The Happy World of the New Washington Post Magazine What the focus on short and sweet means for the redesigned Sunday mag.

Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli gets touchy when discussing the Washington Post Magazine.

On Sept. 28, he sent out a memo to his staff marking an important occasion in the paper’s transformation. One day before, the Post launched a redesigned magazine, complete with a stylish new logo and various new shortish regular features.

The top dog was thrilled with the product: “Colleagues, over the weekend, readers got their first look at WP Magazine, the re-envisioned and redesigned magazine, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Really? Not if you were reading Brauchli’s own Web site. An online chat on earlier that day focused on the changes to the magazine. Magazine editor Debra Leithauser and Art Director Janet Michaud took 51 comments/questions from chatters, and 32 had negative things to say about the fresh product—some of them were outright slams: “Kensington, MD: Luv the Rdrs Dgst lk. Fts rit in w/r attn span. By by.” Later in the chat, Kensington chimed in again: hope you realize that was an insult. Well deserved, I might add. the new magazine is awful.”

The editors responded: “yeah, we got it.”


Last month furnished another example of Brauchli’s frantic magazine-related spinning: Post media writer Howard Kurtz broke a story on whether Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth may have helped to kill a piece that had been assigned for publication in the paper’s magazine. The pending piece concerned the struggles of a quadruple amputee, and when Weymouth caught wind of the story, she blasted it as reflective of a too-depressing trend in magazine content. The piece was killed.

In a discussion with Washington City Paper, Brauchli stated, “Whatever Katharine may have felt about the piece was immaterial to the editorial process.”

Yet a newsroom source reports that Weymouth had spread her distaste for the amputee story in several settings—and that it was precisely her opinion that doomed it.

So why is Brauchli locked in such a defensive crouch when it comes to the Washington Post Magazine? Why does he protest so much about public response to the redesign and Weymouth’s editorial incursions?

Perhaps he’s eager to beat back the real story of what’s happened to the magazine—that it has been captured by the commercial side of the Washington Post. In an institution of such high bars and thick walls, that’s something of a watershed. The default setting on the Post’s publishing model has long hewed toward the puritanical. Journalists do what they do best—put out a paper—and the advertising people do what they do best—sell it.

That division of labor drove the magazine from its founding in 1977, right smack in the reign of Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. The advertising team, recalls Bradlee, didn’t do a lot of boundary testing in those days. “The business side left me alone,” he says. “Someone may have told them, ‘Don’t mess with Bradlee because he’ll give you a lot of shit.’”

Of his stewardship over the magazine, Bradlee says, “It wasn’t my finest moment.” Correct: In September 1986, Bradlee & Co. attempted a spectacular, highly promoted relaunch of the magazine that backfired in the most public fashion. The debut issue featured two pieces—including a column by Richard Cohen sympathizing with D.C. jewelers who declined entry to young black males—that drew charges of racism and months of protest by area African-Americans.

The Washington Post Magazine would take years to recover. “Big Post advertisers loyal through thick and thin…felt they had been betrayed. This thing had blown up on them,” recalls a former Post insider.

Through all the downs and downs, the magazine had to labor under conditions unique for a section of the Washington Post. A profit-loss sheet, that is. As best they could in an organization so sprawling, the accountants at the paper broke out the expenses and revenues of the magazine onto their own ledger, the better to monitor the weekly’s value to the enterprise. Style, Weekend, Metro, what have you—other sections have never answered to spreadsheets.

Financial accountability didn’t always work out too well for the publication, whose editors shoveled copy against a backdrop of red ink for years. A breakthrough came in the late ’90s, under the guidance of Steve Coll: The numbers showed that the magazine’s revenues and expenses were breaking even. Officials on both sides of the biz-editorial divide rejoiced.

Over the decade since, the magazine’s ledger has seesawed. According to informed sources, it eked out some profitable years in the mid-2000s, only to rack up losses in recent years, along with the rest of the news industry.

