A populist future for The Post

I’m worried about The Post’s position in the Washington and national media markets.

Before I took this job in March, I spent months talking to editors and reporters for most of the publications based in Washington and ones with major bureaus here. All were going through wrenching change and high personnel turnover.

Cost-cutting and new technologies were only partly responsible for the restructuring. The biggest reason was that their leaders all saw that demand for Washington journalism was growing, not shrinking. And they wanted to retool to preserve or expand their market share.

Washington is still the world’s indispensable city. Decisions made here affect the world in a way that decisions in Brussels or Beijing still don’t and won’t for some time, if ever.

The rising demand for Washington news is why Bloomberg started its Bloomberg Government operation, investing as much as $100 million and buying reporting talent from around town with the city’s highest salary and benefit packages.

That’s why Politico succeeded and is seeking to compete with Bloomberg on policy news in the beats that corporate clients are willing to pay for: health care, energy and the environment, and technology. That’s why Reuters, an underrated player in the D.C. market, with readers around the world and a large bureau here, is ramping up its Washington coverage and recently nearly stole The Post’s premier political reporter, Dan Balz. And that’s why the New York Times brought to its Washington bureau a lot of top talent from The Post’s newsroom.

But The Post is still shrinking, still cutting newsroom costs while others are growing. The company is putting its energy into non-journalism ventures — Service Alley, The Capital Deal, Master Class, Washington Post Live. All are innovative endeavors that will help The Post Co.’s bottom line over time. But I see less energy and enthusiasm in the journalism and more of a defensive crouch.

Yes, there’s a new Web site with growing traffic, increased “interactivity” and more engagement with readers through online comments and social media. That’s all good and a cornerstone of future growth. And this hardworking, talented, two-floor newsroom of 625 people remains the biggest and most formidable in town by far.

But the strategy for The Post to be “the indispensable guide to Washington,” although fine as far as it goes, is too much about marketing and not enough about mission.

Where is The Post going journalistically, and how will it get there?

The glaring weakness of most, but not all, of The Post’s D.C. competitors is that they’re doing journalism for two limited audiences: fat cats and power elites. The Capitol Hill publications aim for the corporations, K Street law firms and trade associations that can afford thousands of dollars in annual subscription costs. And they are selling to Capitol Hill lawmakers and staffers and executive branch senior officials who must have a constant stream of information, regardless of price.

Politico is moving to pay-per-view journalism with its PoliticoPro policy services. Bloomberg is the ultimate news outlet for comfortable capitalists. Even the New York Times has evidently decided to be the fee-based national newspaper for the liberal, cultured elite.

So what about the rest of us who want to monitor our government and not pay an arm and a leg to do so? Serving us should be The Post’s mission, pure and simple.

The Post will always compete with the inside-the-Beltway journals and with the Times. It has to. But its future lies not with the rich; it lies with the citizenry. This newspaper must be the one source of high-quality, probing Washington news that readers in this region and across the country can look to for holding their government accountable. This publication must be for all Americans.

This means that The Post can’t be a liberal publication or a conservative one. It must be hard-hitting, scrappy and questioning — skeptical of all political figures and parties and beholden to no one. It has to be the rock-’em-sock-’em organization that is passionate about the news. It needs to be less bloodless and take more risks when chasing the story and the truth.

Where do I get this crazy, almost populist notion? From the readers who write to me by the score every day. Whether they are liberal or conservative, that’s what they want. That’s what they deserve. That should be, and can be financially and journalistically, The Post’s future.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on Aug. 5, 2011

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