Pop goes the WaPo

At the Tatler, Richard Pollock writes, "Washington Post staff morale drops over new makeover:"

The Tatler has learned that morale is continuing to fall at the Washington Post as it conducts yet another design makeover in an effort to stop dramatic readership losses. The new re-design is to be launched this coming Sunday. Post readership continues to plummet as daily circulation fell 10.7% during the first six months of last year. Its flagship Sunday edition fell 9.5%.  Readers are abandoning the Post in droves in the nation’s capital.

The Post’s latest makeover continues its trend towards soft pop culture coverage. In a move seen as silly by Post staffers, the paper is separating the Style section from the Arts section. “Brilliant move” one Post staffer sarcastically told the Tatler. To old timers this seems like moving around chairs on the Titanic. Years ago the paper had separate sections and at the time they were combined as a new selling point to readers.

There also will be a new tabloid size section focusing on popular culture, a new “Deal Hunter” section for coupons and sales, a “Web Insight” section on blogs, and weekly photo galleries of D.C. social scene.

Post staff tell the Tatler they’ve seen it all before and predict it will make no difference in improving the declining reporting quality of the paper. “It’s all about marketing,” one long-time staffer confessed to the Tatler. The makeover certainly has nothing to do about news gathering or reporting. Last year the paper downsized its Business section, subsuming it into the main news section.

In the second quarter of 2010, the Post reported a $14.3 million loss.

Readers have certainly seen it before -- as evidenced by the excerpt from William McGowan's brilliant Gray Lady Down in the November issue of the New Criterion, which was titled, "Pop goes the 'Times:'"

Part of the late 1970s Sectional Revolution, in which the Times became a multisection publication bulging with soft news and lifestyle journalism, was a greater use of market research and polling of target constituencies, especially in the area of cultural coverage. The research explained that the Times needed to “reach out to a new generation, people whose attention spans were shorter,” as Warren Hoge, the assistant managing editor, told npr. It needed to replace its older readers with a new generation, one that was educated but “aliterate,” meaning they did not read much. “We have to grab young readers by the lapels because they were less interested in reading,” Hoge said.

Over time, this transformation crowded out coverage of high culture in favor of an oddball, wink-and-nod popular culture. “The entire social and moral compass of the paper,” as the former Times art critic Hilton Kramer later said, was altered to conform to a liberal ethos infused with “the emancipatory ideologies of the 1960s” and drawing no distinction between “media-induced notoriety and significant issues of public life.” The Times took on more and more lightness of being. It became preoccupied with pop-culture trivia and über urban trends, reported on with moral relativism and without intellectual rigor.

The change was met by disaffection and derision within the paper’s newsroom. Grace Glueck, who ran the culture desk for a while as replacement editor, was one of the disaffected, and famously once asked, “Who do I have to f[. . .] to get out of this job?” Howard Kissel, the theater critic of the Daily News, said the new cultural pages reminded him of a middle-aged woman learning how to disco: “She put on a miniskirt and her varicose veins are showing.” Gerry Gold, a staff reporter, commented, “We do all these pieces on pop icons as if they are important artistes. In fact they are creations of the big record companies. Yet we try to intellectualize them.”

Lifestyle journalism and soft news got a big boost under the two-year tenure of Howell Raines (2001–2003), whose obsession with popular culture earned his regime the sobriquet “charge of the lite brigade.” When he took over, Raines wrote a piece for the Atlantic Monthly (published only after his dismissal over the Jayson Blair scandal) in which he expatiated on the role that popular culture had to play at the Times.

If you want to reach members of this quality audience who are between the ages of twenty and forty, you have to penetrate the worlds of style and popular culture. If the Times’s journalism continues to show contempt for the vernacular of those worlds, the paper will continue to lose subscribers. To explore every aspect of American and global experience does not mean pandering. It does mean that the serial ups and downs of a Britney Spears are a sociological and economic phenomenon that is, as a reflection of contemporary American culture, worthy of serious reporting. It means being astute enough about American society to understand that the deadly rap wars have nothing to do with what Snoop Dogg said about Suge Knight. The real story behind the rap wars is one of huge corporations like Sony and emi trying to save a multibillion-dollar industry in economic collapse.

The gravitas of the paper has suffered as a result of key appointments in the area of cultural news. One of them was the promotion of Sam Sifton from editor of the Dining section to cultural news editor in 2005. His intellectual pedigree was not in doubt: son of Elisabeth Sifton, a major figure in New York’s publishing community; grandson of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian. But his obsession with pop-culture trivia came across full force in a 2007 online “Talk to the Newsroom” Q&A with readers, where he promised more video game reviews—a promise he certainly kept. In the same forum the previous year, he defended his paper’s coverage of Hollywood celebrities, and when a reader asked “Do you party? Do you rock and roll?” Sifton answered in a tone of desperate hipness by quoting Young Jeezy: “E’rybody know I rep these streets faithfully.”

But the problem at the Times is greater than the taste of the editors it hired. As the current editor Bill Keller has said, the Times puts out a daily newspaper “plus about 15 weekly magazines,” meaning the various freestanding sections in the paper. These fiefdoms are more and more devoted to lifestyle and less to news per se.

Funny, you'd think what happened to the New York Times would serve as a warning for other newspapers, and not a how-to manual.

Particularly given the Washington Post's own myriad structural woes.

Related: To get sense of what the Times transformed themselves into, and apparently the style that the Washington Post is hurtling towards as well, don't miss The Awl's slyly satiric look at "The Most Emailed 'New York Times' Article Ever."

In contrast though, this is not a satire. At least, not an intentional one.