Would a Populist Washington Post Be Popular?

Ombudsman’s stirring plan relies on readers who may not be there.

In his latest column, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton offers a paradigmatic version of the earnest media critic’s exhortation. Being an earnest media critic myself, I’m inclined to cheer him on. At the same time, it’s important to note the blind spots that lie at the heart of his vision—about how reporting can be paid for, and about who the audience for political journalism is.

In the column, Pexton takes up an important question, which is, basically: is the Post essential? And he answers it honestly, concluding: not as much as it should be. Pexton notes both the steady encroachment by rivals on the Post’s core strength of Washington reporting and the paper’s comparatively lackluster response. He notes the Post’s business-side innovations, but identifies “less energy and enthusiasm in the journalism and more of a defensive crouch.” And he offers a prescription that will allow the paper to differentiate itself from its competitors, which write for “fat cats and power elites” while increasingly charging their premium audience a premium price:

The Post will always compete with the inside-the-Beltway journals and with the Times. It has to. But its future lies not with the rich; it lies with the citizenry. This newspaper must be the one source of high-quality, probing Washington news that readers in this region and across the country can look to for holding their government accountable. This publication must be for all Americans.

This means that The Post can’t be a liberal publication or a conservative one. It must be hard-hitting, scrappy and questioning—skeptical of all political figures and parties and beholden to no one. It has to be the rock-’em-sock-’em organization that is passionate about the news. It needs to be less bloodless and take more risks when chasing the story and the truth.

This is a pretty direct rebuke to the editorial vision that’s been outlined by the top leadership at the paper. As the Post’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, told CJR’s Scott Sherman last fall, the paper’s current strategy is “really to be for and about Washington.” To write about Washington but for “all Americans,” as Pexton calls on the paper to do, is a very different project—one that requires being not of D.C., but apart from it. It can be hard to connect this abstract journo-speak to specific reporting tasks, and Pexton’s column doesn’t really take that step. But as media critic Jay Rosen noted on Twitter Pexton is saying, in effect, that “the Post newsroom has its politics wrong.”

It’s a bracing critique, and an important one. By some measures, coverage of American politics is probably as good or better today than it’s ever been. But too often, for all the depth in the talent pool, the D.C. press corps can seem a self-referential circle chasing scooplets of ever-increasing obscurity. (Forget writing for “fat cats”—one of things Twitter has made clear is just how much journalists think of other journalists as their audience.) The feisty, fighting newsroom of Pexton’s dreams, with its unswerving focus on the interests of ordinary Americans, would indeed stand out, in a way that today’s Post—despite the stellar reporting it still produces—does not. And it would probably more closely embody our collective ideals about what “the press” is supposed to be.

But here’s where the blind spots come in. Like many earnest media critics, Pexton accepts almost on faith that a mass audience for the sort of political journalism he wants to see exists—and implicitly, that this audience can somehow be converted to revenues that will support the journalism. (Though apparently charging for content is out of bounds—Pexton lumps The New York Times’s new permeable paywall in with Bloomberg’s uber-pricey data terminals as “fee-based” barriers to the democratic flow of information.)

As evidence for this proposition, Pexton cites “the readers who write to [him] by the score every day,” demanding a more populist approach to news. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those appeals. But one of the basic unfortunate insights of political research is that most people have better things to do than think about politics. The intense, and growing, demand for political information comes disproportionately from the “power elite” and an expanding class of political professionals. And while the popular audience is growing too, citizens who want to read about politics every day are more likely to be partisans than populists—and they may in some ways value Beltway-oriented coverage, which allows them to, in effect, listen in on insider conversation.

The contemporary newsroom that most closely resembles what Pexton calls for is probably ProPublica, which eschews inside-the-Beltway drama for investigations and accountability reporting. Along with its various publishing partners, ProPublica has produced many stories—on troubled mortgage modification programs, on tainted drywall, on environmental dangers, and more—that hold government (and big business) to account on behalf of the public. It’s a terrific record, and these stories no doubt connected powerfully with the ordinary people who were directly affected. But news organizations need to cultivate a regular, recurring readership, and ProPublica reportedly draws about 300,000 monthly unique visitors—not bad, but about a tenth of the traffic generated by Beltway-obsessed Politico. And its impressive reporting team, of course, is underwritten by generous philanthropy.

Maybe ProPublica is too investigations-heavy, too focused on specific issues, for a mass audience? Well, then the best analogue to what Pexton seeks might be the original reporting at The Huffington Post, which, setting aside its ideological orientation, captures some of the scrappy, populist approach he describes. (I’m thinking especially of Arthur Delaney’s tireless reporting on economic policy.) HuffPo, of course, has never suffered for readers, it doesn’t rely on wealthy donors, and it doesn’t charge a dime for its reporting. But that mass readership—which produces relatively modest revenues—has been built through hyper-aggressive aggregation and SEO strategies, a healthy heaping of tabloid material, and an unabashed liberal perspective. This is not a model that’s available to the Post.

The point is not at all to diminish ProPublica or the reporting team at HuffPo, each of which are very valuable additions to the political journalism world. Nor is it to diminish the important values expressed in Pexton’s column.

Rather, it’s to remind earnest media critics that there is a compelling logic to the Post’s current approach, which is to serve, in a nonpartisan way, an audience that already wants to consume a lot of news about politics. Pexton’s vision of high-quality, populist (but nonpartisan) political reporting, by contrast, depends on creating a mass audience by convincing people to consume a lot of news about politics. It’s a noble task, one that I’d be thrilled to see a major outlet take on. But it’s also a daunting one.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , ,