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Memo to New Boss


[M.B., 11:20 a.m., July 8, 2008. Photo by J.A.]

Dear New Boss:

Here's some advice on how to thrive, prosper and open huge cans of whup-arse as the new executive boss-person of our highly esteemed institution, The Washington Dot Com Post. Let's go in order of urgency and importance:

1. No one touches Achenbach's copy. Nor can you attempt to assign him a story without a seven-day-advance written notification on company letterhead, CC'd to his agent, publicist, driver, masseuse and amanuensis.

2. From New York, take the New Jersey Turnpike to the very end, cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge, head down I-95 for a couple of hours until you reach I-495, also known as the Capital Beltway. Then begin to pray. Abandon all hope of actually reaching your destination on time. Rush hour begins at 3:45 a.m. and ends about noon, then begins again at 1:45 p.m. and ends at midnight. The grindingly slow pace of the traffic is actually preferable to the high-speed alternative in which you find yourself on the Temple Curve inside a convoy of snarling 18-wheelers hauling enough hazmat to sterilize the state of Virginia. The best way into town is 16th Street, which you'll find if you take the Georgia Avenue exit. Once you get into town, our building is at 15th and L (unless you decide to go to the Dot Com office, which is somewhere in Virginia. Or maybe North Carolina).

The first thing you want to do when you get to the newsroom is find the person in charge of the waiting list for parking spaces. I didn't do this until after I'd been here for 15 years, and when I finally asked I was told that there was a 25-year wait and I'd have to go to the back of the queue. Now it looks like I might get a parking space at the age of SEVENTY. So while you're lining up parking privileges, put in a word for the A-blogger, thank you very much.

3. We have this concept here called Local News. You can find it in what's known as the "Metro" section, which is staffed by people known as Metrosectionals. Imagine "Money & Investing," only without the money or the investing, and focusing instead on local government, schools, traffic, crime, weather, festivals, shopping, neighborhood cookouts, kids made good, kids gone bad, cats rescued from trees, trees rescued from cats, and whatnot -- stuff that might seem boring to someone living in glitzy Manhattan but which has the redeeming characteristic of being something that real people will pay money to read about.


5. The brand is strong (six Pulitzers!) and the general concept of reported information, soberly and intelligently assembled and analyzed, retains traction in the slippery world of opinion, gossip, rumor, invective, dyspepsia and snippetiness. So even as we experiment with change (every reporter must now wear a helmet-cam! All stories must have video, TV, radio, satellite, DVD, dramatic theater, ballet and opera versions!), we should also keep doing what we do well, which is that "journalism" stuff.

6. We have a phenomenal, underexploited asset: Readers. Lots of people still read us, and make us an essential part of their day. A lot of these people would likely respond to some kind of Support Your Local Endangered Newspaper campaign. And it would be a mistake to get so focused on the people who DON'T buy the paper or read it online that we forget to pay attention to those who already do.

[True story: In 1983, The Miami Herald became concerned about the migration of many subscribers to points north, in Broward and Palm Beach counties. So the paper decided to chase them. I was one of about 16 reporters and editors who opened the expanded Palm Beach bureau of The Miami Herald. Our motto: "We're Big On Palm Beach!" We put out a good section, but we were still, fundamentally, a Miami newspaper, with nowhere near the staff of The Palm Beach Post, and with only a fraction of the local knowledge and sources. I personally figured people would want to buy the Herald because we were so much cleverer and cuter than our rivals -- heck, some of us went to fancy Ivy League schools! -- and we were reinventing journalism and were possessed of huge throbbing literary ambitions!! But no: The residents of the county sampled the product for a while (given away initially as a promotion) and then methodically canceled their subscriptions. The editor called these folks one by one and asked why they didn't want the paper. The answer was always the same: "Not enough local news." I'm not sure exactly what the status of the bureau is there, but I'm guessing that the Herald is no longer really all that big on Palm Beach.]


8. Whatever you do, never say anything nice around here about the New York Giants. This is a town where grown men can get weepy at the very mention of the name Sonny Jurgensen. You must immediately memorize the entire roster of the Redskins, including players on injured reserve, and the names of their spouses and children. The new coach is someone named Jim Zorn. Guy came out of nowhere. (Maybe you two would hit it off.)

Good luck!





[fishbowldc has links to all the coverage]

By Joel Achenbach  |  July 8, 2008; 9:15 AM ET
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