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December 17, 2005

Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One

"They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the user’s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension."

New post alert: Froomkin writes in. See Dan Froomkin on Attitude in White House Briefing (Dec. 19).

For me the most interesting moment in the Dan Froomkin dust up came during an exchange between bosses in Editor and Publisher. Leonard Downie, big boss at the Washington Post, stated his concerns about Froomkin’s White House Briefing, a Web column. “We want to make sure people in the Administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin’s column because it contains opinion,” Downie told E&P. “And that readers of the Web site understand that, too.” A change in title would help, he believed.

Now you would think that if Len Downie wanted it done, people would do it. He is the executive editor of the Washington Post. Except there’s another executive editor: Jim Brady, who oversees, a separate but related domain. This situation gave rise to the ombudsman column that started the whole Froomkin tussle this week. Deborah Howell’s original was called The Two Washington Posts. As she explained: “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.”

Brady Says No

Across the Potomac, the other boss, Jim Brady, said he had no plans to change the name of Froomkin’s column. He didn’t buy the charge that confused readers thought Froomkin was a White House beat reporter. “The column has been on the site for two years and that is not something we have heard,” Brady told E & P. White House Briefing is extremely popular with users, he said, “and it is not going anywhere.”

Len Downie understood. “They decide what the column ought to be called,” he said. (They being Brady’s crew.) “We have discussed it and they will decide what to do.” Or as Editor and Publisher put it: “‘Wash Post’ Editor and Others Want Froomkin Column Renamed — But Online Chief Says No.” Political editor John Harris agreed that changing the name is Brady’s call, but: “I think it would be an error not to.” (See my last post, where I interviewed Brady and Harris and tracked the discussion of the episode. Also see Brad DeLong’s follow-up phone call with Harris.)

Brady told me that he would continue to talk to the Post newsroom about it. But with Dan Froomkin, Columnist, at the top of the page next to his picture, and “Special to” under his name (instead of “Washington Post Staff Writer,” which is what it says for reporters) plus a subdomain called> Columns it’s pretty clear that he’s a columnist.

The problem comes—if there is any problem—from the words White House and “briefing.” Do they mislead us by suggesting that Froomkin is actually stationed at the White House? Post White House reporter Peter Baker says so: “I have heard concerns that people might think he is a reporter in the White House briefing room.”

Leading with the chin

Yeah, but what people? In the E & P article, Downie seemed most worried about Bush supporters and their perceptions of the Post. Listen again: “We want to make sure people in the Administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin’s column because it contains opinion.” John Harris told me: “I have heard from Republicans in informal ways making clear they think his work is tendentious and unfair.” Also: “To the extent that some people believe Dan represents the voice and values of the Washington Post newsroom, that seems to me to be leading with our chin.”

From reading Froomkin’s column “people” might get the impression that the Washington Post newsroom is biased against Bush. That is what Harris and company are saying. They want to put as much distance as possible between the Post’s White House reporting, and Froomkin’s White House Briefing. A title change (recommended also by the ombudsman) is supposed to accomplish that.

But… “Online Chief Says No.” Under the surface this was the Web side of the Post saying “NO” to political pressure from the Republicans, which took the form of griping about an effective Bush critic, Dan Froomkin—“his work is tendentious and unfair”—by sources in, and friends of, the White House. The beat reporters felt they couldn’t ignore it. Brady, I believe, felt they should ignore it. (Though he didn’t say that directly.) And if they wouldn’t, he would.

Dual centers of power

Some sharp words were exchanged this week, but there’s no sign of any big or chronic conflicts between the two Posts; and that is ultimately the more telling thing. is succeeding journalistically, and the Post newsroom is succeeding on the Web. And responsible for this success are two different centers of power.

They’re not equals (780 in one newsroom vs. 65 in the other; fewer than one million subscribers vs. eight million users), but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the user’s experience no one has total control. There’s tension because there’s supposed to be tension. It makes for a more dynamic site.

