Goodbye to All This
What a Long, Opinionated Trip It’s Been
By Steven Luxenberg
Over the course of my nearly 10 years as Outlook editor, I witnessed the demise of the mass media.
Oh, there’s plenty of media—more than ever before. And there’s plenty of mass—readers consume more information in more ways than ever before. Take The Washington Post Company.: We have fewer paid subscribers for our print edition today than we did in 1996, but we have many more readers for our journalism, if you count the newspaper and the Post Web site. The company also publishes the Express (a free Monday-to-Friday tabloid aimed at local transit riders) and now owns the online magazine Slate, as well as El Tiempo Latino, a local Spanish-language paper. Soon, we will have Washington Post Radio. The water cooler still exists, but the crowd around it no longer shares the same knowledge, let alone the same assumptions.
In this expanding media universe, where news is transmitted at light speed and readers want opinion in “real time” (as one e-mailer told us recently), how does a weekly commentary section exert its gravitational pull? Or more to the point: How do we serve our print readers and our growing Web audience when they exist in such different places on the space-time continuum?
This is the question that I find myself thinking about most as my stint as Outlook editor comes to a close. Like my predecessors, I’m taking a final turn at bat before I pass on my Outlook hat to Susan Glasser of The Post’s National staff. In their farewell pieces, Jodie Allen and David Ignatius wrote at length about how they put the section together every week and offered trenchant guidance about getting pieces published in Outlook. They said it well—what we favor and frown upon among the unsolicited manuscripts. I’m going to take a different path. I want to sketch out how the world of opinion journalism has changed in my decade at Outlook’s steering wheel.
Imagine this: When I became Outlook’s editor on June 1, 1996, The Washington Post did not yet have an online version of itself. Our Web site, washingtonpost.com, debuted on June 19, 1996. MSNBC was a month away from its maiden telecast, and Fox News was still on the drawing boards. We received most submissions in those days not by e-mail, but by fax or on floppy disks. (Yes, really.)
When I was appointed to the job, I remember telling an interviewer about the challenges of putting out a weekly section in a world that was becoming used to hearing commentary at almost any hour on cable television. I said I was worried about losing the provocative arguments of thoughtful people to the immediate gratification and easy fame of TV. Why spend hours sweating over 1,500 or 1,800 written words for meager pay, as Outlook writers had been doing for years, when you could offer a collection of pithy sound bites and become a star? Could we continue to attract the writers we admired and wanted offering them nothing more than a prestigious venue, careful editing and the best newspaper audience in the country?
I had no idea what I was talking about. In a few years, with the explosion of the Internet, it became apparent to me that our challenge was much greater than I had envisioned. Think about it: Cable TV might have oodles of time to fill, but it still has limits. It can offer news and opinion 24/7, but not 28/7 or 36/7.
The Internet, however, is 5,500,000 x 24/7. That is, there are an estimated 5.5 million active bloggers out there right now—people who post their thoughts on Web logs, or blogs, which are available to anyone with access to a computer, at any time, 24 or 7.
Getting good numbers on blogging can be maddening, but by any measure, it’s clear that the blogosphere is expanding while newspaper circulation declines. The 5.5 million figure comes from Intelliseek’s BlogPulse (www.blogpulse.com), which says it counts bloggers who have posted something publicly in the past 30 days. BlogPulse carries a running total of identified blogs on its Web site; last week it stood at nearly 22 million, and was growing at the rate of about 60,000 every 24 hours, according to Natalie Glance, a BlogPulse researcher.
The Blog Herald, a blog that covers the blogosphere, offers a much higher number: more than 200 million blogs worldwide. Why the discrepancy? Because, asserts Blog Herald founder Duncan Riley, his tally counts blogs in all languages while others count mostly those in English and the Romance languages. But the Blog Herald number also includes inactive or abandoned blogs, as well as “private” blogs that are password-protected and meant only for family and friends.
No need to get blogged down in the numbers. My point is that as readers have splintered into millions of little audiences, it’s hard to serve both print and Web consumers with the same set of articles.
Now bloggers, hold your fire: This isn’t another rant about old vs. new media, about the wild and woolly Internet vs. the sober and responsible mainstream news outlets. Each has its flaws and virtues, which others have examined. I want to save my words and bytes for what all this means for Outlook.
Here is the real challenge right now: I know, as I type, that this piece will appear in two entirely different habitats, the print edition and online. In the print edition, where the premium on space requires an economy of words, I’m confident that the mass newspaper audience is engaging with the article in a more or less similar fashion, reading it as I wrote it. Online readers, however, often come to it sideways, through a link or a blog, where they might find snippets that a blogger has cut and pasted and then annotated. In that instance, I lose control of my argument—I have no idea how it’s been read.