Perhaps it’s because they run a glossy magazine, complete with all kinds of sleek platforms for big-dollar advertisers. Perhaps it’s because they have to produce several special issues per year, on travel, home design, food, education, and so on. Perhaps it’s because of the profit-loss thing: Whatever the reason, editors at the magazine have always worked more closely with the advertising people than do other newsroom section editors.

With the coziness comes a certain torture. Officials on the business side of the Post have never been shy about voicing their prescription for a more ledger-worthy Washington Post Magazine. Shorter stories, more positive stories, news you can use, more of a city magazine approach, like Washingtonian.

Tom Shroder, who edited the magazine from 2002 to 2009 and left the paper via buyout, heard plenty of it: “From the day I began editing a Sunday magazine in Miami 25 years ago, there were always some on the business side who believed the stories were too long and too depressing. This remained a constant both there and when I came to the Post.”

Says another ex-Postie who felt the pressures from the biz folks: “They’d say there should be Top 10 lists and happy things,” says the source. “They’d whine that if we didn’t have stories that made people cry, we could sell more advertising.”

Like any self-respecting ideology, this approach to wringing money out of the magazine acquired a title. “Levity and brevity,” went the thinking, would go a long way toward making the Washington Post Magazine behave more like a traditional magazine, complete with spunky, positive, bite-size content blocks that advertisers would love to play with. Long, dark narratives, meanwhile, could easily find a place in other parts of the paper, like the front page or the Style section.

For years and years, the newsroom managed to keep “levity and brevity” at bay. The goal-line stand against a strong advertising team derived a lot of its strength from the market position of the newspaper. The Washington Post throughout the ’90s and the early 2000s was a very viable property, with margins healthy enough to ward off calls to turn the magazine into a local version of Men’s Health.

Then: The media economy tanked, the entire economy tanked, and the Post newsroom welcomed its new leader, Brauchli. “Levity and brevity” was poised to break through for the score, and it did, via a vacancy announcement for the magazine:

With Sydney Trent’s departure for Style, we are looking for an experienced and highly creative editor and team player to help manage the Magazine. As we redesign and shape the Sunday magazine as an essential guide to Washington that mixes levity and brevity with smart, sophisticated reporting, writing and presentation...

Leithauser says that “levity and brevity” refers to the smaller features in the front of the magazine, not to the “well stories” that may be heavier and longer.

Even so, Leithauser is working under the eye of a levity-and-brevity proponent. Publisher Weymouth has stumped all around the Post in favor of a break from what she and the ad people view as a long, dark period in magazine content.

According to Post sources, Weymouth on several occasions lashed out against death and misery in the feature pages, and she even had a hit list of sorts:

• Gene Weingarten’s dark-yet-gripping dark-yet-gripping piece that took apart the epidemic of parents leaving their children in their car seats, with often tragic consequences

• A story by Caitlin Gibson about a girl born with dwarfism who undergoes painful limb-extension surgery

• A piece discussing the trials of a woman suffering from a horrible disease and those of her husband, the caretaker

• This year’s Mother’s Day issue, which had features on a mother and her autistic son and on the quadruple amputee, which was in process at the time that Weymouth attacked it as typical of the magazine’s tenebrous tendencies.

Those opinions notwithstanding, Weymouth says via e-mail that she had “nothing to do with setting the specific vision for the magazine. Marcus and his team set the vision. I am excited about our relaunched magazine and think our readers will appreciate its new, more local flavor.”

The publisher and her top editor strike a consistent tone. Says Executive Editor Brauchli: “There’s nothing in the redesigned magazine that I’m not comfortable with.”

Including the mediocrity?

The new-look Washington Post Magazine represents a horizontal move, in the most sunny of assessments—not a promotion. Let’s start with the new logo, which is a “WP” in a regal font. It’s fine until you realize that it’s a rip-off of the logo on the New York TimesStyle magazine.

Inside, there’s a lot of new and different stuff, which is about the best you can say about the whole shebang. The contents page betrays a yearning for young and hip sensibilities, to limited effect. The fresh front-of-the-book features are forgettable and shoo-ins for the trash bin the next time a seat-of-the-pants redesign is in order. And if their presentation gives you a sense of deja vu, you haven’t gone crazy—it mimics New York magazine, which Brauchli has held up as an aspirational model in discussions with Post staffers.

