[Editor’s note: Tom Grubisich is a former Washington Post reporter and editor]
In her first major statement as publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Weymouth late last year announced a seemingly Zen-inspired long-term strategy of three pillars. The pillar that caught my attention was the second:
“Providing utility, engagement, and convenience for our local readers.”
“Engagement”! Weymouth gets it, I said to myself, the Post is going to build a 21st century community to stay relevant, and financially healthy.
But after reading her whole “The Road Forward” document, I think my optimism may be misplaced.
Weymouth details what the Post will do about utility (“make the paper and washingtonpost.com go-to places for local information”) and convenience (“make it possible for [local consumers] to complete many… transactions on the site”). But nowhere does Weymouth expand on how the Post will promote engagement.
How odd – and disturbing. It’s great that the Post will work ever harder to help its readers and users find movie listings and streamline their shopping. But what, if anything, does it plan to do about helping to turn them into a community that can make the District of Columbia and its suburbs – home to many of them – better places to live?
Metro Washington is, as Weymouth says, an “affluent, highly educated, growing market,” but that demographic jargon doesn’t really define the 5.5 million people who live, work and play – with increasing difficulty – in that “market.”
The District, with 104,000 people living at or below the poverty line, has the third highest poverty rate in the U.S. Its child poverty rate is the highest.
While metro Washington’s suburbs don’t have poverty rates anywhere close to the District’s, they are starting to feel a sizable hurt from a recession that the federal government recently discovered began in December 2007.
The home foreclosure rate in metro Washington increased 574.94% in 2007 – the third highest increase in the nation. In one area in suburban Maryland (including Bethesda, home to thousands of Weymouth’s “affluent, highly educated”), foreclosures soared 1,288 percent – the highest increase of the top 100 metropolitan statistical areas.
Last May, USA Today featured this man-bites-dog lead sentence on a story: “The Washington area may be home to the nation’s power brokers, but it isn’t immune to the infrastructure woes that plague big cities throughout the nation.”
“The rupture [of a water main that closed 800 restaurants] follows a series of recent disruptions for Washington area residents, including a blackout in downtown Washington, a Metro subway train derailment and track damage caused by the heat,” the story said, and quoted officials who said the water system is “aging, overtaxed and underfunded.”
Just before Christmas 2008, another water-main break – in that same “affluent, highly educated” Bethesda – turned a major commuter road into a roaring river from which nine motorists had to be rescued, three of them by helicopter.
In Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, home to yet more of Weymouth”s “affluent, highly educated,” there is a severe shortage of recreational facilities.
“We are shoving so many kids on these fields. It’s unbelievable,” said Beckwith Bolle, president of the Ashburn Soccer Club in an article in a local community paper. “Right now we are putting 1,500 kids [a week] on fields with room for only 600.”
As metro Washington’s local governments see their tax revenues continue to shrink in response to the double-digit plunges [PDF] in housing valuations, human and infrastructure needs will become even more critical.
In the midst of so many challenges within its major coverage area, wouldn’t this be the time for the Washington Post to go all out for community engagement, and to do so with its most powerful platform – washingtonpost.com?
I am a regular user of washingtonpost.com, but when I sign in, I don’t really feel as if I’m part of any kind of welcoming community – not the way I feel when I sign in on Facebook.
On Facebook, my community consists of people I’ve connected with and who’ve connected with me. They all have names (real ones, not Internet handles) and they enthusiastically share their interests and missions, often giving me a “poke” to get involved. If I want to fight poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa or global warming in the U.S., or do any number of other desirable things, big or small, thanks to my Facebook friends, I know where to go.
I get no such community guidance, much less inspiration, from washingtonpost.com. Most of the site’s users hide behind handles, making it difficult, if not impossible, to forge connections.
It’s high time it was said: You can’t build a robust community through anonymity. Washingtonpost.com has clung to this outdated Web convention because it didn’t want to do anything that threatened to decrease traffic to its site. (This could change with the recent resignation of washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady, who was an ardent defender of letting users choose to be anonymous.) Meanwhile, pure-play social networking sites like Facebook, where members say exactly who they are, grow rapidly.
If washingtonpost.com made engagement as high a priority as utility and convenience, it could create a Web-based community that would become a powerful force for good in metro Washington. Such a site could throw a continually searching spotlight on the region’s serious problems, especially as they are made worse by an economic crisis that we are told may rival the Great Depression. More important, such a site could be the platform for connecting the dots between words and action in finding solutions to those problems. In the coming era of economic hunkering in, wouldn’t washingtonpost.com users find help on community building more valuable than how to speed their shopping transactions?
Not incidentally, a fully engaged washingtonpost.com would ensure the Post’s relevancy as its once-super-profitable, high-penetration print product becomes more marginal.
In a recent column, the New York Times’ David Brooks – an astute chronicler of social-cultural transformations in America – wrote:
“People… moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.”
Washingtonpost.com could be the nexus of many of those meeting places in metro Washington. But that won’t happen unless Katharine Weymouth orders her team to strengthen the most important section of the Post strategy’s second pillar – engagement.