One of the first rules of persuasive writing is to know your audience. But the truth is, we have only the dimmest idea of who’s reading Outlook articles in cyberspace. We don’t even know when they’re being read. The print version comes out Sunday. But it’s usually available online by 10 a.m. Saturday. (If we make changes for later print editions on Saturday night, the Web version updates automatically).
It’s not uncommon for us (or one of our authors) to receive several e-mails before noon on Saturday. Some have been helpful—attempts to alert us to minor errors, which we then correct before the full-run edition of 920,000-plus goes out to our subscribers. But many come from the “shoot first, ask questions later” crowd, often from partisans on one side or the other.
For example, an outraged reader e-mailed at 11:31 a.m. one Saturday to accuse us of crafting a biographical line that hid the author’s Democratic ties. He knew because he had Googled her and discovered—gotcha!—that she had been Democratic counsel on a House committee. “Tsk, tsk,” he scolded. “Caught again trying to hide blatant partisanship. If your organization had any shame they’d be ashamed of themselves. But, of course (*wink*) both of us know they’re not.”
It was an unfair accusation to start—the author had worked for both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. But worse than that, she had stated her work history in the fourth paragraph of the story. (That’s why the bio didn’t repeat the information.) But the e-mailer apparently hadn’t bothered to read the article itself. He came to it with a bias, and then went on the Web to prove what he already believed. If he had looked past the first entry on the Google search, he would have found the author’s full bio and saved himself the embarrassment.
Irate readers often tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves. A close second in expressing dismay is to invoke the memory of Katharine Graham. I’ve lost count of how many times the former Post Co. chairman has turned over in her grave. All I can say is that the woman hasn’t had a moment’s rest.
Out of curiosity a few years ago, I spent an afternoon in The Post archives reading Letters to the Editor from the 1950s and ’60s. After looking, more or less randomly, at hundreds of letters, I can report the following: No one thought that we should be ashamed of ourselves for publishing someone’s opinion. No one thought they had to grab the microphone by proclaiming themselves offended by what they had read. The letter writers seemed bent on advancing their arguments rather than showing off their smarts. They seemed more interested in discourse than dissing.
I think that’s still true of many readers. But they are being crowded out by the screamers and snipers. We in the media bear some responsibility for this trend, I’m sure—after years of “Crossfire” and other cable shouting matches, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that readers have picked up our bad manners.
Not that Outlook can’t take a deserved rap across its knuckles. As might be expected over a span of 10 years, 500 issues, 2,500 pages, an estimated 4,000 articles and 5 million words (give or take a hundred thousand), mistakes were made, as we like to say.
We love to talk about the many errors we catch, but readers never see those. We’re not as eager to point out the slip-ups we missed or caused. Photo captions offer many opportunities to go wrong, and sometimes, we took them. One had Theodore Roosevelt accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Christiansted (then part of the Danish West Indies) instead of Christiania, the former name for Oslo (oops). Another placed an important government official at a congressional hearing he never attended (double oops and ouch).
Headlines occasionally left us with headaches as well. We did, I’m still embarrassed to say, publish one in 1998 about the power of Microsoft that read: “Reign It In or Let It Be?” Several readers, to our relief, gave us credit for clever word play—that the reigning king of operating systems needed to be reined in. If only.
Then there was the headline that never appeared. During the 2000 campaign, an errant typing finger rendered the Republican candidate’s name as “Bish.” Fortunately, that was in the days before The Post started its early Sunday edition, which goes to press in the early hours of Saturday morning. So when an editor took a final look at page proofs on Saturday afternoon, she saved us from a mortifying correction—and, undoubtedly, many e-mails from Bish’s supporters saying that we had done it on purpose. For a few weeks that summer, thanks to my editor’s handiwork and a stealthy late-night visit, my car sported a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Bish for President.”
I happen to be a fan of partisanship. There’s nothing more invigorating than a healthy argument between sharp-tongued advocates armed with opposing views and a bushel of facts. But all too frequently these days, Outlook’s electronic mailbag is filled with hostile notes from people who know what they know, and don’t you dare try to tell them something different. Last year, when we ran a collection of six pieces from opposite sides of the political spectrum, we found that some people reading us only on the Web somehow saw only the pieces they disliked, and then fired off e-mails chastising us for publishing “only liberal” or “only conservative” points of view.
For better or worse, Outlook has always been driven by ideas, not ideology. We are not an editorial page (although Outlook provides a home to the daily editorial and op-ed pages, as well as the Close to Home page, but all three are edited independently by Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt’s staff). We seek neither a liberal nor a conservative readership. We’re greedy—we want you all. We want the mass audience.
Which is where I came in. Tomorrow, these challenges rest in Susan Glasser’s lap. Under her stewardship, Outlook will change and evolve, as it has since its first issue in December 1954. I will look on, with interest and affection, having traded my title for one almost as good: Steve Luxenberg, Outlook reader.
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