Then there’s the Date Lab treatment. Hold on—what Date Lab? When I first turned to this WaPo mag instaclassic feature, I thought I’d alighted on an advertisement for a hair-loss product. The “Date Lab” banner, you see, had been shrunk and marginalized in favor of other, criscrossing graphic elements. Not a good match for my eyes.

As for the content, the new magazine has been around for just three weeks, so it’s way too early to assert that the emphasis on levity and brevity has robbed the publication of its edge, that it’s all about puff now.

The feature on “go-go legend” Chuck Brown, titled “Still On the Go,” was idle puff, embarrassing puff. An adjacent feature written by Washington sniper ex-wife Mildred Muhammad was book-excerpt puff. A story profiling the cool young hipsters working in a cool D.C. building was pandering puff. The piece on the sexy local blogger was really well-written stock puff. Plenty of levity in these parts.

The brevity thing is working out as well. Word at the Post is that magazine features generally shouldn’t exceed 4,000 words. The three main features thus far have averaged 3,998.6 words. When asked about story length, Leithauser responded, “There is no official word count limit. Each story will be given the space it needs.”

No reason to doubt Leithauser on that front; she has the authority and ambition to rip up the template when circumstances warrant. And 4,000 words is a generous space for most features. Yet to pull off the killer stories that make a magazine memorable, Leithauser will have to do some counterprogramming. After all, everyone knows that the magazine has taken a turn toward lighter and brighter fare. Freelancers and Post insiders will respond to the news rationally, by pitching lighter and brighter stories.

In peril is the editorial tradition of the magazine. Years ago, top Post officials decided that the magazine shouldn’t try to be a classic glossy but rather should draw on the reportorial and narrative strengths of the newsroom. That principled decision hardly birthed a consistently outstanding magazine. It has often been shitty, uneven. (A while back, we bashed the publication for running too many weak narratives by Post staffers.)

And in between shitty iterations, it has reached perfection, especially under top editor Shroder. Weingarten’s 2006 story titled "The Peekaboo Paradox," about a children’s entertainer called the “Great Zucchini,” is the greatest feature story ever written. The fact that it didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize—and that a subsequent stunt feature by the same author on how frazzled commuters don’t stop for a solo violinist did—shows only that the Pulitzers should take a seat right where they belong, behind the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) awards.

Other great magazine features come straight from memory: Joby Warrick on the lifestyle of West Virginia miners, April Witt on a police raid that upended the lives of a couple in Prince George’s county, Weingarten on the child seats, Weingarten on “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau.

And now for the word counts on these classics: Great Zucchini: 8,716. Joshua Bell plays Metro: 6,974. West Virginia miners: 7,466. Prince George’s raid: 7,948. Child seats: 8,462. Trudeau: 8,235.

With perhaps an exception or two, these stories have two things in common: long and dark. So if they were proposed these days, they’d have to make their way into the magazine through the back door. And yet they drove tons of traffic to Says Shroder: “Often the stories the too-long-and-depressing camp complained about most bitterly had the most impact with readers.”

The architects of the new magazine feel a kinship with readers as well. Here’s an excerpt from Leithauser’s editor’s note kicking off the new magazine:

Why the changes? Well, because, if you’re anything like me, you also have a giggling, gurgling baby; a first-grader going on middle-schooler; and neighbors who wish they had more time for … well, just about everything.

That’s why we’ve reimagined the Magazine. It has more to entice, but takes less time at each stop.

Shorter, shorter, shorter. It’s a publishing canard that dates back years, if not decades. At the same time that it trivializes your content, it underestimates your audience. Without a shred of market research or focus group data, I can state that no one has ever looked to the Washington Post Magazine for brevity. You turn to the Washington Post Magazine when you’re waylaid at the auto inspection station or waiting for Mayor Fenty to ‘fess up to a minor error in judgment. Magazine readers don’t want to rush through this product. They want to rush through the Metro section, perhaps, or Sports, or the weather page. But stories in the magazine are supposed to slow you down. They’re supposed to be the reason that you have no time in your schedule. Oh no, I just spent an hour reading about the Great Zucchini—I’m screwed!