What the brief struggle over White House Briefing showed me is the hidden advantages of a divided house. For if you have two newsrooms, with two bosses, and two staffs, then you can double your pressthink, and expand signficantly the range of ideas considered acceptable at the Washington Post. This is exactly what newspaper journalism needs in the age of the Web. More range. More than one ruling doctine in charge. More than one sensibility in place.

For example, among John Harris, Peter Baker, Len Downie and others who think as they do, the strict separation between “news” and “opinion” is clear, compelling, necessary, and wise. Only good can flow from it. Credibility itself rides on it. Common sense coheres in it. There is validity to their system, and over the long run it has served the newspaper well, but it is not universally valid. Nor does it have an answer for everything— especially in times of platform change and politicized attacks on the press.

The big tent

Why do people become loyal readers of Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing? Is it for the news they find in it, or the opinion? After reading the column three of four times you learn it’s both, plus Froomkin’s voice and passion, his facts, his best-of links, his criticism of the White House press. As Jeff Jarvis says: “it all fits in the big tent of journalism, if those who think they own that tent will allow it.”

A lot of times they won’t allow it. This was one. They tried to put their foot down, but to do that they had to make arguments and engage the ideas of others online. The newspaper’s mental sectioning (news vs. opinion) might help the beat reporters explain to Republican sources that “Hey, Froomkin isn’t us,” but it’s not helpful for understanding how his column works (pattern recognition), what it’s really about (matching words to deeds), and why even the suggestion of clipping his wings brought out such passions in users. (Witness 900+ comments at this post.)

Observe: During the Froomkin flap this week USA Today announced that it would go the opposite route and merge its two newsrooms—newspaper and Web—into one.

The New York Times did the same thing earlier this year. The Times said that in the years ahead it would have to “invent a digital journalism” and devise new services for readers that can earn revenues. “We have concluded that our best chance of meeting that challenge is to integrate the two newsrooms into one,” wrote Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, in August.

Different puzzles to solve

It is clear that Donald Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Company, has a different idea. And so this is another case—the most famous is Times Select—where the New York Times and Washington Post are choosing different routes as they try to make it across the digital divide. In Graham’s view, Arlington and Washington have different puzzles to solve. “Putting out the newspaper is a demanding, more-than-full-time job,” he told Howell. “The Web site has an equally demanding challenge, having to make its way against brilliant competitors who are constantly unrolling new products. The Post and WPNI must cooperate but must also find a way to do quite different jobs.”

One of Brad DeLong’s readers, Robert Waldman, made a shrewd observation:

The problem here which created the need for a public confrontation is that Downie can not rename a column in He needs to publicly argue with Brady…

Which is true. Another reader said:

I think Waldmann’s theory is correct. It is the separation of editorial power between the print section of WaPo and the on-line section that made the problem of remaining in the good graces of the WH propaganda machine difficult to manage.

A shorter to way to say it: Bill Keller could have simply ordered the name change, and White House reporters at the New York Times would not have had to engage in any public wrangling about it (or explain their thinking.) The separation of powers allows Graham’s company to develop a pluralism in its own pressthink and political sense-making. This is way easier than making Webbies of newsroom curmudgeons. There can be a looser and more open environment, and a more traditional “strict separations” newsroom; talented people will vote with their feet.

Donald Graham does not have to decide whose ideas shall be the ruling wisdom in the news and commentary world to come. This is good because no one’s that smart. I think John Harris learned as much this week. My advice: Keep the separation of powers, Washington Post. It’s helping you get your act together.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links.

New PressThink, Dec. 19: Dan Froomkin on Attitude in White House Briefing: “There’s been much speculation over whether my column would take the same approach with a Democrat…”

All the details, background and reactions you could want are at my first post, John Harris and Jim Brady Get Into It About “White House Briefing.” Dan Froomkin Replies.

