Ombo Sauce: Advice for Jeff Bezos From the Post’s Former In-House Critic
Congratulations! To paraphrase an old Riggs Bank saying, you’ve just bought the most important media institution in the most important city in the world; don’t screw it up.
As a former ombudsman who heard from hundreds of readers daily through email and phone calls, I cannot stress enough how important the Post is to the proper and effective democratic functioning and accountability of the District of Columbia, the city, county, and state governments in the region, and the federal government, from the presidency to the far-flung reaches of the State and Defense departments and the CIA. It plays a unique and important role in our democracy. Don’t forget it.
Here’s a little free advice.
First, grow a thick skin. The Post, since the announcement of the sale last week, has done an exemplary job of covering it, from all aspects. If I know Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, you’re going to see a lot more stories on the lobbying and labor practices of Amazon.com in the next two months before you take over ownership. The publication’s follow-up stories all the way through Sunday’s paper were full of that kind of reporting. In fact, you should see tougher coverage of Amazon, and your business and management practices, because that’s what we as journalists do. That’s what a great newspaper does. Don’t be defensive about this. If the Post doesn’t cover the crap out of Amazon, then the paper isn’t doing its job, and will get grief from a thousand media outlets for not doing so.
Remember that the product you’re selling is news. Amazon has succeeded because it delivers consumer goods at a low price, quickly, and targeted and tailored to the individual needs of its customers. But, at base, Amazon just sells stuff. Lots of stuff. But it’s all stuff.
Similarly, the basic product of the journalism business is news, news, news—always. That includes stories, graphics, editorials, columns, photos, and video, but it’s all news. Technology can and will change the transmission speed of, the look of, and where you read news. But news is still news. And that requires top-quality, experienced, adventurous, dedicated reporters, editors, photographers, designers, and for Christ’s sake, copy editors to get right. Hire good people, let them do what they do, and the product will always be good.
Get to know your audience. You’ll hear a debate about whether the Post should stay local or go national. False debate. You have to do both. The Post would lose its national reputation and brand if it didn’t have high-quality coverage of the federal government and politics. A lot of the Post’s increased Web traffic—national and international—is from people who need to know about the U.S. government. If you stopped that, you might as well rename it the DMV Post.
But the real challenge and opportunity is local news. Let me explain. The 200 to 300 people who emailed or called the ombudsman every day with their complaints broke down into three broad categories: 1) Readers/subscribers from this region who would comment or complain about the Post’s national coverage; 2) readers/subscribers from this region who would comment or complain about the Post’s local coverage (mainly the lack thereof); and 3) readers from outside the region who had an ideological agenda or a comment or complaint about national coverage. The first two categories were way bigger than the third.
Of the regional readers emailing the ombudsman, a big portion came from .gov and .mil email addresses. These are government employees who work nationally. They work at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, in the dozens of cabinet departments and subagencies, or for the rafts of government contractors who serve them. As employees and workers, they have to keep abreast of the federal government and national news. They’re your core of national readers (and they’re your journalists’ sources, too), and they know a ton about government. If the coverage is wrong or slightly off, they’ll know, and they’ll tell you.
But these same readers/subscribers live locally, in the District, Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and other surrounding jurisdictions. So they have kids in local schools, and they worry about local police, and local governments, and local taxes, and local peculiarities. They go to local music venues and eat at local restaurants.
And their main complaint was that the Post no longer covers these incredibly diverse, incredibly wealthy (that means buying power, Jeff) surrounding jurisdictions and their residents like it used to, and like it can and should. These local counties—three of them at or approaching 1 million people—are the equivalent of major cities in the rest of the country, yet their news and information needs are underserved. It is a universal complaint.
I’m not sure, exactly, how you do this—it’s expensive to cover the local jurisdictions. But you can’t continue to do it by cutting reporting resources. The solution probably lies in how you use the Post and the undercapitalized suburban newspapers you bought along with it— the Gazettes, the Southern Maryland Newspapers, and the Fairfax County Times—to target, sell, and deliver local news. That’s where you should put your thinking and marketing genius to work. Those suburban residents are nationally focused in their jobs but locally focused in their nonwork lives.