Weymouth, Brauchli, and Leithauser—they shouldn’t feel any shame in launching a product with an unprecedented degree of “cooperation” between business and editorial. Given the $143 million that the company’s newspaper division lost in the first half of 2009, perhaps it was time to explore a new model. It’s happening everywhere. As editor of Washington City Paper, I have signed off on all kinds of revenue-driven products that would never have seen a printing press three years ago, all in the name of slowing down the drawing and quartering of our staff (look out for our first shopping issue, coming Dec. 4!).

However, the Post already had strong evidence that short and sweet don’t pay. Back in the early 2000s, the paper’s executives were seeing troubling trends in Sunday circulation; the product wasn’t appealing to younger readers. So in 2003 it launched the Sunday Source, a broadsheet embodiment of levity and brevity. It had product reviews galore, how-to content, including a tutorial on building a bookcase out of used baked bean cans, not to mention road-trip planning—basically everything advertisers could ask for.

It folded in late 2008, after failing to impress readers and advertisers.

A footnote about the Sunday Source: It had entertainment listings designed to enable hipsters to plan their weekend, on Sunday. The new magazine has a new Going Out Guide, which does pretty much the same thing.

Our Readers Say

I am upset about the shortening of content for two reasons. a) Reading that magazine is what I do on Sundays. I eat a bagel, drink coffee, and read. I never felt like I was wasting time I felt like I was relaxing on a Sunday. Now it's over before I even knew it. b) It's pretty clear that less words has equaled more room for advertising. I noticed this the first new issue and haven't really seen the trend die.

Also I loved both the stories in the Mother's Day issue. They were about real people in DC and that's what I depend on the magazine for.
The magazine is a throw-back to an age when newspapers wanted to show advertisers they could do color, and so pre-printed color magazines as Sunday inserts. Needless to say, those days are long gone as color presses allow advertisers to print their ads in daily newspapers.
I don't think the Post magazine is read that much. It comes wrapped in a cellophane package with food ads and comics that I normally throw out automatically as I eviscerate the paper. I look at it occasionally, but I find it is not intellectually challenging as the far superior NYT product, which is a pleasure to read. I agree with Weymouth about the misery stories, and thought the magazine was stretching to find misery in other cities, including one recent one I remember of a bankrupt Baltimore man who as a teenager had killed his father. The story about the woman who lost her legs and arms involved someone who lives in Richmond. This is the Washington Post magazine, and should involve Washington area stories.
Next the New Yorker will be running Best Of guides and Top Whatever lists. Does anybody care about telling good stories anymore?
Really? She didn't like the dead babies in the car, the home health aide, the husband caretaker? Those, along with the poor people in SW Virginia waiting for a doctor, the Great Zucchini, the You Tube star, the homeless chess master and trying to get in the Secret Service were some of my absolute standouts! (I wasn't really into the dwarf surgeries, and I read the amputee spiked piece, and wasn't moved, either). The sexy blogger is the only really good story since the relaunch, I think.
When I was editor of the Sunday magazine at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the 1980s, the publisher insisted that I meet with the advertising director because he said he had some great ideas for improving our content. The editor of the newspaper and I reluctantly had the meeting. The advertising goon's ideas were to feature photos of zoo animals every week and to produce a special section on floor coverings. I didn't realize until much later that the business side of newspapers was awash in such buffoonery. Now we all know too well it was precisely those small thinkers who destroyed the industry.
Erik: This is an awfully long story. It would be much more likely to be Digged or Stumbledupon if it were cut to 300 words and if the words "sexy blogger" were used several more times. If "glory hole" could be worked into the content somehow, too, that would be even better. SEO, Erik. It's all about the SEO now.
Shorter certainly does not always mean better but neither does lengthy and depressing automatically equal "worthy journalism." That bulleted list of stories reads like an Onion-esque parody of journalism award bait.

