Eight or nine Washington, D.C.-area lawyers, government workers and other residents sat around a conference table in an office building. They were strangers, all younger than 45, all had moved to the region within the last five years. None subscribed to the Washington Post.
An affable session leader from Boston began by asking about their daily routines and news habits. About an hour and 15 minutes later, he opened a cabinet, removed a stack of Posts and dropped them on a conference table. "What if I told you that you could have a six-month subscription free?" he asked them.
"In one session after another, I don't think I saw one person who would take it," says a Post staffer who watched the focus groups with colleagues from behind a one-way glass. The participants picked up various sections--Style, Metro--and stared at them like they were "Egyptian hieroglyphics."
They knew about the Post, of course. How could they not? It's the region's dominant daily and one of the nation's best. They even liked the Post. But they read it online at work. Former subscribers complained unread papers piled up at their homes, making them feel guilty because they hadn't read them. The responses were not " 'No, I don't like the Post,'" the staffer says. They were " 'No, I don't want that hulking thing in my house.'"
Participants asked for more listings of homes sold in their counties and for more community coverage, including local crime reports--already offered in zoned weekly or twice-weekly sections called Extras. "That was the most maddening thing for us," says Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the Post's assistant managing editor for sports. "We'd be behind the glass, screaming, 'We do that already!'"
These attitudes, which emerged in six focus groups in September, offer some insight into the paper's troubling--and surprising--circulation slide. During the six-month period ending September 30, the Post's daily paid circulation dropped 2.9 percent from the previous year, to 699,929. Sunday circulation fell 1.8 percent, to 1,007,487. Over the past two years, sales slid 5.2 percent daily and 3.9 percent on Sunday.
The Post hasn't been immune to the circulation slide that has plagued the nation's newspapers for years, but until recently its decline generally has not been as severe. The quickening pace of the drop-off seized the attention of the Post's leadership, big time.
Circulation woes at the nation's fifth-largest paper have intensified efforts to shore up sales in a booming, affluent region without jeopardizing the paper's news coverage and character. The Washington Post Co.'s efforts to expand its reach range from launching the Express, a free weekday commuter tabloid, in August 2003 (See "Hip--and Happening," page 40) to buying El Tiempo Latino, a Spanish-language weekly based in Arlington, Virginia, in May 2004. At the Post itself, editors are trying to create a more compelling and accessible paper.
"Our circulation had enabled the newspaper to build a strong advertising base that has made possible steady investment in our news coverage in good times and bad," Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. told staffers on November 18, according to a transcript of his remarks. "Our journalistic excellence has gone hand [in] hand with our circulation and financial strength. That is why the newspaper's circulation decline is so worrying--even though the overall reach of our journalism has grown significantly through washingtonpost.com and our television and radio appearances. And that is why it is very important that the newspaper do everything that it can to slow, stop and reverse the slide in circulation."
The Post introduced modest front-page zoning on February 1--the same day a startup rival debuted in the form of the Washington Examiner, a free, six-day-a-week tabloid backed by Denver billionaire and Qwest Communications founder Philip Anschutz. (See The Business of Journalism, page 76.) The Post swapped an A1 story in the D.C. and Maryland editions about a Montgomery County, Maryland, executive's construction legacy for an A1 story in the Virginia papers about excess state tax revenue that could top $1 billion.
That day the Post also launched a larger, more stylish front-page key box with story teases and a small photo or two to lure readers inside the paper. Post editors are planning some form of key boxes, indexes or summaries for all section fronts and may make additional changes on A1.
Downie says the Post's research "has shown us that one factor in some people's decision to not buy the paper is sheer size. It's a big newspaper with one of the largest newsholes in the country, and it has lots of advertising. That's good for the newspaper's financial health and good for readers." But it's also "daunting," Downie says, and "we want to make it easier to get through the newspaper and not be daunted by its total size. There will be more points of entry, starting with the front page."
Downie also is pushing for shorter stories and more photos and graphics, noting his paper--and its readers--have been suffering from "story-length inflation." Lest this directive, an industry fad that sends journalists and media critics running for the Maalox, be misinterpreted as the USA Today-ification of the Washington Post, consider one example Downie shared with me: a front-page story on a South Korean immigrant family that had been tightened to about 90 inches.
