Last Friday, the day after The Washington Post announced an expansion of its online video content “with politically focused programming,” the paper’s ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, wrote a column headlined, “The Post needs less on politics, more on government.”
Among the reasons Pexton offered was, simply, “Readers might like to know.”
To know more about the doings of the “less sexy” government agencies—including Agriculture, Commerce, Housing, Interior, Labor, Transportation—that, Pexton wrote, together account for about $173 billion of annual federal spending and affect the lives of millions of Americans.
I advocate increased coverage of the Cabinet departments not only because it is good public-service journalism but also because I think it is good strategy in the long term. It could increase Post readership locally in print by federal workers and nationally on the Web by people affected by government policies
so, then, everyone
—farmers, for instance, whose local and regional papers don’t cover this sector as well as they used to, either.
One of the problems of American journalism broadly is that stories about government have retreated while stories on politics and personality have skyrocketed.
The Post’s national editor, Kevin Merida, pointed Pexton to the paper’s coverage last year of the scandals at the General Services Administration and the Secret Service. Merida told Pexton that “you don’t always need to have beat reporters assigned to an agency to do well on a story.” But you do need reporters assigned to an agency to do well on the agency—to cover not just the occasional holy crap scandal but also the decisions made, the money spent, the every day happenings, and to explain to readers who is affected and how.
“If I were The Post’s new executive editor, Marty Baron, and I had to shrink the newsroom and reallocate resources, I’d look at cutting back on the politics to add to the government team,” wrote Pexton.
There are hard newsroom discussions and decisions ahead for the Post. Wrestling with how the paper covers and should cover government—its “hometown industry,” as Merida noted to Pexton—ought to be among them.