One way forward for the sputtering Washington Post: Reconnect with local news

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Back when I was reporting on The Washington Post in 2015 and ’16 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper was on a roll. Paid digital subscriptions were skyrocketing, profits were rolling in even as the staff was growing, and it was breaking story after story about the rising menace of Donald Trump. David Fahrenthold broke the two of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign: the corruption at the heart of the Trump Foundation and the audio tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Now Fahrenthold is at the Post’s ancient rival, The New York Times, and the Post itself is sputtering. The legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, retired in March 2021. His successor, Sally Buzbee, has had the unenviable task of maneuvering the Post through the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with controversies such as the Dave Weigel-Felicia Sonmez Twitter mess, which led to Sonmez being fired. And now the Times’ Benjamin Mullin (reprising a story he cowrote last December when he was still at The Wall Street Journal) and Katie Robertson are reporting (free link) that paid circulation is down, profits have turned into losses, and owner Jeff Bezos seems less interested in the place than he was in the early years of his ownership.

What went wrong? Bezos’ principal insight was his realization that there was room for a third great national newspaper alongside the Times and The Wall Street Journal — and that, in the digital age, he didn’t need to roll out print beyond the D.C. area. The Post was cheaper than the Times or the Journal and was available everywhere, through Amazon Prime and on Fire tablets.

Eventually, though, the Post ran afoul of some inherent contradictions. The biggest is this: It hasn’t really differentiated itself from the Times, which has left the Post in the unenviable position of being a less comprehensive competitor. The Times simply has more, especially in international coverage such as the war in Ukraine as well as arts and culture. The Post’s advantages are that it’s cheaper and its digital products offer a better user interface. Contrast that with the Journal, which really is different from the Times in its focus on business news and its hard-right opinion pages.

Judging from the Times story, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Post publisher Fred Ryan get his gold watch sometime in the near future. Buzbee hasn’t had a fair chance to make her mark, and I doubt that Baron would have navigated the past year any more surely than she has. In retrospect, it looks like Baron timed his exit perfectly.

In the long run — and the short run — the Post needs to establish itself as the go-to place for a certain kind of coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Its political reporting is broad and deep, but so is the Times’. With a much smaller staff than the Times has, what opportunities are there? In the final years of Graham family control, the Post emphasized regional coverage. Without abandoning its commitment to national and international news, maybe the way forward for the Post is to reconnect with its local audience.

An explosive retort to a book about an alleged cover-up at the Los Angeles Times

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a fascinating book review about a sex-and-drugs scandal at the University of Southern California — and about an alleged attempt by the top leadership at the Los Angeles Times to cover it up. I put the book, “Bad City,” by Paul Pringle, at the top of my reading list, thinking I might assign it to my media ethics students this fall.

Oh, but not so fast. Because one of the editors who handled the USC story, Matthew Doig, has written a retort on Medium. And believe me, you can tell he’s not worried about the possibility that Pringle will sue him. Among other things, Doig calls Pringle’s book “utter bullshit” and writes that “it’s disappointing that several media outlets have thus far failed to bring even a modicum of skepticism to such an absurd tale. The truth is that Pringle is a fabulist who is grossly misrepresenting the facts to support his false narrative.”

Whoa. To provide a bit of background, Pringle was part of a team of reporters who looked into the matter of Carmen Puliafito, the dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, who was video-recorded taking crystal meth and heroin with a group of young people and who turned a young woman into essentially his sex slave. This is pretty explosive stuff. In “Bad City,” Pringle claims that the LA Times’ leading executives, publisher and editor Davan Maharaj and managing editor Marc Duvoisin, tried to squash the story because USC was one of the paper’s most important advertisers. As NY Times reviewer Katie Benner puts it:

Pringle’s fast-paced book is a master class in investigative journalism, explaining how a reporter wrestles information and documents from reluctant sources and government officials. It is a stark look at the weakening of local news, especially at The Los Angeles Times.

