The Washington Post bets its brand on Circus Maximus II

WashingtonPost.com’s new Post Politics section looked like a smart move. Create a special section that rides deep in the curl of the wave of Washington politics. But is Post Politics actually hurting rather than helping its brand?

The Post’s formidable brand isn’t politics alone, but, to resort to an overused phrase that once had real meaning – the “intersection of policy and politics.”

The Post brand was created in the mid-1960s, when its new managing editor (and later executive editor), Ben Bradlee, transformed the Post’s pokey, provincial Washington staff into an agile, probing team of correspondents that effortlessly toggled between policy and politics, often in the same article. Propelling this transformation were the big ideas of the 1960s: Cold-War strategizing, the civil rights revolution, the persistence of poverty in postwar America, renewing hollowed-out cities, landing a man on the Moon – just for starters.

It didn’t last forever. As big ideas shrank in size after the 1960s, the Post’s politics/policy brand lost some of its momentum and relevance. The vacuum in ideas in Washington was gradually but relentlessly filled by politics. The capital became Circus Maximus II, whose broad oval extended from Pennsylvania Avenue to K Street NW. The increasingly electronic, short-attention-span media was delighted by the circus, because it was less expensive to cover and most of it could be presented as heart-pumping horse races, with a sprinkling of sassy asides from the regulars in the grandstand and clubhouse.

On cable TV, whose growing popularity paralleled the triumph of politics, deep reporting was replaced by sound-bitten punditry, most of it supplied by consultants to the money-oiled Democratic and Republican campaign machines. (Two honorable exceptions to the cable circus are The Rachel Maddow Show and The Joe Scarborough Show, both of which try to negotiate that intersection of policy and politics.) To its credit, the Post clung at least to the spirit of the Bradlee policy/politics manual, and in sometimes path-breaking ways. The Post brand was diminished, but it still had value that could be weighed on a scale.

Now, sadly, Post Politics looks like a move to de-emphasize the Post’s honorable legacy and restructure its Washington coverage according to Circus Maximus II.

This downsizing of the Post brand has to delight the founders of Politico, John Harris and James VanderHei, both of whom left the Post to exploit more completely Washington’s seizure by total politics. Politico correspondents shuttle between the Capitol and White House on Pennsylvania Avenue and its ad salespeople troll the lobbyists’ offices on K Street and its environs. But the auguries for Circus Maximus II aren’t that promising. Big ideas are starting to come back.

This isn’t wishful thinking. Start with the evolution of one of the country’s most politicized issues – how to improve the education of children, particular those representing minorities. For the past several years, the No Child Left Behind law has been one of the hottest political debates in Washington. The debate continues, but the sound bites are being replaced by real discussion about how to better educate children. It’s happening because of the accumulating evidence that NCLB did not close the gap between the education of black and Hispanic students and others. There’s now space for policy ideas that seek to save the best of NCLB but add elements that engage the entire community not just teachers and what happens in the classroom.

Other big ideas are on the horizon:

  • Health reform legislation will, because of how it was written, generate a steady stream of ideas to cut costs while also improving care. Rants against reform will lose their power as the nation is forced to get serious about health costs that, on a per-capital basis, are double and more those in other Western countries.
  • The new Fiscal Reform Commission has a broad mandate to come up with serious proposals to reduce the national debt to sustainable levels. Sound bites on cable shows won’t cut it in the sobering debate that is already unfolding.
  • Cities, towns and villages everywhere are struggling with the twin challenges of becoming more livable without going bankrupt. While this sounds like a local or state issue, the feds are intimately tied up to what happens in communities of all sizes as the consequence of federal stimulus funding.
  • Energy policy has been a can kicked down the road since the first oil crisis in 1967. It’s a sound-bite favorite on cable. But the oil spout in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana is already prompting a serious national conversation about an energy strategy that goes beyond our present, overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels. “Drill, baby, drill” won’t shape this conversation.

