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From AJR,   March & april 2011  issue

A Critic Joins the Post   

Long known for his stinging commentaries on its foibles, Erik Wemple soon will be blogging about the media and politics for the Washington Post. Thurs. May 26, 2011


By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

When Erik Wemple was editor of Washington City Paper, he wrote frequently about the goings-on at the big media dog in town, the Washington Post. His pieces weren't exactly dispatches from a fan.

For example, Wemple questioned whether Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth had killed a story that was to run in the Post's Sunday magazine; criticized the Post's correction policy for failing to make clear who was responsible for a mistake; called the Post out for removing a reporter's blog post critical of the newspaper's editorial board; and highlighted how the Post sat on one of its editorial aide's eyewitness account of a snowball fight in which a D.C. police officer brandished a gun.

Politico media writer Keach Hagey described Wemple as "one of the most fearsome media reporters on the Washington Post beat during his days at City Paper."

So in June Wemple will be leaving his current job as editor of TBD.com, a local news Web site based in suburban Washington, to join..the Washington Post. In his new role, he'll write a blog for washingtonpost.com in which he'll take a critical look at media and politics, focusing on news organizations in Washington and examining the interaction of public officials and the media.

Wemple, 46, says he will be able to chide the Post when he thinks it's necessary, but that is not the point of the new gig. "I could be critical of the Post while working there," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "Yet I don't want to cover the Post anymore, at least not even close to the degree that I once did. The paper has an ombudsman, and if I have ideas on Post-centric stories, I will pass them along. The purpose of the media blog is to tilt at other outlets."

Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, says Wemple's hiring is the latest move in the Post's ongoing effort to build a team of bloggers with strong opinions. Wemple will join a lineup that includes Greg Sargent, Jennifer Rubin, Alexandra Petri and Jonathan Capehart.

Hiatt says the bloggers are not simply "saying, 'Here is what I think,' they are out there, very intensively reporting every day. If you follow their blog, you know what they think, but you also find stuff out."

As for Wemple's past as a tough critic of his new employer, Hiatt says, "We at the Post got to know him when he was at City Paper, and he covered, among other things, the Post very intensively and not always comfortably for those of us who were subjects of his reporting. But he was thorough and very uncompromising and fair-minded. He's somebody that I've admired from a distance for quite a while. He seemed like a natural for this subject."

Wemple says that while he's been hard on the Post, he has also praised the newspaper on many occasions for its quality journalism. "Like any big and ambitious news organization, the Post makes mistakes and has idiosyncrasies that are worth writing about from the outside," Wemple says. "I am happy to be joining the Post."

In a farewell article when he left City Paper last year, Wemple wrote: "The Post has dropped to a new low, it's missing key stories, it's boring, it's [insert other pejorative comment here] .. Yet it remains the greatest bargain in the household budget of my family and we are aggressive Costco shoppers .. The point here is that the Post is giving me more interesting stories coverage that I really want to read than I can possibly digest."

Wemple says he's not leaving TBD because of the turmoil that has engulfed the once-ballyhooed Web site since it debuted last fall. He's going to the Post, he says, because he wants to write for the Post.

"I want to create a lively blog that has lots of daily visitors, that has a worldview on media and that surfaces new and interesting material every day via reporting," he says. "I want to eat lunch at my desk every single day."

Former General Manager Jim Brady, the architect of TBD who left that organization just three months after it debuted, says he doubts that his creation can survive. In February, TBD shed 12 staff members and shrunk its mission from covering many aspects of life in the Washington area to arts and entertainment coverage while aggregating local news content. Now, Wemple is leaving, as is TBD's director of community engagement, Steve Buttry. Buttry is joining Brady at Journal Register Company, a Yardley, Pennsylvania-based media company that is attempting to reinvent itself for the digital era. Their departures mean that all of the key original TBD players will soon be gone.

Brady, who jumped ship because of disagreements about the direction of the site, says that when TBD staff cuts were announced in February, he didn't think it would last for another six months. He sticks to that prediction. When TBD launched, the Web site of WJLA, Washington's ABC television affiliate and like TBD owned by Allbritton Communications, was incorporated into the new site. But they have since been unbundled.

"They talked a good game about keeping [TBD] going," Brady says. But "I suspect they'll roll everything up under WJLA. Based on how people in the company feel about WJLA versus TBD, they might as well. I'm not sure I understand why they kept it alive as long they have, based on the obvious lack of passion for it within the company."

Neither TBD Publisher Robert Allbritton nor President Frederick Ryan returned phone calls seeking comment about TBD's future.

Wemple, however, says TBD isn't going anywhere. "We look at local news here, and we report it and throw it up on the site and hope people come," he says.

He adds, "Lots of people thought that the events of February meant that the company had bailed on the project. Yet there are several open positions for which we are interviewing these days. So TBD is going to be around. As for the editorial direction, we are trying to put together a first-rate daily presentation on arts & entertainment while still reporting or aggregating the region's top news stories. It's very fun."

Brady, a former executive editor of washingtonpost.com, says he's excited that his former colleague will be writing for the Post. "Erik is a terrific reporter," he says. "He's honest as the day is long. I just think he's one of those guys whose reporting is 100 percent uninfluenced by all external forces; he's just a really good reporter who calls it as he sees it."

"The fact that he's working on the op-ed side over at the Post is wonderful for him, because that's an area that I think he'll shine in," Brady says. "I think he would have been great as a straight-on media reporter, but I think the fact that he'll get to do criticism, I think it's a significantly better role that he'll play over there. I look forward to seeing him in the Post as soon as possible."