I should add that this played out in 2016 and ’17, when the paper had been suffering from years of chaotic ownership. The billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the paper in 2018, bringing a measure of stability as well as some much needed financial resources.

According to Pringle, Maharaj and Duvoisin may have been forced out as a consequence of their bad behavior. Doig, the assistant managing editor for investigations, also departed. Although he’s not named in Benner’s review, he is identified in several excerpts from Pringle’s book that have been published elsewhere. Here’s what Doig has to say about how the USC story actually played out:

And on and on Doig goes, including a mind-boggling anecdote in which he claims that Pringle became enraged after Doig referred to a draft of his story as “good” rather than “great.”

So who’s telling the truth? I’m not going to touch that one, especially since I haven’t read the book. But it seems significant that Doig not only used what lawyers call “actionable” language in writing about Pringle but that he’s also landed on his feet — he’s now investigations editor at USA Today. Likewise, Duvoisin is now editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Express-News, which has done so much good work on the Uvalde massacre. Maharaj has had his own problems, but those appear to have nothing to do with his handling of the USC story.

One question that’s worth asking is what responsibility news organizations have in passing along accusations such as those leveled by Pringle in his book without doing any fact-checking of their own. Doig goes into some detail about that in his essay. Among other things, he laments the lack of fact-checking by the book’s publisher (welcome to the wonderful world of books) and writes that the NY Times should have done some reporting:

The New York Times wrote a cloying review of Pringle’s book that included a character assassination of Duvoisin and Maharaj (I wasn’t named in the review), but the reporter failed to contact Duvoisin and Maharaj for comment. When I emailed the reporter and her editor about it, the editor responded that it was a review, not a reported story, and that I should contact Pringle’s publisher.

I have to say that the NY Times editor is right. Reviews are not reported pieces, and it would be unheard-of for a reviewer to re-report the facts in a book they are reviewing.

So what’s next? Personally, I’ve crossed “Bad City” off my reading list and am not going to assign it to my students — though I may pull together some readings, including excerpts from “Bad City,” Benner’s review and, of course, Doig’s essay. I’m also interested to see whether the controversy dies down, or if instead there’s much more to come.

A New York Times editor will take charge of the Globe’s opinion section

The day after The Boston Globe was named a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing, the paper has announced that it’s hired a new editorial page editor — James Dao, a senior editor at The New York Times. The announcement, reported in the Globe this afternoon, was made by chief executive Linda Henry.

Dao replaces Bina Venkataraman, who stepped down several months ago and is now a Globe editor at large. Venkataraman was involved in the launch of The Emancipator, the racial-justice website the Globe publishes jointly with Boston University.

I don’t know much about Dao except that, according to the Globe, he had a role in the Times’ decision to publish an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton in 2020 arguing that military force should be used against violent Black Lives Matter protesters. The episode led to the departure of editorial page editor James Bennet after it was revealed he had not read the Cotton op-ed before it was published. Dao stepped down as deputy opinion editor and took a high-ranking editing job in the newsroom.

Also of significance is that Dao is 64. I’m not saying that’s old (hey, he’s younger than I am), but he’s at an age where he probably wouldn’t be seeking to settle in for a lengthy stint. Perhaps Henry is hoping that he’ll identify and mentor a possible replacement. Henry’s full statement, forwarded to me by a trusted source, follows.

Hi team,

I am thrilled to announce that James Dao will be the Globe’s next editorial page editor, effective on July 5.

Jim brings great perspective to the Globe from his vast leadership experience across three decades and multiple news desks at The New York Times. Most recently, as the Metro editor, he oversaw coverage of one of the most consequential mayoral races in New York City’s history while leading a team of over 60 journalists in covering the ongoing challenges of the pandemic on the nation’s largest city. Previously, he oversaw the paper’s Op-Ed section and has served roles in leadership and in the trenches as an editor on the National desk, as the Times’s Albany bureau chief, a Washington correspondent, national correspondent and military affairs writer.