By jamming its Washington coverage into the politics-as-a-horse-race oval of its Post Politics page, washingtonpost.com is poorly positioned to exploit the comeback of big ideas and re-establish the power of its brand. The handicapping headliners of Post Politics completely missed how libertarian Rand Paul, winner of the Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, boxed himself into a position outside the Civil Rights Act. Instead of camping out on Circus Maximus II, the Post should be planting its flag where Bradlee put it in the mid-1960s – at that intersection of policy and politics.

A model for doing just that exists right in the Post newsroom. Young correspondent Ezra Klein covered the long battle for health-care reform legislation in the style of an unbuttoned wonk with a mischievous sense of humor. His blog is refreshingly called “Economic and Domestic Policy, and Lots of It.” But Klein’s blog doesn’t appear to be inspiring other Washington coverage in the Post, although the Post Politics page did make this recent stab at finding the policy-politics intersection (see below). Resigned Rep. Mark Souder should be grateful that his sexual escapade with his part-time staffer was interpreted as a policy initiative.

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Today’s Post editors have Web tools to make policy-accented stories come alive in ways that were unavailable to the Post in the 1960s. The tools are built around what’s called “data visualization.” Huge globs of data about school performance, health care costs, etc., have been pouring into cyberspace for a decade or more. What’s new is that now these globs can be converted into visually useful information that can make policy debates as exciting as the World Championship Wrestling-type pundit square-offs on cable TV.

How data visualization can alter policy debates – for the better – was dramatically demonstrated during the closing days of the acrimonious congressional battle over health-care reform. GOP House Minority Leader – and Circus Maximus II ringmaster – John Boehner decided to show how impossibly complex the legislation was by portraying it in a PowerPoint diagram that was Rube Goldberg, or maybe the Pentagon, squared. But then reform advocates countered with real data visualization to show what the legislation would do, and not do. The graphical rebuttal required none of the bent arrows, dotted lines and curlicues of Boehner’s diagram.

You won’t find current innovations in data visualization on the Post Politics page. What you’ll find instead is a clunky, pre-21st century guide to congressional action and dull “meet-you-member” bios of lawmakers. Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, in a glowing article on the debut of Post Politics, referred to the site’s “slick interactive” map of the status of 2010 congressional races. But the map doesn’t let the user do the most basic visual analysis of the races to see how the balance of power might change on Capitol Hill against different variables.

Instead of trying to out-Politico Politico, the Post should be using its website to mash together politics and policy with all the textual verve of the Post’s national staff of 40 years ago but with the added wizardry of today’s data visualization. If it did, its brand would once again shine brightly – at Circus Maximus II and beyond.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. 67.72.118.244 says:

    Are you suggesting that the creation of postpolitics.com occurred at the expense of deep reporting by The Post on policy issues? If so, I think you need to spend more time on washingtonpost.com. The Post continues to provide excellent coverage of policy issues. PostPolitics.com, rightly, seems to be aimed at the Beltway audience that Politico is serving. But to assert that PostPolitics.com is The Post’s sole journalistic investment in serious matters of policy is wrong.

    Could The Post do a better job of using the Web to add multiple layers to its policy coverage? You bet. Same can be said about every news org out there, including Web-only operations like ProPublica.

    Full disclosure — I worked at washingtonpost.com for 7 years.

  2. 98.231.178.193 says:

    I am not suggesting that the Post has abandoned deep reporting — to which my reference to recent Pulitzers that the paper has won for doing just that attests. But when the Post creates a new section of Washington coverage that so aggressively emphasizes the content of what I call Circus Maximus II, that’s misguided. Why can’t the Post create a section on Washington coverage that more boldly, and innovatively, navigates the intersection of policy and politics?

  3. Tom Grubisich says:

    I’m not suggesting that the Post has given up deep policy-based reporting. I cite recent Pulitzers the paper has won showing it hasn’t abandoned that legacy. But I think the new Post Politics section sends a message that the Post is now paying more attention to all-politics-all-the-time coverage just when the return of big ideas makes the mix of policy-and-politics a better bet for protecting the Post brand.