Two inaugurations ago, a great Washington Post tradition came under fire. Metro staffers were meeting to discuss how they’d deploy their reporters for the parade that would take George W. Bush from the Capitol to the White House. In previous inaugurations, the Post had immersed the parade route with bodies—one on each side of each block along Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Should we be at every corner?” asked someone in the meeting, according to Ashley Halsey, then a Metro editor.
Top Metro Editor Jo-Ann Armao responded, “What if we hadn’t been there the day Reagan got shot?” says Halsey. Reagan, of course, was shot at the Washington Hilton, not at an inaugural parade. But the point stood—end of discussion.
So flooding the zone remains an inauguration MO at the Post. This year, the Metro section will have 80 reporters assigned in some way to cover the events of Jan. 20. Throw in 22 from washingtonpost.com (including volunteers), five from the paper’s editorial board, one from Business, 15 to 20 from National, and a small army from Style, and you’re talking about a three-digit deployment of reportorial talent. The thinking behind all the bodies is that inaugural happenings unfold over a wide expanse, and so must the local paper of record.
“The inauguration is our Super Bowl. We want to be able to cover every aspect of it physically, so that every aspect is in sight of a Washington Post reporter,” says former Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. “We wouldn’t want to have to rely on secondhand information.”
Anyone who’s ever attempted to plow through an inauguration edition of the Post knows the result of the paper’s quasi-military deployment. Straight news accounts of the events, the traffic, the weather, the pros and antis, the people who don’t care, essays, columns—classic Washington Post overkill. This year’s presentation, though, may well make previous iterations look like underkill. For starters, the paper is putting out its regular morning edition plus commemorative inaugural editions on Jan. 20 and Jan. 21—four papers in two days. An internal Post memo describes “a very special Inauguration Day commemorative section….In addition to coming out in your newspapers at home, this section will be wrapped Tuesday afternoon with four live pages—photo and text coverage of the swearing-in—and sold on street corners and in hotels as a souvenir. The heart of this section will be pieces on Obama, his inspiring oratory, the first family, a narrative on a Washington family…accompanied by a timeline that may be a port to a ‘civil rights museum’…”
All the fuss over the inauguration is a new experience for Downie’s successor, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, a former Wall Street Journal editor with little exposure to big-time Metro coverage. Brauchli says the Post's ambitions for this inaugural have placed a premium on planning. "We added layers of complexity because we're doing multiple editions in the space of two days," he says. "We're trying to do all kinds of creative Web content, so I'm sure the complication is greater than in the past."
Yet inaugural coverage at the Post is driven less by any editor and more by collective memory that goes back decades. Downie says that legendary Post editor Ben Gilbert, who ran the city news desk in the ’60s, designed modern inauguration coverage for the paper, and left behind his blueprint in a classic memo. Though no one seems to know where that document is, its modern-day counterpart certainly carries forward Gilbert’s imperative to miss absolutely nothing.
A 1,200-word December inauguration-planning memo from Metro Deputy City Editor Bill Miller dispatches at least one reporter to the following spots or missions: “Mall, Jumbotrons; Church service; Swearing-in/West Front of Capitol; Downtown rovers; Mayor Fenty; D.C. Police; D.C. Fire/EMS; D.C. Unified Communications Center; FBI Command Center; Park Police; National Guard; Protests; Traffic; Metro; Metro Stations; D.C. Department of Transportation; RFK parking lot (charter buses parked there); Area roads—traffic; Earl Stafford’s Marriott Party for the Needy; Parade/Transit; College scenes; Suburban scenes; W/Obama relatives; City Scenes; Night Scenes; Night Cops.”
What, no one’s covering the National Zoological Park Police?
By far the greatest siphon of Post personnel is the parade route, a stretch of road where just about anything can happen. The president may hop out of his limo, wave to people, and shake some hands. He may even exchange some words with well-wishers. If so, the Post wants a description of the interactions plus interviews with the lucky citizens. Such on-the-ground reporting may be especially critical in covering Obama’s parade, given his followers’ knack for fainting in his presence.
The other rationale for blanketing the parade route is the unthinkable. “You don’t want anything to happen….but you have to be ready,” says Karlyn Barker, a former Postie involved in reporting and planning several inaugural editions.
The parade route covers 14 blocks. According to Miller, 21 Post reporters are assigned to cover it. The math poses something of a problem for the paper’s inaugural heritage: On only 10 blocks of the route will the Post have sufficient personnel to cover both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. Should Obama make a turn toward an area unmanned by the Post, there’s almost no hope that a reporter out of position would be able to plow through security barricades and thick crowds to get the scoop.
News of the gaps in the Post’s erstwhile Iron Parade Curtain has spread among the inaugural crew at the paper. “The scuttlebutt in the office is that we’re depleted and can’t do that anymore,” says Metro reporter Michael E. Ruane.
Miller disputes the idea of inaugural depletion, contending that the number of Metro reporters assigned to previous inaugurations “would probably be comparable” to this year’s tally. The problem in 2009, says Miller, is the event’s enormity. Metro needs to have a presence not only on the parade route, says Miller, but also on the Mall and elsewhere in the federal core, leaving fewer bodies for the parade itself. Brauchli has no concerns about parade coverage: "I am quite certain that the planning that's gone into this has taken account of many eventualities and I'm sure that the coverage will be strong."
Whatever the caliber of coverage, Miller says he's had no trouble getting people to suit up for it. “Because of the crowd and because of the historic nature [of the event], people have been eager in some respects to take the assignments on the parade route,” he says.
The hype, in other words, is getting to the people who generate it. Parade duty, after all, has long been one of the great hardship assignments at the paper. Reporters are asked to mark their territory along the route hours before the event, the better to freeze in place and practice extreme bladder control. The paper does provide its reporters hand and foot warmers, which help a bit with the cold but don’t make the clock move any faster. “I remember hours upon hours of standing there, waiting,” recalls a former Metro staffer.
Metro reporter Ruben Castaneda worked the second Clinton inaugural parade on a day when the high temperature was 34 degrees. That was before he’d bought a down coat. “I was shivering, I was shuffling to try to stay warm,” says Castaneda. And what did he witness? “Well, I recall a limousine, and some SUVs with what I presumed to be Secret Service [personnel] went by, and that was that.”
On the off chance that something will happen on Tuesday that’s not associated with the inauguration, the Post stands prepared, with several reporters assigned to the “non-inaugural” beat. “I’m disappointed to miss this moment in history. But at the same time, I live in Virginia and don’t want to sleep on a grate the night before,” says reporter Tom Jackman. “If anything happens, it’s all me—a plane crash, a natural disaster, any kind of crime or disaster that doesn’t involve the inauguration.”