Washington Post Pools Its Resources

Paper to create new science, health, and environment team

In the latest of many recent changes at The Washington Post, the management has announced a new plan to coordinate all health, science and environmental coverage paper-wide—from national to lifestyle—under a single editor.

“As one step towards a broader re-imagining of the newsroom, we will soon
assemble under one editor a single team of health, science and environment
reporters to cover these important subject areas, in print and online,” wrote managing editor Elizabeth Spayd in a memo sent to the newsroom on Tuesday morning. “We hope to break down the newsroom silos that can prevent us from using resources in the smartest, highest-impact way.”

The reorganization of health and science coverage is seen as a pilot effort to demonstrate the new editors’ larger commitment to changing the paper’s traditional desk and beat system to one that is more content-driven. It comes at a time when health and science—from healthcare reform to climate change—are an important part of the local, national and international agenda.

In a copy of Tuesday’s memo obtained by The Observatory, Spayd explained that the new team “will be gleaned from our current writers on these topics, who are now spread across several staffs and report to different editors. It will include those reporters now covering the environment, consumer health, health-care policy, local health care and hard sciences. These stories will appear all over the paper and online, just as they do now — on the front page or home page, in National, Metro, Business and the Health sections.”

The biggest change will be a new editor with a paper-wide mandate to promote and coordinate the specialized reporting. The Post’s move falls in line with recent changes at other leading papers that are seeking a way to bring together currently dispersed coverage and break up old newsroom fiefdoms.

This week, The Boston Globe eliminated its long-standing Health/Science section in a cost-cutting move, but will keep its current health, science and environmental reporters and slot their coverage into the paper’s business and lifestyle sections. In January, The New York Times created a new “pod” of environment reporters drawn from throughout the paper, including the Science, National, Metro and Foreign desks. The Times’s heralded stand-alone Science Times section continues to run on Tuesdays, however, with extensive coverage of science, health, and environment news from around the world.

In her memo, the Post’s Spayd—one of two new managing editors named last month by executive editor Marcus Brauchli and the first woman to hold the post—criticized the traditional story assignment structure, saying it “can sometimes work against strong communication and collaboration, which means reporters only occasionally work in concert with each other and — not surprisingly —often don’t know who’s working on what at any given time.” In contrast, she is looking for a new editor, “ideally with expertise in this area, and with a demonstrated enthusiasm, to carry us forward. This is a subject of great interest to readers of the paper and users of the web.”

In a large outlet sometimes known for sharp elbows, Spayd is well aware of the challenges. Now in charge of the paper’s hard newsgathering operation, she has led the national news staff and headed The Washington Post Company’s online operation. The new health/science editorial coordinator will be a peacekeeper of sorts, with Spayd putting a “premium on collegiality, as this editor will have to coordinate with numerous others around the building to ensure we’re on top of everything from health care policy to issues affecting local readers. By detaching this team from a specific staff, we hope the editor leading this group will be more agnostic as to where the content runs — making those decisions based on what’s best for readers.”

Unlike the Times, the Post has never had a separate, broadly based science section, but instead has had a specialty Health section since the mid-1980s. The Health Section, which once had a large in-house writing staff, now gets most of its copy from the paper’s other health and medical reporters, freelancers and wire services copy.

The Post’s main national science/health/environment staff includes an editor in charge of science and six reporters: four in the medicine/health arena (including one in health policy); a new Food and Drug Administration agency reporter; a science reporter covering space/astronomy; and a national environment writer. Three national science reporters have left in staff buyouts in recent years. Metro has a local environmental reporter, but its local health slot is vacant. A Food and Drug Administration agency reporter was added recently but may stay with the national desk, and the financial desk’s energy reporter is reportedly unlikely to join the new science, health, and environment team.

Not surprisingly, there is apparently mixed reaction in the newsroom to Spayd’s charge, with some excited about the change and others reluctant to leave their current editorial homes.

Like many papers, the Post is also experimenting with new models for getting specialty content. Last year, it signed a content-sharing agreement with Grist, a Seattle-based nonprofit online environmental news site that also provides content to several other Web sites.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.