The Post's circulation anxieties and its response to those troubles illustrate that it is both luckier than most U.S. papers and vulnerable to the same readership challenges its brethren are battling. The Post historically has enjoyed a higher coverage of area households than any major paper, a distinction that continues despite the slide. As of September, the Post reported 51 percent weekday penetration--total circulation divided by number of households--and 65 percent on Sundays.
The late Katharine Graham established her family as one of journalism's most stalwart protectors during the Watergate/Pentagon Papers era. Today the Post is one of the few family-owned enclaves in a sea of corporate conglomerates, sheltered from shareholder expectations that have plagued other papers. Although it has been publicly traded since 1971, the company created two classes of stock to protect family control. As Donald E. Graham, Katharine Graham's son and chairman of the Washington Post Co., notes: "We don't try to make anybody's quarterly numbers."
But the Washington Post Co. is a highly profitable enterprise. In addition to the Post, Express and El Tiempo, the company's holdings include Newsweek; six television stations; cable TV systems; community papers; the Herald in Everett, Washington; and the lucrative Kaplan test preparation company. In December, it purchased the online magazine Slate from Microsoft for a reported $15 million to $20 million.
The newspaper itself posted a 15.3 percent operating profit margin in 2004--somewhat below the industry average but up from its 14.5 percent margin a year earlier.
The Post's paid circulation has been falling intermittently since sales peaked on Sunday in 1992 at 1,158,329 and daily in 1993 at 832,232. But, Downie says, "until two or three years ago, we had not suffered the sort of circulation losses that other papers have around the country. In the last period, it was not as steep as many other papers but certainly steeper than we'd ever experienced."
The Post's daily circulation slide was more than three times the industry average for the six-month period ending September 30, according to Newspaper Association of America figures. The average daily drop was 0.9 percent, and Sunday losses averaged 1.5 percent. Two-thirds of daily newspapers reported lost circulation or remained flat. (The Audit Bureau of Circulations banned Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Dallas Morning News from reporting that period because of circulation scandals.)
Miles Groves, a media economist and consultant, characterizes the Post's circulation drop as "pretty serious given the nature of this market"--a government town steeped in current affairs. "The interest in reading a newspaper here should be stronger than most markets," says Groves, a former chief economist for the NAA. "It's an area where you'd expect it to hold onto rather than lose" circulation.
Harry Jaffe, a national editor for Washingtonian magazine who writes a column about the Post, offers a similar if less restrained analysis, calling the circulation slide "one of the great mysteries. Is there a more perfect newspaper readership than the Washington region? We're the perfect newspaper demographic. We are well educated. We have disposable income... We can tell the difference between Iraq and Iran."
"What I find amazing about the Post's circulation problem is they knew it was coming. They've been doing research, focus groups, analysis; they've been buying up other newspapers that would compete with them," says Jaffe, who also writes a twice-weekly column for the Washington Examiner. "They meet on it all the time; they wring their hands about it; and they don't do a goddamn thing. Their series are just as long. They're just as painful to read."
So is talk of change mere spin from a broadsheet too set in its ways? Task forces at the Post are nothing new, nor are pledges to pep up the paper.
"It feels different this time," a Post staffer says. "The situation is more desperate. The numbers are pretty shocking." Going below 800,000 daily circulation in 1997 "was traumatic, and the prospect of going under seven is even more traumatic. More than the gross numbers, it's the rate of attrition that's scary." The staffer predicts "significant changes" in coming months.
The Post's new managing editor, former Assistant Managing Editor for Foreign News Philip Bennett, told me in early February that "this whole discussion is an opportunity to improve the paper, to make it less complacent... There's a consensus in the room that this is a moment" to innovate.
In a later conversation, Bennett mentions that a Metro reporter asked him, "'What evidence do you guys have that making these changes is going to spike circulation?' And I think there's not a clear-cut equation in which on one side of the equal sign are changes in what you write and on the other side of the equal sign are changes in the number of readers. One of the things that I'm trying to tell people and describe to people is that we're in a period of continual change, and that a series of steps won't be rolled out under the heading, 'The Solution.'"
Last summer, sports editor Garcia-Ruiz headed a group that analyzed data from Post readership surveys--an assignment he won, he says, when he "walked by the editor in chief's office at the wrong time."
