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Recommended Reading: 'Newspaper Narcissism'

By Andy Alexander

Veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus has written an incisive piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in which be blames journalistic failures -- not just financial missteps -- for the current plight of newspapers. Headlined "Newspaper Narcissism," it's a worthwhile read.

I think this paragraph, in particular, is especially relevant to Washington reporting:

(W)e have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose -- to be the news of the day. Many of our headlines come from events created by public relations -- press conferences, speeches, press releases, canned reports, and, worst of all, snappy comments by 'spokesmen' or 'experts.' To serve as a counterpoint, we need reporters with expertise.

Amen. Solid beat reporting, with a strong watchdog component, produces the kind of journalism that will make newspapers essential. That's a special challenge for The Post, whose readers expect high-caliber reporting on everything from local government to the vast federal bureaucracy to Congress to the White House. The Post is reducing staff -- it's currently going through its fourth round of buyouts since 2003 -- and there's a widespread belief among staffers that layoffs will quickly follow.

Maintaining a solid corps of terrific beat and investigative reporters is expensive. Buyouts typically snare veterans, who have the most expertise. Even the best of their younger replacements often lack a deep base of knowledge about specialized subjects. And in this climate, even the smart, aggressive ones are being given additional duties that stretch them thin.

That's why the ongoing reorganization of The Post's news operation is so important to readers. Robust staffing levels will not return -- at least not anytime soon. The emerging new structure needs to yield maximum efficiency for The Post, both print and online. The right people need to be matched to the right jobs. And the leadership needs to be inspiring.

By Andy Alexander  | May 8, 2009; 2:35 PM ET
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Yes, we certainly need solid reporting, but did Pincus say anywhere in his column that opinions and slant have no place in reporting the news?

If he didn't, he's missed the boat.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | May 8, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Andy, why can't readers comment on the Dan Balz "GOP Pep Talk" piece today on Jack Kemp? I know we can't comment on AP pieces but this is the first time I've seen one of the Post's own pieces where you can't post a comment? Did Dan Balz request that no comments be allowed?

Posted by: pmorlan1 | May 10, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I read the Pincus piece the other day. I didn't agree with everything but it was a good piece.

Posted by: pmorlan1 | May 10, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

You want an example of narcissism? Have you read Sally Quinn's Sunday column on MO's arms? How about the comments.. did you read those?

Quinn got slammed. But that doesn't seem to matter to the WaPo. Did an editor review that garbage?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | May 11, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

The only way print newspapers can stay in business is by getting generous tax breaks. And why shouldn't they? Religious organizations do. Church property is tax-exempt, and ordained clergy get all sorts of breaks, such as not paying FICA or taxes on their housing allowances. Is a free press less important than the free exercise of religion? Both are guaranteed by the same first amendment in the Bill of Rights. If the first amendment justifies subsidizing the one, it justifies subsidizing the other.

Posted by: donnolo | May 11, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Talking about narcissism:

Perhaps it is because I haven't shaped my identity around my gender (which is female), but I am confused as to the above-the-fold prominence of the new "DoubleX" magazine. I guess I consider news to be news and analysis to be analysis. Reporting of facts should be done by the paper; analysis can be left to the op-ed page. But this doesn't appear to be op-ed material. It appears to be yet another blog to be added to the ever-growing list on the home page.

I realize you noted in your blog earlier this week that many people don't actually cancel their subscriptions, but this may have just pushed me over the edge as far as my online readership goes. (A former NoVa resident, I moved out of the area several years ago so no longer have a paper subscription. But I learned to read newspapers by reading the Washington Post and I have found it hard to let go.)

It seems to me that is no longer overly concerned with reporting news, as it is with attracting web surfing traffic. For example - the "On Faith" section of is primarily a discussion of Christian faith, despite the representation of other religions on the panel. I am not sure how that actually inspires "intelligent, informed, eclectic, respectful conversation" about religion as a whole. Reading the comments, though, it does seem to drive traffic of fervent Christians to the site.

I am also still at a loss as to why Loudon County gets the Loudon Extra. I know it is one of the fastest growing counties in the country (or it was before the economic downturn), but it still has less population than the adjacent Fairfax or Prince William Counties in Virginia. Loudon is mostly a collection of white suburban neighborhoods (with the population at 83% Caucasian, it's suburban neighborhoods or old pockets of farming), and barely merits the *two* dedicated blogs it has, let alone an entire subdomain.

With the prominent addition of DoubleX, it appears at this rate that is going to be nothing but a collection of special features and blogs that cater to specific interest groups. And I find that not more than a little disappointing in what is considered one of the major newspapers in the country today, and one that is a paper of record.

Please stop with all this micro-fractioning of the paper. Just report the news instead of finding every possible angle and beating it to death. And preferably, keep front-page worthy news in the above-the-fold slots. Today it was DoubleX, yesterday (or two days ago) it was Michelle Obama's arms. With everything going on in the world, I find it hard to believe these merit such high levels of attention.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | May 12, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

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