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Monday, February 20, 2006

My six months with the Washington Post

We've been going out a little more than six month and it's time I looked back on our relationship. I still don't know if IT is a SHE or a HE, but it's not important in the long run -- that is if we're going to be in it for the long run.

In August The Washington Post started dropping daily on my eight floor doorstep promptly after 5:00 AM. It's helped me build a routine of getting out of bed, opening the door, picking up the paper then carry it into the bathroom, dehydrate and scan headlines at the same time. Then, coffee in hand I drop on the couch and start reading.

The Post is smaller in size than the New York Times and it's front page is easier to navigate. I was never subscribed to the Times, but I used to pick up a free copy everyday while I in college. Although I enjoyed it tremendously, the relationship was never as close and I believe that's because I never paid for it. The Washington Post drops on my doorstep because I pay for it. That builds a different kind of relationship between us.

Jay Rosen, the prominent media, has argued the Washington Post is currently better than the Times. I have echoed that sentiment on few occasions, while on others I wondered whether subscribing to the Washington Times would be that much different.

Below are some memories -- the random, the bad, and the awesome -- of my six months with the Post, in no particular order.

The random:
- I don't have opinions about the classifieds section or the car page except to say they make for great onion cutting boards and cooking oil-absorbers.

- The WashPost delivery person needs to work on the "THUMP" sound. Even the Saturday edition , which includes all the Sunday freebies, drops lightly. I can barely figure out it arrived. When the Sunday New York Times, to which we also subscribe, drops on the door step, it has authority and makes more noise than Chris Wallace.

- It's been very hard to "baptize" this paper. We call the Times, "The Slimes," but we haven't found anything good for the Post. The Host? The Washington Most? The WC (instead of WP)? Ideas?

The bad:
- The Post sometimes displays the political cynicism that is a staple of big media organizations. Some political initiatives seem to be buried in the paper and dismissed without any analysis and at times political figures on both the left and the right look more like caricatures than real people.

- The same goes for master narratives, which are essential for politicos in the nation's capital. Once Bush's ratings begin falling that'll be the story go run with. Once Gore is labeled a liar, it'll be the reference point in any story from then on.

- It's always disappointing to see such a big paper retreat into the comfort of "he said, she said" reporting without providing the crutch a reader could use to understand the truth about these facts. One of my favorite two examples (both of which I regard as metaphors for larger omissions) is a December news story that lead with President Bush's estimate of the number of civilians killed in Iraq. Is the president really the best source for that information? The other is a debate over whether demonstrations have ever been held in the Capitol pool. The Post fails to offer the facts when confronted with a debate -- one side says no protests were ever held there and another says that is not true.

- Related to the above -- in a recent chat with readers, John Harris, the national political editor, said: "It is a very common criticism that journalistic conventions about objectivity and fairness require us to put truth and falsehood on an equal plane. (...) We should state the facts and truth as plainly as we can report it, not take refuge behind "he said/she said." Is it raining, or not? But it is also true that we in the press are not a High Court of Truth." It could be that Harris is right and the press is not a High Court of Truth. But a paper like the Washington Post certainly has more resources to devote to getting the truth, even if that doesn't happen on the first story. I read that comment as dismissive of the idea that the press could get to the truth. Maybe that's just the purist in me.

- The Post sometimes doesn't offer the context of a particular report -- like it did when Ira Glass spoke.

- I continue to believe the Post mishandled the Bob Woodward story (his involvement in the Valerie Plame case). I was especially saddened by Downie's reaction in which I read that Woodward's primary responsibility is to the editors. I always believed a journalist's primary responsibility is to his or her readers.

- The Sunday magazine. It's bad. And next to the Times' Sunday magazine, it's really really bad. I told this to a Post staffer once and he sheepishly agreed. Again, with the talent of their staff and the resources of the paper, can't they produce something more exciting? I have read less than five magazine cover stories in six months. That's about one out of every six. It's more like one out of two with the Times.

- I have saved an issue of Wednesday's Food section that had many many cookie recipes.Of course we haven't gotten around to trying any of them. Why were there no actual cookies to go with the section? That would have satisfied my cravings.

The awesome:
- I'll start with the paper's website, which has been doing some great things since bringing in competent programmers with a journalistic mind like Adrian Holovaty. Check out the Campaign 2006 section or the photo and video galleries, not to mention all its blogs and live chats with editors and reporters. I also believe the Post was right when it shut its blog after it was peppered with crap. Jim Brady had a great explanation of that incident. Oh, and have you seen the votes database?

- Dana Milbank and his Washington sketches. Enough said.

- It's on top of most happenings around the world. After an hour with the Washington Post every morning I feel I am prepared enough to walk to work and discuss the issues of the day -- even if that's an analysis of how the Redskins can suck and kick ass at the same time.

- The Post has some incredible series that are great not only because of their content, but because they give you a serendipitous feeling when you pick up the paper. You were not expecting this story and, as you read it, you can't help feeling happy that the paper provided it. The best example -- and the one I saved -- was David Finkel piece on exporting democracy to Yemen.

- More than once the paper printed a story that made my day. There was the Style section piece on white tees, Anne Hull's post-Katrina story on the Domino the sugar factory or the delicious story about immigrants and dishwashers -- read my comments on the matter here.

- It breaks big stories such as the secret prisons revelation by Dana Priest and is great at raising the bar on stories other papers break (ahem, The Times NSA spying program piece).

- It's always on my doorstep, punctual and clean.

- Howard Kurtz is a very good media critic and remains awesome despite Wikipedia's claim that he has a tiny penis.

- It writes about or mentions my home country enough for me not to complain (1, 2).

- It gives me idea for stories, such as this one.

For all the bad, there is twice as much awesome. The awesomeness is hard to quantify, but it's enough to say I love picking up the paper every morning. For every story I cringe at there will be two I am pleased with and maybe one that I will reference for the next couple of days.

There is always room to make it better and the Post probably doesn't need me to make a list. For now I'm a devoted reader and like to critique it as a reader more than a journalist.

The conclusion, if there needs to be one, is that we've had a great run together for these past six months. I have no plan to break up with my paper yet.

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