After that analysis, the Post sponsored 10 focus groups. The first six--two each during September in the District; Silver Spring, Maryland; and Alexandria, Virginia--were split between former subscribers and nonsubscribers. The next four, held in October, involved occasional Post readers who lived in Maryland and Virginia suburbs farther away from the District but still within the core readership area. These readers picked up the paper at least once a week and had household incomes of at least $85,000.
While the readership surveys found the Post's reputation in the community was rising, other results were disheartening. The Post's pollsters found a drop when they posed statements to participants such as, "I set aside time to read the Washington Post."
The surveys "clearly showed we had issues attracting young readers, readers new to our area and the immigrant and diverse consumer," Garcia-Ruiz says.
John Morton, a media analyst and AJR columnist, says the Washington market is changing and becoming more competitive. Young people's aversion to newspaper subscriptions could threaten the Post's historically enviable penetration, particularly given the emergence of free alternatives--including the company's own Express, which distributes 180,000 copies to commuters.
"I happen to doubt whether any serious Washington Post reader would give it up in favor of Express, but there may be a few," Morton says. And while the region's immigrant population is soaring, those newcomers tend to increase population "but not newspaper circulation."
Post editors are considering several new beats to improve coverage of the region's diverse immigrant community and perhaps attract new readers, including adding a reporter who might divide time between Washington and El Salvador.
While El Tiempo maintains a separate newsroom and Post Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman says "it's not our intent to make El Tiempo Latino the Washington Post in español," he is looking for ways to expand cooperation between the news staffs. El Tiempo, which distributes about 45,000 free copies, publishes shorter Spanish-
language versions of some Post stories, and the Post has forged informal content-sharing agreements with several Central American papers.
But Post readership surveys found circulation wasn't keeping pace with population growth among all demographics, Garcia-Ruiz says. The surveys also revealed a February 2003 readership spike after the beginning of the war in Iraq that the paper was unable to sustain. Participants who said they had read the Post at least once in the past week increased from 66 percent in February 2002 to 68 percent in February 2003 but dropped to 57 percent a year later.
Front-page readership tracked closely with the overall dip, declining 7 percent from August 2002 to February 2004. "In the period after the war, we were losing readers, so we were asking [top editors] to think why that was," Garcia-Ruiz says. "We found that we remained very, very heavy" on front-page war coverage. "Did we emphasize the war too long on A1, and is that one of the reasons we lost some readership?"
Len Downie is skeptical the correlation between news events and circulation is really that precise. "People who conduct surveys make conjectures about that, but I'm never very certain about that," he says. Regardless, "I certainly don't think we should have changed our coverage of the war at all."
But Downie does hope to spice up the front-page mix. At the November meeting, he told his newsroom: "Our own staff members say too much of the paper, beginning with the front page, is too often too dull."
After Steve Coll became managing editor in 1998, the Post inched toward a front page with more variety. But "the whole process stopped after 9/11," says Marc Fisher, a Metro columnist who in the late 1990s was an editor tasked with developing page-one features. "The front page became extremely hard news. There was a feeling features were not appropriate on the front page."
Hard news, such as developments in Iraq, and detailed reporting and analysis of government and politics, continues to dominate A1, but additional variety appears to be creeping in. January's page-one offerings included the story Downie cited about a Korean immigrant family, a whimsical photo of a Miami Beach police officer making snow angels in Washington before President Bush's second inauguration and an article about Academy Awards nominations recognizing smaller films and a more diverse group of actors.
The readership surveys also revealed weaknesses in the way the Post presents local news. The "numbers showed readers perceiving our local news to have a lower quality than it deserved," Garcia-Ruiz says. "Our zoned weekly editions that are buried in the back of the newspaper nobody knew about. And it was killing us."
The Post began offering zoned Extras in the mid-1990s as a space for highly localized coverage of county government and other community news. A late February entry in the Alexandria- Arlington's Extra's "Animal Watch" column disclosed: "Animal control received two calls about a chicken walking in a street. After several attempts to catch it, the chicken was netted and taken to the city shelter, then transferred to a wildlife sanctuary." Over the last two years, the paper also phased in three-way zoning of its Metro section in Maryland, the District and Virginia five days a week.