He is an award-winning journalist and has a passion for pushing the envelope on multimedia storytelling, an area in which we too, are deeply investing in as we aim to reach new audiences and amplify our powerful journalism in new media. Jim’s 2011 multimedia series, “A Year at War,” about the yearlong deployment of an Army battalion in Afghanistan, won numerous awards — including an Emmy — and he also was executive producer on the Netflix documentary, “Father Solider [sic] Son,” which was based on the life of an Amy sergeant first profiled in his series.

I’ve had the great honor of diving deep into conversation with Jim, and in that time, he has shared that his priorities in this role are bringing new approaches — from newsletters to podcasts — to an already outstanding opinion report. He plans for our editorial page to be at the forefront of sharing the groundbreaking ideas and innovation unfolding in our region, while continuing to hold our leaders accountable to the high standards that we expect.

As a proud Editorial Board member, I see first-hand the thoughtful dedication and passion our board has for the work that it does each day and the impact it has all across our region. In the last two years alone, Globe Opinion writers Alan Wirzbicki & Shelly Cohen and Abdallah Fayyad have been recognized as Pulitzer Prize finalists in Editorial Writing – truly remarkable accomplishments, and a testament to the talent and incredible contributions at all levels on this team.

I am grateful to Bina Venkataraman for her bold approach and leadership in this role over the last two years. Globe Opinion has grown and strengthened the editorial board, launched The Emancipator with BU, and has drawn national attention to further the impact of our content and voices. Thank you to the entire team for their commitment and patience while we conducted this thoughtful process to find the next leader who will steer Globe Opinion forward in new and exciting ways. Everyone stepped up, but I would like to particularly thank Marjorie Pritchard and Alan Wirzbicki for their leadership and extra effort to keep Opinion sharp and relevant.

Jim will now lead the charge in this exciting new chapter for the board, and we are so excited to have him get started in early July. He is copied on this note, so please join me in welcoming him to the Globe; he would welcome local bike route suggestions.

Thank you,

Linda

The New York Times is about to kill off its Today’s Paper web app

Some will mourn. Most probably didn’t even know it existed.

The New York Times is sunsetting its Today’s Paper web app on May 16. A simple listing of every story in that day’s Times, with a minimum of distractions, the app — which works on computers and tablets, but not on phones — has been a solid platform for readers who like to view the paper as it was published that day without a steady stream of updates and extra, non-print content.

I use it occasionally, but it’s been obvious for a while that no development resources were being put into it. The app looks pretty much the same (OK, exactly the same) as it did when it was unveiled in late 2013. The photos are muddy, too. There are better ways to access a listing of today’s Times — here’s one way, and there’s a section in the tablet and mobile apps as well. (There’s also a really bad replica edition that’s almost impossible to access.)

Here’s part of what Dante D’Orazio wrote at The Verge when the Today’s Paper app made its debut:

The web app seems designed for readers who appreciate the benefits offered by digital but miss the experience of reading a definitive daily edition. By limiting itself to content that’s selected to go into the paper each day, Today’s Paper should appeal to those who feel a bit overwhelmed by the full breadth of The New York Times‘ reporting. And for purists of the print edition, the app brings the Times‘ true sections, like the once-weekly “Sunday Styles” and “Science Times,” to the fore (the paper’s website and traditional apps are split into many generic sections). As a nice touch, users are presented with an image of each day’s print edition when they open the app, and select one to download for offline reading. Each section, meanwhile, offers a small glimpse at what the print layout looks like.

I believe there’s great value in offering that day’s paper, fixed in time. The Boston Globe offers two — count ’em! — replica editions, one accessible from the website and one as a standalone app. I’d give both of them a B-plus; they’d get a higher grade if you got a better view when you tapped on a story to read it. The Globe’s got a Today’s Paper listing on its website as well, but I never use it because it’s always missing things, like corrections.