That's not to say those stories weren't good -- I didn't read all of them. But the old magazine was an absolute bore. Its biggest problem was its design, which almost always featured some bleak image of despair on the cover and was haphazardly arranged inside. Good magazines surprise; with that one, you always knew that you'd open the cellophane to find some emblem of misery staring back at you.

Now I don't know that the new version is an improvement -- I no longer live in Washington so I haven't seen it. A Chuck Brown cover story certainly doesn't speak well for the editors' creativity. But I do know that too often reporters and editors think that weepy narratives and epic lengths are prerequisites for "serious" journalism when that's simply not the case.

Perhaps if the previous editors had been better at mixing the tales of woe with thought-provoking pieces that didn't rely on yanked heartstrings for impact, the overhaul wouldn't have been necessary.
A couple points may be relevant to this discussion: 1/ The new editor of the Post magazine previously was editor of the now-defunct, embarrassingly content-free, advertising-free, downright silly Sunday Source. 2/ Katharine Weymouth grew up in the fourth generation of this legendary publishing dynasty, she actually worked in the Post building on the business side for close to 15 years before she became publisher, and as far as anyone knows she never established any friendships or contacts on the news side. When she took the top job she held meetings with newsroom staff which began with her announcing her ignorance of how the news operation works. (By contrast, Donald Graham worked for several years as a reporter and editor and was always a frequent visitor to the newsroom after he moved to the business side.) The Post is trying with increasingly mindless manic desperation to appeal to a demographic who will never buy the paper, and it is abandoning its base of readers who turn to a leading newspaper for original, aggressive news reporting.
A link to the astonishing story of "The Great Zucchini."
God forbid someone at the WaPo actually wants to make some money and keep that dying ship afloat. What a radical thought. I don't have anything against long interesting stories, but the old Mag was just boring. I mostly just flipped thru it and only read the restaurant reviews in the back.

The new magazine isn't perfect but its an improvement. I'm all in with Katherine Weymouth on this one.
The Post oughta just give up.

They just don't know how to do a magazine. I'm NOT one of those New-York-is-better-than-DC types, but if the Times can do a great magazine, why the hell can't the Post?

They can. But for some reason, they don't seem to want to. The Post magazine looks and feels cheap and I can't see them attracting the kinds of big national advertisers whose presence would fund a better magazine.
Jeremy wrote that "the bulleted list of stories reads like an Onion-esque parody of journalism award bait." Perhaps, but only in this self-aware, Gawker era of digital commenting. Because it reads like a list of pretty amazing stories to me, all of which make Date Lab seem like the silly, Washingtonian-esque fluff that it is. One must keep in mind that these stories didn't run back to back to back.

Reading the comments, I can't help but notice the same kind of sweeping generalizations that Ms. Weymouth has been accused of. One commenter uses the term "misery stories," as if the writers of these disparate pieces got together at some Round Table to discuss what tragedy they'd write about next. It seems to me that a fashion student losing her arms and legs and then returning to teaching isn't actually a "misery" story in the first place, nor would I bet that the student in question would label her story as miserable.