Make them happy, and you’ll have a permanent revenue base.
Trust and credibility is everything in the news business. The Post got itself into hot water when it began, in 2009, inserting links in online copy to Amazon.com for readers to purchase the films and songs that Post writers mentioned in their reviews. In return for doing this, Amazon gave the Post a small cut of sales made through those links. Ethicists wondered whether the reviewers were shilling for Amazon sales or truly giving honest opinions about the artists’ work. The Post continues to do that to this day, despite the objections to the practice by my predecessor as ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, and from readers contacting me through March of this year.
That’s just a small example of what you could face by bringing modern selling and e-commerce to the news business without making clear and identifiable, with labels, the distinctions between ads and real news. Keeping firm the lines between editorial and advertising/selling may be the hardest kinds of decisions you’ll have to make as you seek to increase revenue. Readers are already cynical and distrustful of the media as it is, and the publication has no more ombudsman to act as watchdog. If Post news copy, of any kind, is seen as being written because of some commercial motivation, readers will desert you in droves.
Now for some Good, Bad, and Ugly.
Marty Baron. He and I only overlapped for about eight weeks early this year. We had our differences, and he bristles too much at criticism. But he’s a tough and good editor. Since January he has made the Post edgier, tougher, newsier, and more ambitious in national and local coverage. He knows what news is, he’s afraid of no one, and he’ll go directly for the jugular when he needs to, as he did at the Boston Globe when he went after the Catholic Church for its cover-up of the not-so-priestly sexual abuse scandals.
The sports section. Sports I received the fewest complaints about. Good writers, good coverage. Sure, the Post goes overboard on the local NFL team with the unmentionable name, but the locals love it. Maybe a little more coverage of women’s teams, offbeat but locally loved sports like lacrosse, and Baltimore pro teams. Oh, and while you’re still printing newspapers (print is still the largest part of your revenue stream, remember), for God’s sake don’t print the blessed paper until you can get in the late sports and box scores. It drives print readers crazy.
The Style section. I don’t want to demean the real talent in Style. It has much: Manuel Roig-Franzia, Monica Hesse, Dan Zak, Jason Horowitz, Hank Stuever, Philip Kennicott, Sarah Kaufman, Anne Midgette, and others. But the main feature writers are spread thin, need help, and could use better and more imaginative conceptual editing. And they need a mission and someone to shape the vision.
Jennifer Rubin. Have Fred Hiatt, your editorial page editor—who I like, admire, and respect—fire opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin. Not because she’s conservative, but because she’s just plain bad. She doesn’t travel within a hundred miles of Post standards. She parrots and peddles every silly right-wing theory to come down the pike in transparent attempts to get Web hits. Her analysis of the conservative movement, which is a worthwhile and important beat that the Post should treat more seriously on its national pages, is shallow and predictable. Her columns, at best, are political pornography; they get a quick but sure rise out of the right, but you feel bad afterward.
And she is often wrong, and rarely acknowledges it. She was oh-so-wrong about Mitt Romney, week after week writing embarrassing flattery about his 2012 campaign, calling almost every move he made brilliant, and guaranteeing that he would trounce Barack Obama. When he lost, the next day she savaged him and his campaign with treachery, saying he was the worst candidate with the worst staff, ever. She was wrong about the Norway shootings being acts of al-Qaida. She was wrong about Chuck Hagel being an anti-Semite. And does she apologize? Nope.
Rubin was the No. 1 source of complaint mail about any single Post staffer while I was ombudsman, and I’m leaving out the organized email campaigns against her by leftie groups like Media Matters. Thinking conservatives didn’t like her, thinking moderates didn’t like her, government workers who knew her arguments to be unfair didn’t like her. Dump her like a dull tome on the Amazon Bargain Books page.
Patrick B. Pexton was the ombudsman of the Washington Post until March 2013. He blogs at PBPexton.com. Illustration by Jandos Rothstein