of Daniel Okrent and Byron Calame at the New York Times) I’ve ever read has essentially been an apologist for his or her employer, rather than a read advocate for the readers and for accuracy. It would be nice to see the newspaper actually subjecting itself to real criticism, rather than just printing tepid columns from the editorial equivalents of the Post’s go-along-to-get-along traffic reporter, Dr. Gridlock.

But of course the newspapers don’t really want criticism. This is in fact one of the points made in today’s ombudsman column:

Some Post reporters don’t appreciate that links are put on the Web site to what bloggers are saying about this or that story — especially when the bloggers are highly negative.

The links that she refers to are pulled from Technorati, and it’s a brilliant scheme. When you link to a Washington Post article, within a few hours a link back to your website shows up on the Post’s article page.

The links don’t appear on the ‘printer’ versions of articles, so there’s a strong incentive for bloggers to link to the regular versions, which carry more ads. Bloggers win by getting more publicity for their websites, and the Post wins both by showing more ads and by providing a reason for bloggers to link to the Post’s version of a story rather than to, say, the New York Times’. Readers win by having references to blog commentary on the story at their fingertips, which is another win for the Post because it’s a reason to read your news there rather than at the New York Times’ site, etc., etc. Like I said, it’s brilliant, and the Post should be commended for doing it.

But it appears that some of the reporters don’t like it. This is interesting, I think. I would love for people to talk more about what I write here. As it is, I think about six other websites link to Tinotopia, and four of them are spamblogs. One would think that people who have made writing for the public their life’s work, rather than something they do in their spare time because they are bitter cranks, would be even more welcoming of people commenting on their output.

But no: ‘especially when the bloggers are highly negative’, i.e. ‘especially when the readers are not in agreement with the reporter’, the reporters don’t like this. So either the reporters don’t care that the readers think that their news judgement, or their writing, is bad, or they think that the readers are wrong. Neither one bodes well for the newspaper industry.

I don’t make a regular thing of it — because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel — but a lot of the Post’s reporting, particularly on local issues, is very very lazy (see this example), not looking beyond the obvious for explanations.

The Washington area’s perennial lack of ‘affordable’ housing, for instance, is always caused by greedy ‘developers’ and ‘gentrification’, and never the result of restrictive building and zoning codes, bad planning, etc. I’m not saying that the ‘developers’ are totally without fault; but the Post implicitly says that the inept local governments are faultless, every time they write about the issue.

The paper reflects its community, so they write a lot about how there are no fancy restaurants etc. in Anacostia and Prince George’s County because of ‘racism’ — without seriously considering that there might be some other cause. The ‘developers’ are pretty ‘greedy’, but apparently not ‘greedy’ enough to want money from black people? What? Though of course if you built fancy stuff in Anacostia, you’d be denounced as a ‘gentrifier’. The Post rarely, if ever, examines these intellectual conflicts.

If reporters know that their stories will be presented alongside comments from opinionated readers, though, they might be more motivated to write about the bigger picture, rather than just parrot the statements and publicists and politicians.

Posted by tino at 14:08 11.12.05
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I too was impressed by the automagic Technorati links. Being that the links were on the Washington Post, I automagicly assumed that they were somehow edited or filtered (not even thinking about what a huge job that would be to do by hand). Looking now, it does seem to be raw and uncut. I am most impressed. Besides the promotion angles you describe, this pretty much an admission (at least by the online schism of the Post) that Blogs Matter.

Those poor poor reporters, for basically nothing down, anyone can now use their blog to get a letter to the editor published. Those hack reporters have a little adjusting to do.

I wonder what kind of spam defense the WaPo is using. Perhaps the spammers are not yet up to speed. I suppose after recording 5 or so referrer strings from the Washington Post, you could then start the redirect to the filth.

Posted by: Standard Mischief at December 15, 2005 10:10 PM