As new owner Jeff Bezos takes over ownership of the Washington Post, Winning Progressive offers three tips for improving the paper’s product and recovering its reputation. (More)
Last week, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos visited the headquarters of his latest acquisition, the Washington Post, to get an up-close look at his $250 million purchase. Founded in 1877, the Washington Post has a storied history, with its most significant accomplishments coming with the publication of a series on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and its pursuit of the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s. But since then, the paper has declined significantly, with revenues down by one-third and the newsroom half of its peak size. The decline has been caused largely by the fact that the paper’s for-profit parent company, the Washington Post Company that also owns Kaplan testing services, has been focused on sustaining short term dividends for its investors, rather than investing back in a quality newspaper product. The result has been predictable – a notable decline in the quality of the reporting in what was once a truly top-notch newspaper.
With new ownership, there is now at least a possibility of restoring the Washington Post to the echelon of great newspapers. Winning Progressive is certainly not qualified to offer advice on how to address the financial and financing issues facing the paper. But as an avid reader of newspapers and other forms of journalism, we would like to offer some advice on how to improve the product that the Washington Post is offering which, in the end, should help bring back readers and, therefore, revenue. Along those lines, we offer Mr. Bezos three pieces of unsolicited advice:
1. Help Burst the Beltway Bubble – The Washington Post reached its pinnacle when it aggressively pursued the role that journalists are supposed to play of questioning and challenging people in power. A return to that approach would help the newspaper by occupying a much-needed role that far too much of today’s media has abandoned in favor of “access” and generating short-term profits for their for-profit owners.
In a recent column, Ross Douthat suggested that the Washington Post should try to become more like Politico.com, the online paper that, in Mr. Douthat’s description is the “must-read for Beltway professionals and politics junkies everywhere.” But the last thing our political discourse needs is another Politico, as Politico is little more than a purveyor and promoter of the kind of mindless hackery and drivel that passes for DC political “journalism” today.
Rather than doubling down on the vapid approach of the DC chattering classes, we recommend that Mr. Bezos pursue an approach by which the Washington Post uses its perch inside Washington DC as the perfect position from which to burst the Beltway bubble. In other words, rather than simply parroting the latest mindlessness that every other media organization is offering, focus on providing readers outside of DC with a critical look at the merits and demerits of the substance of what is and is not occurring in DC, and provide readers in the Beltway with a critical look at the issues outside of DC that those inside should be paying attention to but are not.
2. Restore Investigative Journalism – Journalism is most valuable to society when it discovers and informs its readers of information about government, business, and society that they would not otherwise know. In order to fulfill this role, media outlets need to invest in the type of resource-intensive, long-form report known as investigative journalism. As a recent essay decrying the decline investigative journalism explained:
Elevated to hero status after two Washington Post reporters helped bring down a corrupt U.S. president and his cronies, investigative reporters enjoyed a golden era from the late 1970s into the 2000s. In cities blessed with activist media, reporters took aim at corruption, waste, incompetence and injustice in politics, government, charities and corporations. Cameras confronted culprits. An aroused populace demanded change. People went to jail; old laws were rewritten and new ones passed. Competition for investigative prizes swelled; others came into being.
Unfortunately, because investigative journalism is often controversial and resource intensive, it has typically been the first area at a newspaper to be cut. And while non-profit newcomers such as ProPublica have tried to fill the gap left by cuts at mainstream newspapers, they are not enough to make up for the cuts at papers such as the Washington Post.
Despite the cuts, the Post continues to carry out some invaluable investigative reporting. For example, the Post’s recent multi-part report Left With Nothing, uncovered how hundreds or even thousands of low-income Washington DC residents who owe as little as $134 in back property taxes have had their homes taken by unscrupulous companies that purchase unpaid tax liens and then jack up the amount owed through excessive legal fees, etc. so they can foreclose on the house. And its 2010 report Top Secret America was an invaluable and comprehensive accounting of just how much the national “security” state has expanded after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
If Mr. Bezos wants to increase the profile and effectiveness of the Washington Post, restoring and expanding its investigative journalism would be a good place to start.
3. Clearing Out the Opinion Page Hacks – A final piece of advice to Mr. Bezos is that he should clear out the hacks on his paper’s opinion page. Perhaps the worst of the hacks is Jennifer Rubin, about whom a former Washington Post ombudsman recently said:
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.
Other such hacks include racial profiling enthusiast Richard Cohen, war-mongerer Robert Kagan, torture enthusiasts Michael Gerson and Marc Thiessen, and all around hack Charles Krauthammer. Any good newspaper should have a stable of intelligent commentators from both the liberal and conservative sides of the aisle. Replacing these clowns with some far more thoughtful and serious conservatives, to accompany the decent liberal columnists who are already there, would vastly improve the commentary offered by the Washington Post.