One of the last major dailies to launch jurisdictional zoning, the Post avoided common industry pitfalls of creating too many zones or limiting stories to only one zone. Most stories appear in the Post everywhere; zoning primarily affects story placement. Downie says he and other editors will focus this year on "how to make each of the zoned sections as strong as they can be."
Modest front-page zoning allows the paper to swap some local stories by publishing one on the front page and the other in Metro or the A section. "Our goal is not to be zoning stories on a daily basis on A1," says Ed Thiede, assistant managing editor for the news desk. "Our goal is to do it when the time is right." The Virginia and Maryland legislatures conveniently meet at the same time, and Downie anticipates other stories, including some about schools, may be zoned as well.
He told his editors the week before February 1 to expect some type of zoning on the front page that day and decided to swap two stories for the first time at a 2 p.m. news meeting on January 31--a move that dovetailed nicely with the Examiner's launch the next day.
Downie told staff in November, "We will give greater emphasis and visibility to local news coverage, including on the front page." He also said the paper "will increase coverage of locally relevant news in all parts of the paper, in addition to Metro and the Extras."
But similar declarations of "more local stories on page one" have long bumped up against powerful institutional forces that propel national and international news out front.
Metro has endured a sort of second-tier status at the Post, viewed as a layover where writers pay their dues before jumping to more prestigious beats on the national or foreign staffs. Bennett says, "If it's true that Metro is seen as having second-class status at the paper"--and he agrees that's the perception--"that's a problem we need to fix."
The Washington Examiner, delivered free to mostly high-income homes in the District, Maryland and Virginia, sees intense local coverage as key to its success. The Examiner replaced three suburban Journal newspapers that Anschutz's Clarity Media Group bought last year from Journal Newspapers Inc.
"We'll reach people that are looking for a better way to navigate the newspaper but still have a desire to read the newspaper," says James McDonald, the Examiner's president and publisher. "We are really hoping to provide people with a paper that is important to their lives" by focusing on local news topics such as schools, taxes, gangs, real estate values and the harrowing Beltway commute.
The Examiner, which has an editorial staff "in the 50s,"--the Post has about 850--publishes national and foreign news from the Associated Press and New York Times and also offers lifestyle features and a gossip column called "the Buzz."
McDonald says stories won't jump from page to page because "it drives people crazy," and "we want to make the paper easy for people to read and digest."
The Post is making no such no-jump pledges, although Downie does want to curb excessive length and reduce multiple jumps of stories from one inside page to another. He told staff the average front-page story on Mondays has swelled to nearly 50 inches and many stories in the 40-to-80-inch range would "read much better at a fraction of that." He authorized page designers to have stories trimmed by up to 10 percent to produce more attractive pages, freeing more space for photos, graphics and info boxes.
This campaign for shorter stories, a plea Downie has made for years without much success, produces a notable lack of hysteria among his reporters. In early February, many staffers seemed only vaguely aware of changes in the works; others knew but appeared unruffled.
"It's not like we're Hemingway or Fitzgerald around here, and to lose a single word is to destroy the beauty of our prose," says David Von Drehle, a Post magazine writer and former assistant managing editor for Style. "The Post is a pretty flabby newspaper."
"A lot of newspaper chains have used some of this same kind of rhetoric about serving readers and shorter stories in order to really diminish their ambitions as a newspaper," Von Drehle adds. But in his view, the "people running the Post have certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, at least in terms of their commitment to quality journalism."
Readers craving the truly skimpy can scan the Post's Express--a compilation of wire stories that Slate media critic Jack Shafer says "makes USA Today look like the Times of London"--or they can turn to the Washington Examiner.
"All over the newspaper industry, there's opportunity because traditional dailies are losing readers, and they're losing readers because they haven't responded to the needs of consumers," McDonald says.
But for the Post and other papers watching sales dwindle, fulfilling consumers' needs is a tricky proposition. Eugene Robinson, an Op-Ed columnist and associate editor, explains the quandary this way: "You have to be always on guard against a., doing nothing, and b., doing the wrong thing."
