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It's the Reporting, Stupid

The Post has just won six Pulitzer Prizes, which looks like a typo. It was a newsroom-wide triumph -- Metro, National, Investigative, Foreign, Financial, Magazine. Within that Variety Pack of journalism, there's a common ingredient -- something we too seldom discuss when we cogitate about how to reinvent the business model: Reporting.

Original reporting still matters. It's probably our best gimmick. It's what we do (imperfectly to be sure) better than anyone else in the news business. It also can't be easily replaced on the cheap by some other information-delivery system.

The Post's winning entries are full of shoe-leather journalism, from the coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy to Steve Pearlstein's reporting-driven columns in the biz section. Bart Gellman and Jo Becker went after the hardest target in Washington, Dick Cheney. Dana Priest and Anne Hull broke the story of deplorable conditions at Walter Reed. Steve Fainaru easily could have won a couple of years ago for his stories obtained at great risk in Iraq.

Some folks out there at other papers may be thinking how unfair it is that The Post, which has certain innate advantages -- big staff, big news budget, a metropolitan area chockablock with news junkies, for example -- won all these awards. Not getting the glory is, in fact, the common experience of most people in this business, and most human beings on the planet more generally.

Which is why it might be a good moment to re-read Gene Weingarten's winning entry in the Features category. Let me note that Gene is a special person in my life - really, almost like a grandfather to me. I will try to be objective here.

What do you notice about Gene's story? Of course you see the signature Weingarten moves: The daring stunt that frames the story; the use of internal kickers, also known as "zingers"; and most important, the way that the story is not just about music or a violinist or the over-stressed American workforce, but about the Meaning of Life.

You may also have noticed that he managed to get his editor, Tom Shroder, to chase after people in the Metro and get phone numbers for him. That alone is worth a Pulitzer.

But here's what jumps out at me: The story is immaculate. There's not a loose word in the whole thing. You could pick that story up, turn it upside down, and shake it and nothing would drop out. Maybe there's something in there I missed - but it sure looks like everything's bolted down.

This is partly because Gene chews on pens and rubber bands. It helps him concentrate as he obsesses obsesses obsesses over his copy.

Moreover, nothing gets into the Post magazine without going through a fine filter of editing, revision, copy-editing, fact-checking, and proof-reading, culminating in a process known as Reading the Boards. Shroder and Sydney Trent and the other editors take a final look at this thing that's about to go to press. A lot of that labor is unglorious [inglorious? Paging the copy editor!]. So I'd put, as a newspaper virtue right up there with Original Reporting, what you might simply call Sweating the Small Stuff. Which also isn't cheap, or easily automated.

Too often in these discussions about the future of newspapers we get hung up on platforms, on the mechanisms and shapes and sizes of the product. We want to figure out how to put our product where people can find it, even if that means cramming it into a cellphone. We have to make that transition. We have to adapt to a new world, and probably we need to adapt a lot faster. But the platform isn't the soul of a news organization.

A final thought: A bunch of the people who wrote or edited these stories and columns are of an age at which they are eligible for a buyout. There's a phrase that has popped up in recent years, in which people are described as being "still in their vertical hour." That means they're still rising in their career.

But don't count out the veterans. Apparently some of these geezers know what they're doing.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 7, 2008; 3:10 PM ET
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