The best Today’s Paper replica edition is offered by The Washington Post on its mobile and tablet apps — it’s smooth, and when you tap on a story, it opens up into a beautifully rendered article with photos. I wish every paper would do something like it.

The Times’ Tucker Carlson series is a triumph of explanatory journalism

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Yes, I read The New York Times’ massive deep dive into Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News program was dubbed — accurately — as “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.”

Something as lengthy and detailed as this defies summary. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to slog through the whole thing, the “key takeaways” sidebar is quite good. I also recommend that you interact with the digital version of part three, in which you’ll hear Carlson’s own words, taken from more than 1,100 episodes.

Times reporter Nicholas Confessore has done a remarkable job of combing through Carlson’s past and present in an attempt to explain his rise from stylish but obscure magazine writer and failed television host to the most powerful force in cable. And Confessore offers partial answers, at least, to some aspects of the Carlson phenomenon. For instance:

Did Carlson change? Or has he always been this way and we just didn’t see it? Several years ago I wrote a piece for GBH News in which I recounted my own long-ago experience with Carlson, who came across as a charming raconteur with mainstream conservative-libertarian views.

Confessore’s answer, I think, is that Carlson really did change, although the seeds of his transformation were always there. His childhood sounds like it was truly miserable. And, in looking back, I have to say that my only personal experience with him was in how he interacted with a fellow white man. It doesn’t sound like he’s spent much time at all with people of color.

Does he really believe the terrible things he says? Or is it all an act? This comes up in conversation with friends and associates all the time — again, mainly because he seemed to be someone entirely different a generation ago. Confessore’s answer: it’s a little of both.

I thought Confessore was especially strong in his explanation of Carlson’s attempt to reinvent himself after his failed stints at CNN and MSNBC by launching The Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet that moved increasingly to the fringe right. Carlson comes across as someone who embraced extremism partly out of conviction and partly as a way to amuse himself. He does not seem like someone who ever gives much thought to the consequences of what he writes and says.

He is also portrayed as really, really wanting to make it in television, and he was probably willing to do just about anything to make his Fox gig a success. The late Fox impresario Roger Ailes reportedly once said that Fox was Carlson’s “last chance.” So Carlson’s shtick could be seen as a poisonous combination of his own flirtation with extremist ideas; delight at provoking the “elites” whom he hates; and desperate ambition.

What’s next? Would Carlson run for president? Confessore doesn’t get into that, even though he portrays Carlson as the logical successor to Trump — “Trumpism without Trump,” as he puts it. I don’t see why Carlson would take the next step given the riches and fame that have already come his way. But we don’t know whether he lusts for power, just as we didn’t know that Trump would aspire to authoritarian rule once he got past the novelty stage of what started out as a celebrity candidacy in 2015.

Confessore also does a good job of explaining how Fox has overcome the problems with advertisers that Carlson has experienced, and the role played by Lachlan Murdoch, who is far more ideological and extreme than his cynical, greed-crazed father, Rupert. The Times has produced a triumph of explanatory journalism.

Joe Kahn seems unlikely to fix The New York Times’ broken political coverage

In what was surely the least surprising media news of the year, The New York Times announced Tuesday that executive editor Dean Baquet will be replaced by his deputy, Joe Kahn, this June, a few months before Baquet turns 66. The move is a clear indication that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and his family believe everything is just fine. And, in many ways, it is — the paper has a huge paying audience, great journalism and vibrant digital products.

But the political coverage is broken. Not all of it. The Times’ enterprise stories on politics grapple very well with the Republicans’ descent into insanity. But the day-to-day coverage treats the two parties as morally equivalent players rather than as a flawed but fundamentally normal Democratic Party and an insurrectionist, QAnon-poisoned Republican Party. With Kahn moving to the top of the masthead, it seems unlikely that anything is going to be done about that.

Four years ago, I wrote a piece for GBH News about what was wrong with the Times’ political coverage. Not much has changed. Kahn deserves a chance, of course, and the Times’ journalism is defined by far more than politics. Its coverage of the war in Ukraine has been nothing short of superb.