Good journalism isn't about labels--misery or happy or comic or preachy--but rather compelling stories about the human spirit. Of course these magazine stories are long. That's why they're in the magazine and not the daily paper. And finally, I'd submit that the commenter who says that a magazine story in Washington Post about a woman in Richmond or a man in Baltimore is somehow out of geographical bounds needs to broaden his or her horizons just a tad. It's a magazine, it's a major market and we should be curious, every once in a while, about things that happen outside of Alexandria or Takoma Park.
I have to say that one of the finest pieces of journalism I have ever read was the story on people forgetting babies in the car. Most unexpected was the fact that it was written by Gene Weingartner, resident humorist. It was deep, it was moving, it was satisfying. When I got the new version of WP mag, my first reaction was, "That's the last time you read something of great intellectual value in the magazine." I agree with the reader who says that's her Sunday activity in a nutshell. I always looked forward to that magazine; sometimes it's the ONLY thing I read. But no more. Maybe that was there strategy; people will hate the magazine so much that they'll read the rest of the paper...
As a long-time reader and home subscriber to the Washington Post, I now find myself more drawn to the New York Times. I try to resist, but walking by that big, fat Sunday Times makes my mouth water for content, for the slow read, for the four-cups-of-coffee think piece that is often missing in the Post, and non-existent in the new, "improved" Post magazine, which looks---and reads---like a tweens fanzine.
Ed, in D.C.
The Post magazine was always a its a bad joke. I don't understand why they dont eliminate it, like they've done with so many other important sections of the paper. Makes me miss the NY Times even more.
Other great post magazine stories: Weingarten in Alaska, the guy in West Virginia who ruined his life by winning the lottery, that story about the sperm donor who met his kids and then the mom sort of fell in love with him -- the introspective, dark stuff is always the stuff that made the magazine worth reading. The problem with this new strategy is it's short sighted. The advertisers like it now, but they won't when the readers fade away.
As an author of one of those "depressing" stories ("Dad Rehab," June 8, 2008), I naturally am disappointed to see the new magazine's direction toward lighter fare. I received maybe 30 letters, all positive, with comments any writer wants to hear: "It made me laugh; it made me cry." I think the word for that is "poignant." I'd like to add this to the mix, however: I did think the art, although wonderful, was wrong in tone. The art was dark; the piece itself had a lot of funny moments. I am wondering how often readers and advertisers glance at the art, then move on, having gotten the wrong impression. Something to think about....
WP is visually incoherent and unreadable. A bad mash-up of Wired and the NYT Mag., just as FW (the so-called fashion pub—please!) is a bad rip-off of W (Fairchild Publications).

You know what might be unique and--dare I say it--good for business? Intelligent reporting and analysis of the news. What a concept for a news organization! Interesting and provocative content, engagingly and artfully presented.

Sometimes I wonder if it is elitist to care about such things. Those of us inside the beltway in and certain other markets care deeply. The great unwashed do not. The news organization that figures out how to create more heat than light, to keep our stupid populace engaged and informed, will be doing a great public and civic service.
I feel bad for the Post. They can't really win: readers who like long, substantive pieces seem to be gradually disappearing, and editors' efforts to be hip and light are alienating anyone who's still hanging on. What IS unfortunate is how ready editors seem to be to sell out the paper's reputation as they chase whatever they think will be profitable.

I hadn't expected to fall in love with the old mag; all I wanted was to read Date Lab every week. But little by little those long substantive stories won me over--people above have mentioned some of the best stories; I particularly remember enjoying the one about the home health aide. For me, stories like that, that clue me into how others experience life, are why I read. But I also found myself loving the rest of the mag too (to my surprise)--it had a personal feeling to it.

The new mag depresses me. And I have less than zero interest in reading a) shopping recommendations; b) yet ANOTHER guide to what to do around town.
PS--why is the Peekaboo Paradox "the greatest feature story ever written"? I mean, it's good, but that good?
The WaPo screw themselves with a mag that contains moronic stuff like "Date Lab". Unlike the far superior NYT Sunday Mag, the WaPo interpretation seems to only be about DC and it's environs, while adhering to some sort of PC dictate, and that pretty much kills it. Gene Weingarten however, must be retained as he is one of the best parts of the whole thing.
The new Post Magazine is LAME, disjointed and difficult to read because you can't tell the adverts from the stories. It used to be a lovely way to spend a Sunday, reading a long article on the couch. Not everyone has the attention span of a flea, but it seems like publishers forget that. Boo.
What's depressing is Weymouth running the WP. She's obviously clueless. The once-great WP is circling the drain. Can't blame it all on her, of course. We can also blame the happy-to-be-mushrooms population that doesn't understand or appreciate the value of investigative journalism. The WP was of course the master of this realm (Watergate, anyone?). But Weymouth has made one bone-headed decision after another. The best writers are gone, mostly. The copy editors are history. They still manage to put out a few really great articles each week, but the paper is skeletal. The website is an awful mess. It is tragic. Just tragic. The magazine is just dreadful these days. The layout and font make everything look like an advertisement.
He just won the pulitzer- how fitting to repost this story. The magazine still sucks
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