City Desk

Washington Post‘s Robert Wone Story: Web Experiment?

Washington Post reporter Paul Duggan spent four months reporting and writing a two-part series on a juicy local murder case. The results were published on Monday and Tuesday, to great public acclaim. Yet faithful subscribers who scoop up their paper on the front steps each day found none of it in their pages—only a few teasers sending them to washingtonpost.com.

Is this a bold experiment by a savvy media institution to herd its readership across platforms? Depends on whom you ask.

When Duggan started out gathering facts on the Aug. 2, 2006, killing of 32-year-old lawyer Robert Wone, he got some welcome instructions from his editor. "I told him not to worry about length," recalls the editor, Lynn Medford.

Equipped with his mandate to go long, Duggan threw everything he had into the project. The fundamentals of the story demanded a generous treatment by the local daily: On the night of his killing, Wone, who lived in Fairfax with his wife, was staying in the D.C. home of three friends. He arrived at the house at about 10:30 p.m. Not long thereafter, he would end up murdered, with three stab wounds and a bunch of needle marks all over his body. Semen was found around his genitals and in his rectum.

The three housemates–Victor Zaborsky, Joseph Price, and Dylan Ward—claim the killing was the work of an intruder. Police allege "a weirdly elaborate sexual assault involving the injection of an incapacitating drug," in Duggan's words. Plenty of material, in other words, to keep a reporter occupied for a while.

The two-parter kicked off with a frenzied 911 call from Zaborsky, who told the dispatcher, among other things, "Oh, dear. . . . I can't believe this. . . . I can't believe this."

The full 911 call was a scoop. And if original reporting also counts as scoopage, so did many other details in the Duggan account, including an in-depth look at the bios and "polyamorous" lifestyle of the three housemates. "Who were these guys?" asks Duggan in an interview, pointing out that in previous media portrayals, they were merely "stick figures." Another high point of the series is that Duggan explains why the cops maintain that Wone was injected with an incapacitating drug even though toxicology tests have come up negative.

One more plug for the project: It was presented in a compelling and seamless thread—great, great late-spring-early-summer reading.

Craig Brownstein, one of the editors behind whomurderedrobertwone.com, credits Duggan for adding fresh material, and then some: "I think the real value of Duggan's series was putting most of the pieces into one coherent and compelling narrative....We're just glad he tackled the project and did it in a thoughtful and thoroughly informative way. He's a crackerjack reporter and writer."

Yet the series wasn't compelling enough, somehow, for the Post's top editors. When Medford, a top Metro editor, shopped the completed product to the brass, she was told that it'd have to be hacked way down to make it into the paper. It was a "newsprint issue," Medford recalls being told.

The next stop for the Wone manuscript was the Washington Post Magazine, a logical resting place for such a narrative. But Duggan-Medford got the Heisman there as well. Sydney Trent, an editor at the magazine, writes via e-mail that the story didn't quite clear the publication's bar: "We weren't let in on the Wone story until it was finished and while it was the sort of finely-executed piece you'd expect from Duggan, it wasn't written as a Magazine cover but as a story for the front page. The differences in that regard are considerable, and it was too late in the game to go back and try to retrofit."

Let's halt this blog post right here to contemplate the load of garbage in front of us. First off, who cares if you weren't "let in on" the story till it was finished? That's territorial nonsense. Second off, a narrative is a narrative is a narrative, and this whole mag. v. front page distinction is precious and illusory. How many magazine readers do you really think would have clogged the Free For All page with complaints that the Wone story read too much like a piece from the front section? Third off: "late in the game." What game? The obstruction-of-justice trial for the housemates isn't till May 2010. This thing could have held all summer—who else was going to spend four months reporting the Wone case—Express? Fourth off, retrofitting is what editors are paid to do. Trent showcases the sort of overthinking that leads to disastrous editorial decisions: Here's a story that has new facts and a tight narrative about a murder case that involves polyamorous men and an electro-ejaculation device. End of analysis!