"In my view, the wrong thing is to pull back and cut newshole and cut head count and shrink your horizons and look at a study that says people are interested in local news and say, 'Geez, why do we have all these foreign correspondents?' As far as I can tell, that's never worked for anybody, and you end up with a vastly diminished newspaper."
Nor does the Post want to offend its loyal, observant and sensitive readership base with drastic alterations that could be perceived as "dumbing down" the paper.
Consider these responses after the Post changed the author of its crossword puzzle. "What an insult!" protested Ellen Miller of Beltsville, Maryland, in the January 8 "Free For All" Section, a Saturday space in which readers frequently bash the Post. "A crossword puzzle is, by nature, supposed to be an intellectual challenge... Considering the number of highly educated adults in the Washington area, I can't believe that the changed puzzle represents your readership. I hope the Jan. 3 puzzle was not representative of future 'new and improved' entries."
Susan Fusi of Rockville, Maryland, was equally unimpressed. "Is The Post targeting a less-educated reader in 2005?" she asked. "This week I finally could complete a Post crossword! But I liked it better when I could only do a fraction of the puzzle yet always had the hope that if I lived long enough, maybe I could compete with The Post's more erudite readers."
Media critics also are closely attuned to any lapses in Post standards. The Sunday Source, a frothy section launched in April 2003 to entice elusive young readers and provide more reader-friendly service listings, has hit a few ethical potholes, prompting this doozy of a correction on October 22:
"In the Oct. 17 Sunday Source, the 'Gatherings' story described a Republican barbecue held to watch a presidential debate. The item reported 'the possibly unprecedented occurrence of a young woman in a cowboy hat pretending to make out with a poster of Dick Cheney.' The item should have explained that the woman was asked to pose with the vice president's picture by the photographer working for The Washington Post. The woman also did not pretend to 'make out' with the picture; at the photographer's suggestion, she pretended to blow a kiss at it. The item should have explained that the party was hosted in response to a request from The Post, which discussed the decorations and recipes with the host and agreed to reimburse the cost of recipe ingredients."
Erik Wemple, editor of the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly, lambasted the incident in a column as a "stunning case of ethical bankruptcy."
And Post Ombudsman Michael Getler, a frequent internal critic of the Source, wrote in a staff memo that it was "on another planet journalistically from the rest of the Post." He has complained about use of "posed pictures, involvement of Post staffers in staged events, and plugging of business giveaways," believing those practices are inconsistent with the paper's standards.
Former Source Editor Sandy Fernandez describes the Source as a "service section" that "was meant to be different from the rest of the paper." Even Style is a news section, but "we're not news. We're..'Here's a list of places you can join a bowling league.' It's a magazine frame of mind rather than a newspaper."
Fernandez readily admits she mishandled the Republican barbecue story. "When we did the layout, we talked about a box" explaining how the story and photo originated. "It got late; we didn't do the box. We should have done it," she says. "I really should have stopped the presses at 8 o'clock, and I didn't."
As the Post tries to attract more subscribers with the Source and other changes, it's losing potential buyers to its respected and popular Web site, washingtonpost.com, which attracted 5.9 million unique visitors in January, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.
Although surveys found that readership drops can't be blamed solely on the paper's Internet site, anecdotal accounts from the focus groups found a "ton of people who are going to our Web site," sports editor Garcia-Ruiz says.
But the Post has no immediate plans to charge for its online content. Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, told readers in a Live Online chat February 2 that "the site will remain free for the foreseeable future."
So is charging at some point under discussion? "Not really," he told me that afternoon. "I think it's a matter of competition. If you're charging, there are a lot of other competitors that are not."
The Web staff works closely with the newsroom. If news occurs after the paper's deadlines, a five-person "continuous news desk"--launched about a year ago to enhance breaking news coverage online--tracks down the beat reporter, who writes a story for the Web or feeds information to the online staff. "It's revolutionized how we work with the paper on a day-to-day basis," Brady says.
While agreeing the site siphons readers from the printed Post, Brady says, "I'm not trying to protect the Web site at the expense of the newspaper, and the newspaper is not trying to protect itself at the expense of the Web site." He notes "these things all cut both ways – the Web has given the Post a national and international distribution that it doesn't have in the print variety."
