Should the Wash Post Expand Local or Give Up the Ghost?

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Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton is worried that his paper isn’t doing enough local coverage. In a recent column he wrote that readers frequently complain there isn’t enough news about their neighborhood in the ever-thinning print edition — and that additional coverage was difficult to find online. The result: an unsatisfied audience that is less inclined to continue subscribing.

“The editors in Metro feel that it’s better to write stories that will appeal to readers in all the jurisdictions,” Pexton told Street Fight last week. “That’s not a terrible idea, but I think to do that and then not really cover closely the county governments and the city governments isn’t giving people a full picture of what goes on.” He added that he believed more coverage of these areas could be achieved by reallocating resources rather than hiring new staff.

Change will soon be coming to the Washington Post, in the form of a new executive editor —  and potentially a paywall —  next year. Marty Baron, who refocused the Boston Globe on more local matters during his tenure as editor there, will take over for Post editor Marcus Brauchli on Jan. 1 — perhaps with the thought of bringing some of his local magic to D.C.

But some think that fixing what ails the Washington Post’s local coverage is not as simple as reallocating resources. In fact, local coverage of this sort might not even make sense, considering the paper’s mission.

It all comes down to deciding “what the strategic mission of the Washington Post is going to be,” Reflectons of a Newsosaur blogger Alan Mutter told Street Fight. “If it were not in Washington, D.C., then I think the idea that it had to focus on local news in some fashion probably would be a good answer. It makes a lot of sense for the Chicago Tribune because that is the core competence,” he said. “But the Washington Post has an opportunity to be a major force in covering national politics and in some ways international [news] as well.”

The paper’s unique position means that with proper resources and decisions, it could again be a major national player along with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Mutter said. But if Washington Post managers “are going to forego the opportunity to do that, then they can indeed focus in on the local,” he said. “The problem for a metro paper in any large market is that [it] can’t get local enough. The real localness of metro papers has been usurped by digital publishers.”

From 2007 to 2009, the Washington Post tried to do this kind of local usurping with hyperlocal site, led by Rob Curley and overseen by Jim Brady. The ambitious effort struggled, leaving the Post’s local effort in the limbo it’s still in today.

There’s another issue at work as well. “The Post is conflicted because it owns the Gazette newspapers in the suburbs, which is the local play in some of these areas,” Pexton said. “In a way, I think, some people here at the Post think, ‘We’ll just let the Gazettes take care of it.’ But they only have money to hire very, very young reporters who are not very experienced and who do not have the context of covering a lot of governments.”

The result is sporadic and patchy local coverage across one of the country’s most important metro regions. Plus, readers in Arlington County and Montgomery County have vastly different needs, wants, and desires. It’s a huge task to cover those areas and cover them well.

“If I were running the Washington Post, I would have to ask myself, ‘What does local mean and who are we being local for?'” Mutter said. “‘Can we possibly be credible for those many and varied localities?'”

The answer, at least for Mutter, is no. So what does the paper cover in the local space? “You hit the high points,” Mutter said. “You look for thematic stories,” he added, citing “transportation, politics, who’s going to be the mayor of Washington, D.C.”

But Pexton still believes the Washington Post should try to do local better, reasoning that if you cover it, the subscribers will come.

“They have given up that ghost way too easily,” he said. “I’m open to new ways of doing it. The Post has a Maryland blogger and a Virginia blogger. There are a lot of ways to do it. But commit to doing it, really put some resources into it, and I think [the editors] will recapture some of their audience. The Post still makes most of its money from print, and local news is one of the reason why people buy a print subscription. Don’t disrespect it.”

Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight.

Related content: Will Wash Post Take Another Run at Hyperlocal Under John Temple? (Street Fight, 4/5/2012)