With no foothold in the magazine, the piece wound up as a Web exclusive. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli suggests the placement was something of a strategic coup:

We wanted to try something new, offering readers a multimedia approach to a fascinating crime narrative about which we'd already written extensively in the paper. And it worked. Readers came, read, looked, interacted and commented in droves. As for space, we have plenty of space in print and in the magazine. The Post will publish stories, in print or online, at any length they justify. If you're suggesting that we're so constrained in print that we're putting stories online, that would be wrong.

Hey Brauchli: See testimony from Medford, above. Also: The Post hadn't already "written extensively" on the case. Its coverage was pretty much limited to "day stories"—breaking news pieces—as the case has progressed over the years. Also also: There was nothing terribly new about this model—the paper did just about the same thing with Bob Kaiser's monster series on Gerald S.J. Cassidy.

Why all the fuss here about Web-only publication? Brauchli's indeed correct that readers have logged on "in droves" to check out the story. So what's the harm in keeping it out of the paper?

Well, it's that subscribers don't get the best that the Post has to offer on their front steps. Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander has written that he's received complaints from readers about the online-only presentation. I'll speak up for this group. We, the subscribers, don't want to click through five pages of Web presentation just to goose pageviews and soak in a story that we'd rather read in print—that's why we, like, subscribe!

It would take a lot of transgressions for me to cancel my subscription to the Post, but this whole Wone thing is a step in that direction.

Keeping the story out of the paper also expresses a certain amount of news arrogance on part of Post leaders. It's as if they think that all the stuff that occupies the 16-or-so pages in the front section is just so precious that it cannot possibly be preempted for something, well, far more interesting and readable.

Take a look at the front section of Monday's Post, the day that the Duggan series debuted online. There's a lot of Washington Post gruel in there, lots of places where room could have been made for Duggan. For starters, there's an AP story on Monday regarding some illegal-immigrant probe in Colorado on page A5. There's some fluff on Valerie Jarrett on A13. There's a big, tepid front-page story looking back on the tenure of former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox. And A3 carries a heading "Education Policy & The Nation," featuring a story titled "46 States, D.C. Plan to Draft Common Education Standards." Perhaps some of that stuff could have gone Web-only?

Next time, Brauchli & Co. would do well to heed the lessons of the Chandra series of July 2008. Here was a project with virtually the same formula as the Duggan series: Famous crime + well-constructed narrative + incremental advances in reporting=smashing success with subscribers. When you have something like that, you put it on all your platforms—print, Web, cellular, Kindle, flying saucer, whatever.

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  • OTBerbur

    I wonder if this piece was more of a "smashing success" with other journalists than it was with actual readers. This seemed to me like yet another self-indulgent Post piece that went on at about thrice the length needed to tell the story. I am surprised Mr. Wemple, who has done a great deal to reduce the number of similarly windy stories in City Paper in favor of sharper, more focused reporting, concludes otherwise. I think actual readers would have been better served by a fairly short story in the print edition summarizing what Mr. Wemple accurately describes as "incremental advances in reporting" (other local media outlets had the basics several months earlier), and those with the time and patience to read Mr. Duggan's potboiler-style prose could have gone to the website.

  • Mark

    Do you think the Post decision to not publish in print had anything to do with the flak they received after publishing the similar long form story on Chandra Levy several months ago?

    As a a Post subsriber I share the sentiment of the poster, it would take a lot to get me to cancel my subsription but the choice to not print this along with the elimination of vast sections of the paper, business, Book world and others are steps in the right direction.

  • http://2bars3stars.com 2b3s

    I read the series, enjoyed it, learned a little bit along the way. WaPo, my bet, made it web-only as an experiment. At some point, they're going to charge for "online only" in-depth stories like this. It's the only way investigative journalism will survive in the 21st century newspaper industry.

  • sigmund freud

    I sent a question to Duggan when he took questions online on Tuesday as to why it wasn't in the print edition. I thought it waas a great piece and the masses who read the paper in hand missed out. I've already cancelled my subscription since the delivery could never get there on time -- the Post is such a goner.....

  • Fred

    I thought it was good, and I'm glad it was written because up till then, I'd mostly just gotten accounts of the murder from the comments page of the very very short WP articles and one or two blogs. The Duggan piece stood back a bit further than the blogs and comments and gave some much needed perspective. I can't help but be haunted by the image of this poor man.

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