MEDIA: Behind the political mask of The Washington Post. The Washington Post isn’t just about politics any more. But, as Claire Atkinson discovers, it’s still the paper’s bread and butter

Documenting national politics has long been at the heart of The Washington Post’s mission. Uncovering Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the early seventies were the greatest rewards of that closeness to the nation’s political power brokers.

Documenting national politics has long been at the heart of The Washington Post’s mission. Uncovering Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the early seventies were the greatest rewards of that closeness to the nation’s political power brokers.

Documenting national politics has long been at the heart of The

Washington Post’s mission. Uncovering Watergate and the Pentagon Papers

in the early seventies were the greatest rewards of that closeness to

the nation’s political power brokers.



But fast-forward almost 30 years and you’ll find the Post a very

different organization. It is now a newspaper eager to fulfill other

roles. ’We are a local newspaper for the nation’s capital,’ explained

Don Graham, Washington Post Company chairman and CEO and son of

legendary former publisher Katharine Graham, in an interview last month

with the Financial Times.



By that he means that political DC must compete for front-page attention

with the Redskins football team, local news from surrounding Virginia

and Maryland and also the latest from Chechnya.



Dan Balz, one of The Washington Post’s respected political writers,

explains: ’We have a different role than we did 20 years ago. Our

readership has expanded into the suburbs and we serve those readers in

the same way The Denver Post or The Chicago Tribune would. We are a

locally oriented paper of national influence.’



Indeed, 100 US newspaper editors ranked the paper their second favorite

after The New York Times, in a poll conducted by The Columbia Journalism

Review.



The Review commended The Post’s role as a ’political bible’ but added

that it was ’less complete’ than The New York Times and the Los Angeles

Times.



Balz disagrees: ’Our paper is more well-rounded than it was. Although

politics is the bread and butter, we have to compete for space inside

with everything else.’ He adds that the paper continues a strong

tradition of investigative writing, with stories on police brutality and

a Pulitzer-winning feature on a nuclear reactor in Kentucky.



But Frank Mankiewicz, a former speech writer for Bobby Kennedy, thinks

that the paper hasn’t broken a decent story since Watergate.



’I think Watergate scared them. They received savage attacks from the

Republicans and big business,’ says Mankiewicz, now Hill & Knowlton’s

vice chairman in DC. ’I think that the Post has been headed toward the

right since (former executive editor) Ben Bradlee left. The current

editor (Len Downie) is not as interested in politics.’



Mankiewicz thinks the paper has been too harsh on President Clinton, but

Balz says every White House has accused the paper of bias. To remain as

impartial as possible, executive editor Downie does not even vote.



Edelman New York president Tom Buckmaster, a former DC resident, says

the Post has been as influential as any member of government. ’That

phenomenon is unique.’



It is a position that weighs heavily on political writers such as Balz,

who has been with the paper since 1978. Balz, 53, is currently spending

much of his time on the election campaign trail. He says the most

challenging aspect of his job is remembering to think like an ordinary

voter.



’We go to shopping malls in New Hampshire and talk to people in coffee

shops,’ he says. In addition, the Post has its own polling division to

sample voter attitudes.



Balz also spends much of his time on planes and dining with the people

who are attempting to influence his coverage, but he says it is

important to keep a certain distance. ’Part of the job is talking to the

press secretaries of the candidates and the strategists, pollsters and

campaign managers,’ he says. ’Their job is to convince us their

candidate is doing well.’



Balz, who co-wrote Storming The Gates: Protest Politics and the

Republican Revival, has been a close follower of political public

relations. He notes how Republican press secretaries during the 1996

election figured out they could circumvent the news media by tapping the

growing number of right-of-center radio talk-show hosts. Balz also

recalls the Clinton ’war room’ and ’rapid response’ strategies, which

were praised as great PR ploys at the time.



Now Balz says that all the players recognize that ’spin is diminished.’

He explains that it’s no longer acceptable to paint a rosy picture of a

screw-up. ’Everyone is looking for something more real and genuine.’



Eric Hauser, Bill Bradley’s press secretary, adds: ’I think that over

the last few years journalists’ skepticism about spin has been

heightened. But that is a good thing. When skepticism becomes cynicism,

that’s when it is a problem.’



Not surprisingly, Balz ranks Mike McCurry as one the best press

secretaries he has worked with. While praising the current crop of press

secretaries to the main presidential candidates, he offers a few simple

pointers: ’Be straightforward and responsive. There is information we

want and questions we want answered. Most don’t want to give away

secrets, but sometimes they have to provide information.’



In November, The Post reached a controversial cross-media agreement with

NBC and sister magazine Newsweek, aimed at increasing the Post’s

presence on TV and the Web. Balz says he hopes the deal won’t negatively

affect Post journalists’ frequent appearances on PBS’s NewsHour.



And, of course, the Post hopes the arrangement will increase its bottom

line. The newspaper is part of the Washington Post Company, for which

Katharine Graham chairs the executive committee. The company recorded a

market capitalization of dollars 5.5 billion in December 1999, while the

newspaper division saw revenues rise 6% to dollars 211.9 million for the

nine months ending October 1999, despite a downturn in newspaper

circulation across the country.



At 25 cents a copy, the Post is a cheap read when compared with other

so-called ’national’ papers like The New York Times, which costs 75

cents.



However, circulation on the daily (763,305) has barely moved and each

edition costs The Washington Post Company 33 cents to produce.

Circulation for the Sunday edition even fell by 1% to 1,081,708.



H&K’s Mankiewicz has an idea for improving circulation: ’I would

encourage them to get some stories and turn the tigers loose.’





CONTACT LIST



The Washington Post



1150 15th Street NW



Washington, DC 20071-0070



National Desk:



Tel: (202) 334 7410



Fax: (202) 496 3817/3822



Email: lastnamefirstinitial@washpost.com



National editor: Bill Hamilton



Deputy national editors: Ruth Marcus, Maralee Schwartz



Assistant managing editor: Jackson Diehl



National news editor: Liz Spayd



Political correspondent: Dave Broder



Political reporters: Mike Allen, Dan Balz, Ceci Connolly, Thomas Edsall,

Susan Glasser, David Maraniss, Ellen Nakashima, Terry Neal, David Von

Drehle, Edward Walsh



Polling director: Richard Morin



Political researcher: Ben White.



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