Dan Froomkin on Blogs, Bush, and Online Whimsy

Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin writes the White House Briefing column for the web site of The Washington Post. He is also deputy editor of NiemanWatchdog.org, a web site from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University that seeks to encourage more informed reporting. He talked with Campaign Desk by email as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators covering the campaign.

Zachary Roth: Of all the major papers, The Washington Post seems like it uses its web site the most effectively ([online] chats, your White House Briefing, Howard Kurtz’s Media Notes column, Jefferson Morley, etc.). Is there any particular reason why The Post has been out ahead of the competition in taking advantage of the new opportunities the internet provides?

Dan Froomkin: Ownership matters. Having an owner who is excited about the medium and isn’t only about the bottom line, that’s key.

Staffing matters. Finding and keeping talented, hard-working people who recognize and appreciate the unique opportunity they’re being given to adapt, evolve and transform journalism, that’s key, too.

Vision matters. I was a producer and editor there for seven years. The best things we did always involved risks and using the medium in ways that were true to newspaper values, but entirely beyond a newspaper’s ability to accomplish.

I also loved the way Howie and Jeff embraced the medium, intelligently using links and unleashing their voices in their online columns — and back in January, I joined them.

ZR: Your White House Briefing column seems like it’s doing something sort of unique. You sometimes offer opinion, but it’s mainly a roundup of what’s out there. Do you think of it as similar to a blog?

DF: I am proud to call myself a blogger. Not all blogs need to be all blog things. Typically, a blog is updated around the clock; mine isn’t. Typically a blog is unedited; mine is edited. Typically, a blog includes a lot of personal opinion; mine doesn’t.

But the best blogs have voice, and mine does. The best blogs point out fascinating things elsewhere on the Internet; that’s my bread and butter. The best blogs thrive on interaction with readers; and I sure do.

ZR: How would you assess the job the press has done covering the campaign so far, and covering the White House under Bush? What would you like to see more, or less, of?

DF: I think the Washington Post White House correspondents are terrific. Generally speaking, though, I’d like to see a lot less stenography and lot more research. There’s context here, people.

In the blogosphere, you hear it over and over again: Don’t just do he said/she said. I agree completely.

But I also want to share a fascinating discovery that I’ve made: If you read a lot of White House coverage daily, which is what I do, you always find some reportage somewhere that’s insightful, that’s perceptive, that’s penetrating, that’s eagle-eyed. My column includes the best of the day’s coverage, and that, day in and day out, is not at all bad.

ZR:What was your response to Bush’s gaffe yesterday about looking for ways to harm the American people? Why do you think the press seems to get such a kick out of it every time the president mispeaks?

DF: A pratfall always gets attention, and I have no problem with that. Heck, I led with it in my column this morning. But that wasn’t the only thing I wrote about today. There’s nothing wrong, particularly on the web, with appealing to readers’ sense of whimsy, as long as that’s not all you do. I do it whenever I can, in fact, but it’s so they’ll read the other stuff I’ve got, too.

ZR: What’s the weirdest thing someone’s ever asked in a Washingtonpost.com chat?

DF: I understand that people are passionate about Bush, but I often ask myself: Do they really think I’m going to post something with that kind of language?

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.