Anecdote about innovation at WPNI: I participated in the comment threads at Joel Achenbach’s blog on the Post site because he wrote about Froomkin (here and here.) I suggested in a “heads up” way to Brady, Achenbach and WPNI’s Hal Straus that the Froomkin squall showed how vital it was to have permalinks to each comment at Post blogs. (Like this post.) I would have linked to some of the things readers said, and added value to the Post’s site, said I. But I couldn’t because the Post doesn’t have that feature turned on. This was in an e-mail Dec. 14. The next day they added permalinks to comments in Post blogs.

For those less Webbie, “add permalinks” means each comment gets its own address (url) and thus becomes a page on the WWW. Matters because a blogger can now send you to that comment with a link— like this.

Greensboro’s John Robinson—what Newspaper Editor 2.0 might be like—reports (at his blog) on a year of tentative progress at the News-Record in crossing the digital divide. “So we blogged. We solicited citizen journalism. We started podcasts. We added audio. We dipped a toe in video. We did slide shows and multi-media.” The surprise?

Unlike the presumption that ink-stained wretches rebel at the idea that they “have” to do anything other than write for the print publication, most of our staff understands where the business is headed, and they want to play. During a staff meeting last week, reporters asked for more training with online tools and equipment. We have a waiting list for those who want to blog.

A waiting list: exactly. Robinson says they’re not stopping. One year ago at PressThink: Action in Greensboro on Open Source Journalism. (Dec. 18, 2004)

New at Buzzmachine (Dec. 19). Jeff Jarvis begins a series of “how-to” posts on ways to re-make the newsroom for the Web era. This one argues: “The first job is to instill fear in the newsroom.”

The endlessly provocative Brad DeLong asks: Is the Washington Post Newsroom Insane?

Tim Schmoyer at Sisyphean Musings is curious about what Froomkin means by “accountability journalism” and how it differs from the “watchdog” variety. He also fact-checks some White House Briefing columns.

DC Media Girl: “Editors and reporters at the paper have always had a sniffy, ‘not in our class, dear’ attitude towards their Web counterparts, whom they see as a bunch of ruffians.”

Jeff Jarvis replies to this post and says he disagrees about the divided house: One newsrooms, two newsrooms, or none?

If newspapers themselves do not change radically to embrace the future, they will become things of the past. So I have argued that newspapers have a choice: Either totally upend newsroom culture and get people to face the strategic imperative of gathering and sharing news in new ways across all platforms … or move most of the staff to online — where the audience is now and revenue growth, if not equivalent revenue, will be — and leave the dinosaurs behind.

Keeping the Post separate from the online operation allows the “newsroom princes” to remain blind, says Jeff.

That is why Post political editor John Harris thought he could be so haughty as to publicly scold his online colleagues for not following his rules and for embarrassing him with his White House, even snaring the — what shall I say, unsuspecting? — ombudsman in his crusade.

No, Harris and company do not need to confront the online people. They need to confront the future. They need to confront the fact that more readers read the online product. They need to confront the fact that the economics of news are changing, whether they approve or not.

I say the Post is making more progress this way. I also believe that talented young people with Net sensibilities and contributions to make to journalism’s future won’t join the old newsrooms, and they won’t floursh in the “merged” environments, either. But they might be drawn to an outfit like WPNI. The six-column kings and deadline princes Jeff refers to cannot be forced to learn. No one can drag them into the future— or even make them dwell in the present. Curmudgeons are proud of their ignorance, and they will retire that way.

Jarvis replies in the comments and I answer him back. Also see the comments at Buzzmachine, including this one on why the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom has adapted so well to the 24-hour Web.

The One True b!X, a talented blogger who followed local politics in Portland, Oregon—also a PressThink reader—explains in a piece published in the Oregonian why he quit the beat: “My work as a full-time blogger exposed me to more demagoguery (… from officials, candidates, columnists, readers, and bloggers alike) than I could handle.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 17, 2005 1:23 AM