The New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal have increased circulation by targeting a national audience, but the Post remains a local paper, drawing more than three-quarters of its sales from home delivery. "We've lost some circulation over the years because we did not subsidize a lot of out-of-market circulation," says Post Publisher and CEO Bo Jones. It "doesn't meet our business model to have a lot of circulation in places that are not customers for the advertisers."
Nor has the Post relied much on heavily discounted "third-party sales" to airlines, hotels and restaurants to boost circulation--a staple of USA Today's sales strategy. "We don't throw a lot of bulk papers around," Jones says. "We're at the low end of that scale."
Media economist Miles Groves agrees the Post has largely avoided this industry trend, which he sees as an easy way to improve circulation. But "I don't think the subsidized circulation builds a franchise," he says.
The Post straddles what Bo Jones describes as two editorial missions: writing for "official Washington," the seat of the nation's capital, diplomatic corps and World Bank, while serving as the local paper for an expanding and increasingly diverse Washington-area audience. Succeeding in both these missions, he says, has become more complex.
Asked about the rival New York Times' success in building circulation--in September 2004, the Times reported daily gains of 0.3 percent to 1.1 million and Sunday of 0.2 percent to 1.68 million over the previous year--editors and reporters repeatedly cite the Post's commitment to its local audience. It's one of the nation's cheapest papers, holding at 25 cents for years and increasing to 35 cents daily for single-copy sales in 2001.
The Times is "trying to serve their readers in part by choosing their readers," reporter Von Drehle says. "They're simply deciding that there's this whole universe of people that they're not going to talk to. They've become much more overtly a paper for a certain demographic audience that they've aggregated from across the country. What the Post is trying to do is much closer to the old small 'd' democratic ideal."
Or, as columnist Marc Fisher puts it: "We're still trying to find a way to make the old idea of affinity by geography work."
Slate's Jack Shafer says that "straddling a huge market, as the Post does, and serving high-brow tastes, mid-brow tastes and low-brow tastes..is a very, very difficult thing."
A former editor of the Washington City Paper, Shafer has argued the Post lost its pluck and switched personalities with the New York Times. "One day, it seemed, the Post rollicked readers with its cheeky personality and the next suffocated them with the sort of overcast official news that made the Times famous," he wrote in a 1998 column. Shafer stands by his assessment today.
The Post often feels like a fusty community elder, determined to dose readers with serious news and fumbling more frivolous fare. It served up mind-numbing and seemingly incessant bulletins on failed presidential hopeful Howard Dean's quest to lead the Democratic National Committee. Its coverage of the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston breakup, the biggest celebrity bombshell since Ben and J. Lo split, was memorably lame, as are its sometimes-contrived attempts at cool. One such flop, a February 10 story on the Metro section front, concluded that Maryland's Wisteria Lane "Blooms With Milder Variety of Drama Than TV Show," the ABC hit "Desperate Housewives."
The paper's series can stretch on interminably. And for all the Post's lofty talk about democracy and local readers, its government and politics coverage often reeks of accounts of the insiders, by the insiders, for the insiders.
But the Post's sobriety is also a strength, particularly in the post-9/11 era. Reporter Anthony Shadid provided riveting and Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage from Iraq (see "Voice of the People," June/July 2004); Emily Wax is among a handful of writers who have given the bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur region the attention it deserves (see "Déjà Vu," February/March); and the Post unflinchingly has chronicled the administration's controversial anti-terrorism tactics at home and abroad.
"What major newspaper had some of the most sober coverage of the weapons of mass destruction?" asks Shafer. "It was the Washington Post and [reporter] Walter Pincus--measured, careful, steady." Meanwhile, says Shafer, a frequent critic of the Times' WMD reporting, the Times let reporter Judith Miller "off her leash and she ran wild. It was much more entertaining coverage. It turned out not to be as reliable." (See "Miller Brouhaha," August/September 2003.)
If Post editors can balance the paper's solemnity with some sophisticated moxie, if they can tame unwieldy articles, improve story mix and help readers find the information they crave, they'll wind up with a better paper. And, just maybe, they'll help curb the circulation slide by enticing a few new subscribers despite the lure of the Internet and the inconvenience of watching that "hulking" paper pile high on the kitchen table.
Says Publisher Bo Jones: "There's no panic here at all. It's just a matter of having to roll up your sleeves and do more."