WaPo’s Suburban Newsrooms: Let the Walls Come Tumbling Down

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Yesterday, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli put out an all-newsroom memo announcing the paper would close most of its suburban newsrooms.  The announcement went viral in the media world.  Huffington Post put out the story under the headline “WaPo Editor’s Depressing Memo About Cutbacks.”  The Washington Post’s own ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote gloomily: “I hope this is truly not a retrenchment. But if it is, or if it just means that local reporters will be working out of their homes, or the local Starbucks, to save money, then this is a sad moment for The Post.”

Pexton remembers from his pre-digital reporting days that “local residents, or county functionaries and elected officials, would drop by the bureau office to give a tip to a reporter.”  But sources give tips to reporters not because they work out of an office that can be visited but because they trust them. Bob Woodward got his tips from Deep Throat in an anonymous parking garage.

The Post‘s decision to shut most of its suburban newsrooms shouldn’t be a sad moment at all.  It should be an occasion for the Post to let its staff and the world know that not only is it not retrenching but it is expanding its commitment to the greater Washington community, and backing up that commitment with dollars it no longer needs for obsolete suburban offices.

To show how the Post could do this — without repeating the mistakes of its digital disaster Loudoun Extra — I took the liberty of revising Brauchli’s memo. Sometimes even executive editors need editing.

Here goes (my revisions are in strikethroughs for deletions and bold type for additions):

From: Marcus Brauchli
Date: Thu, Sep 1, 2011 at 3:33 PM
Subject: Virtual space vs. office space Suburban offices
To: NEWS – All Newsroom

Colleagues, you will have heard reports that we have decided not to renew leases on some of our suburban offices when they come up starting next year. This issue is not about office space—it’s about the virtual space of still evolving digital journalism, and how we must begin to make smarter and more ambitious moves into that space, which is not defined by square feet.  The walls of traditional newsrooms, created in the 19th and 2oth centuries, are collapsing. Newsrooms are being reconstituted in the new 21st-century digital space, which exists, literally, everywhere. Our Fairfax County reporters, for example, can use their smartphones and their Dropbox app to instantly access information that would fill all the file cabinets in the Fairfax bureau, and many more. Through handsets and other portable digital devices, our Fairfax and other suburban reporters can do everything that they’ve been doing in our bureaus—and they can do it wherever they are.

 So we’re going to transfer a big chunk of our investment in 20th-century suburban office space to 21st century digital space.  We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on that suburban space, counting furnishings.  We will, as quickly as possible, buy out the leases and invest in advanced software that will permit us to wrap our heads around the flood of new data on community performance in key categories like jobs, education and housing.  Every day 50,000 new data sets of community-centric information pours on to the Web.  Better software will permit us to filter signal from noise and channel important, revealing data to our stellar information design team led by Wilson Andrews to make visual sense of what otherwise is often a metrical swamp.

One key issue we will focus on is the persistent gap in minority achievement in our local school systems.  African Americans and Hispanics constitute the vast majority of students who fail to make adequate academic progress and drop out—and that’s true not only in the District but in the suburban schools of our metro area, where whites are still a majority.  With our new data mashing and visualization capabilities, we will track students in every jurisdiction as they progress (or don’t) from year to year.  We will bring these new digital capabilities to other issues as well.  In Montgomery County, for example, we will zoom in on the promising but still uncertain transformation of Rockville Pike from its half-century of physical blight and transportation nightmare to green corridor where, if the right things continue to done, hundreds of thousands of families will have the resources to enjoy their community in myriad new ways, including on foot (imagine that on Rockville Pike!).

To tell these and other continuing stories of our communities we will create new digital space on washingtonpost.com that will be much more valuable than the physical space on which we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The owners of this new space will not be Washington Post Co., but the communities we serve, not just in the suburbs but the District as well.  Activists and experts involved in minority achievement, the transformation of Rockville Pike (and the longer-delayed H Street NE revitalization in the District) and other challenging undertakings will all occupy this space, which is not limited by walls or size of leasing budgets.  The LJ World in Lawrence, Kans., has already done this with its WellCommons site to improve coverage of health and wellness in that community.  We can extend this model across the entire spectrum of what makes communities livable, and in these especially challenging economic times. , not personnel or coverage.

We are doing this because we have more space than we use in many places, not because we are retrenching. Indeed, we may decide in some cases to take smaller offices in the same communities, and we will retain our existing bureaus in Richmond and Annapolis. With the savings from ending unnecessarily expensive leases, we will invest in technology that will enable us to file from anywhere, at any time, to any platform. We are maintaining staffing levels in the suburbs. In addition, reporters from our 15th Street newsroom continue to cover regional stories.

The backdrop here, as most of you know, is that we have been investing in regional coverage recently. We have rebuilt our schools team and now have staff reporters on each of the major districts in our area. We have added top-end bloggers covering Fairfax and Montgomery Counties, as well as the District. We’ve just launched On Faith Local, a supplement to our very successful On Faith site, focused on religion in this area. And we’ve started TheRootDC.com, a terrific new site that’s covering the African-American community across the region.

These ongoing initiatives, and the new ones we will be launching, don’t depend on physical space.  They depend on how well we move our newsrooms to digital space, where the main constraints are not walls and leasing budgets but our readiness, and courage, to innovate—and fulfill our mission to serve the greater Washington community. Re-assessing our need for leased space in the suburbs will have no adverse impact on our coverage of the region and will, rather, create savings that will ultimately benefit our readers.


Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.