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
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
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
’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
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.’
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20071-0070
Tel: (202) 334 7410
Fax: (202) 496 3817/3822
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.