And congratulations to Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger alum Carolyn Ryan, who’s been named co-managing editor along with Marc Lacey.

An odd and very remote encounter with racism. Or was it? To be continued.

I’ve got a ton of good stuff to blog about, and I hope to get to some items over the next few days. Right now, though, I’ve got to say something about a weird experience I had yesterday.

I was on the train back to Boston, cleaning up the transcript of an interview I’d done in New Jersey, where I was reporting on a nonprofit news organization called NJ Spotlight News. I paid more than I usually do so that there would be a human set of eyes looking it over before sending it back. The quality was excellent — but there was a section in which my subject and I were talking about race. Every reference to “White” was uppercase and every reference to “black” was lowercase.

If you’ve been following changes in news style over the past few years, you know that some pretty significant shifts have been implemented. The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Boston Globe all decided to start uppercasing Black but not white. Here’s how Globe editor Brian McGrory explained the paper’s reasoning in January 2020:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

Why not “white”? As the AP described it, “white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

The Washington Post took a different position, uppercasing both “Black” and “White,” explaining, “Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” That’s fine, and I suspect that at some point others may follow suit.

But referring to uppercase White people and lowercase black people is something you’d expect from the racist dark reaches of the internet. I was kind of startled to see it come from a reputable transcription service — and no, I’m not going to name them, so don’t ask. I might let them know (now I’ll have this blog post to send them), and if I get a response, I’ll tell you what they said.

The Washington Post is phasing out its once-revolutionary blue app

Forgotten but not quite gone

I was surprised — but not shocked — to discover recently that The Washington Post is phasing out its blue app, which at one time it called the “National Digital Edition.”

The app, which debuted in 2015, was an important part of the Post’s strategy during the early years of Jeff Bezos’ ownership. I wrote about it in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Available on phones and tablets, it provided readers with a colorful, magazine-like experience. The National Digital Edition was also cheaper than the Post’s other digital products; it was marketed to a national audience and omitted all news from the Washington area. That way, Washingtonians couldn’t save money by choosing the blue app unless they were willing to do without any local news.

The blue app had a lot to do with the Post’s meteoric growth in digital subscriptions, especially after the paper offered it to Amazon Prime members for free for six months, earning hosannas from a wide cross-section of media observers. Media analyst Ken Doctor, a recent guest on our “What Works” podcast, called it “potentially game-changing.”

Even as the Post was marketing the National Digital Edition, though, it continued to evolve its black app and, of course, its website. Those provided readers with a more traditional experience, including a home page, which the blue app lacked, as well as local and regional news. At some point, too, the Post abandoned its different pricing schemes. The blue app, despite its attractiveness, always seemed a bit lite, and eventually most people just moved away from it.

I hadn’t checked the blue app in ages until the past week. When I did, I got a message that said “this app soon will no longer be available” and pushing me toward the black app instead.

The National Digital Edition served its purpose, boosting paid circulation at a time when Bezos was trying to catch up quickly with The New York Times. As of last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Post’s circulation was around 2.7 million. That’s well behind the Times’ 10 million (which, to be fair, includes subscriptions to non-news products such as its cooking app and crossword puzzle), but it’s impressive nevertheless.

What The New York Times gets wrong — and right — in its editorial about free speech

Photo (cc) 2007 by Hossam el-Hamalawy

Whenever The New York Times takes on as large and amorphous an idea as freedom of expression, it quickly escalates into a war of words about the Times itself. That was certainly the case with a nearly 3,000-word editorial it posted last Friday under the headline “America Has a Free Speech Problem.”

The piece launched a thousand hot takes, many of them dripping with mockery and sarcasm. I certainly don’t agree with everything in the editorial, and I find a lot of what the critics are complaining about — especially the paper’s patented “both-sides-ism” — to be right on target. But in the spirit of contrarianism, and in recognition that this is a Major Statement by our leading newspaper, I’m at least going to take it seriously.

Read the rest at GBH News.