City Desk

What, Exactly, Is the Washington Post‘s Mission?

Item No. 1 in the Mystery of the Washington Post's Murky Mission: Last December, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth issues the "Road Forward," a strategy memo that includes these now-iconic lines: Being for, and about Washington, means addressing our local readers’ core needs. Strong news coverage, enterprise and investigative reporting, expert analysis and informed commentary will continue to be important tools in making sense for local readers of the world around them."

So far, so murky: "Being for, and about Washington" doesn't clarify too much, especially when you consider that "Washington" is the locus of infinite local and national stories.

Item No. 2 in the Mystery of the Washington Post's Murky Mission: Last week, just after news broke that the Post would be closing its remaining domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli is quoted in his own paper as follows: "We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience. Nor are we a wire service or cable channel."

So far, so more murky: So you're not a "national news organization of record." Are you a national news organization of unrecord, or off-the-record? What does this whole "of record" thing mean? And if you're not a national news organization, why do you retain a sizable "national" desk. And if you're not a national news organization, why do you cover television with as many resources as you do? If there's one thing that's national, it's tube.

Item No. 3 in the Mystery of the Washington Post's Murky Mission: In the course of reporting a blog post about the Post, City Desk wrings the following statement out of Post spokesperson Kris Coratti: “We cover news of interest to our audience, whether it is local, national or international. That hasn’t changed and that won’t change."

So far, so terribly murky: Now, it seems, the Post's whole reportorial outlook is merely reactive. If it appears that some readers want more national stuff, then Congress and global warming legislation they'll get. If it appears that they want a bit more local, then, hey, let's go long and hard on Mayor Fenty. And if they develop a bit more curiosity about foreign affairs, double down on troops in Afghanistan.

The Coratti quote reflects just how much chaos is at work in the Post's control room. Depending on how you define it, poll it, and focus-group it, your audience can be anything; it can want anything and everything. If your strategy means that you'll cover pretty much everything so long as some people want to read it, then the strategy isn't saying too much.

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  • Jon

    >So you're not a "national news organization of
    >record." Are you a national news organization of
    >unrecord, or off-the-record? What does this whole "of
    >record" thing mean?

    Well, I'll tell you. A "newspaper of record" is one that carries official notifications and legal notices for the government. It must also be available to the general public, such that publication of a notice in that can be considered as notifying the public. In the UK, the newspaper of record is the London Gazette.

    Oftentimes, a newspaper which is considered an authoritative source is also designated as a newspaper of record. In the UK such a paper is The Times.

    In the US, the situation is slightly different. Because the government has no control or influence over the publication and distribution of a newspaper, there is no newspaper of record as in the former definition.

    So when the Washington Post says "We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience", what they mean is that they are not trying to operate as an unimpeachable and authoritative source of news for the nation; they're just a newspaper, an ordinary newspaper.

    They also go on to say that they're not a wire service, by which they mean they are trying to source stories for themselves, not for other papers. It's like when you say "And if you're not a national news organization, why do you retain a sizable "national" desk." You seem to be confused between carrying national stories and syndicating and distributing stories nationwide. The Post is a large paper with a diverse (some may even say divergent) readership.

    In London, there is a local evening paper called the Evening Standard. It falls into a similar role to the Washington Post. As it's published in London and ready largely by commuters, it has a reach and influence beyond that of any other local paper in the UK. Accordingly, it affords far greater coverage of national news stories than a normal local paper would. And the Washington Post is like that. That's why they have a large national desk.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the Washington Post is a good newspaper - it's not. I'm not claiming that it's run well - I don't think so. I'm not saying that it has a clear purpose - I'm not sure that it does. What I am saying is that I don't think you've really understood the terms involved and thus rendered your main points invalid.

  • Wassup

    The mission of the Washington Post is to support Sally Quinn's delusional fantasy that she is the modern incarnation of Katherine Graham. The paper is in the thrall of a cabal of Quinn's syncophants with Quinn pulling the strings from behind the scenes through coercion and manipulation. All others are pawns and figureheads. The Graham family really needs to wake up soon!