The challenge washingtonpost.com isn't meeting: How to connect the dots between words and action

[Editor’s note: Tom Grubisich is a former Washington Post reporter and editor]

The Washington Post does great journalism. Jonathan Krim, assistant managing editor/ local at washingtonpost.com, documents several examples in his response to my recent piece “Washington Post needs to do some structural work on its shaky new strategy.” Except Krim mislabeled this journalism as a serious attempt at “deeper and broader [community] engagement.” It isn’t.

The best example that Krim cited – “Fixing D.C.’s Schools” – actually shows how the Post, particularly its website, remains stuck in this great paper’s legacy of investigative journalism, where the investigators, who are word, not action, people, remain in total control. The series, put together by a team of 12 reporters, editors, videographers and others, is a devastating indictment of how the District public schools educate their students. But the articles, fine as they are, offer no avenues of help to District parents who have children in one of the worst public school systems in the country.

“We need a community…We need parents are every school who are involved,” says April Witt, one of the series reporters, in an online Q & A. Witt comes close to sounding like an action person, but, that’s not the direction washingtonpost.com chose to go with “Fixing D.C.’s Schools.” Krim cites the series’ school-by-school database as an example of community building. While the database admirably pinpoints academic, staffing and infrastructure problems at each school, it has nothing to say about the pitiable lack of parent resources. Yet an email survey of washingtonpost.com readers during the series identified parental involvement as the third most-cited problem with D.C. schools.

The school system’s new chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee (who reports to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty), agrees. Her five-year plan [PDF file] to turn D.C. schools around says bluntly: “Too many of our students’ parents are uninformed consumers of public education who blindly support the District’s public schools without full knowledge of the significant deficiencies of the schools they champion. DCPS believes that if it effectively arms parents with the knowledge and tools they need to understand what a quality education looks like, they would demand action and accountability.” To do that, the system has created an Office of Community and Family Engagement. But because the office appears to exist mainly on paper, it can’t meet on-the-ground needs that are proliferating as Rhee and her team attempt to carry out their five-year plan, which began with the 2008-09 school year.

“There is no PTA and a lack of interest in getting involved,” said one community member at a recent forum on the plan. “I looked around tonight and there were very few parents. There were only six teachers in attendance. We say we want to engage the community. But, when you look around you see the community isn’t in the room. But, the community is here and many people want to be involved and engaged.”

The Post series could have helped to close this gap by creating online sub-sites in each community where parents and others could air their frustrations and, more important, put pressure on the school system to deliver on its promises to provide parents with the knowledge and tools they need, and in many cases can’t get.

I don’t pretend creating sub-sites would be easy to do. It would involve washingtonpost.com deploying editors – I prefer to call them “impresarios” – who would help parents become grassroots versions of the Post’s vaunted investigative journalists. Empowered parents could connect the dots between words and action – something no investigative journalism, however deeply it digs, can achieve by itself. (I use “words” here generically for all content.)

For all its multimedia razzle-dazzle, the Post‘s “Fixing D.C. Schools” series was rooted in the old journalistic way of doing things – tight, top-down control. The Q & A sessions – one of the few places where the public-school community has a voice on washingtonpost.com – contain this stipulation: “…washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control…and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.” Not very welcoming.

What Krim seem to resist understanding is that good and even great journalism doesn’t guarantee community engagement. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (at least the younger Hearst) understood that their papers’ dramatically written and displayed stories of outrage had to be followed up by reform. They helped to make that happen – often by pulling governmental and other levers that no publisher or editor today would dare touch.

Today’s newspapers have to figure how to catalyze connecting the dots between words and action. That’s what real community engagement does. With the enormous potential of its online platform, the Washington Post could lead the way, and, in the process, re-invent its credibility and influence in a media world that is going through a full-blown revolution that will, surely, create jaw-dropping winners and losers. In the midst of these convulsions, the Post is assembling a new team of editorial leaders. Will they push washingtonpost.com toward a new paradigm – call it Web publishing 3.0 – that finally connects the dots between words and action?

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. Jonathan Krim says:

    Sigh. Tom, I’m not resisting understanding anything. I think, rather, that you are being selective in seeking to make your point.

    So please tell us: What would “connect the dots between words and action” more than the interactive store we did with our obesity series, with which people can learn to take control of their diets? You ignored that one.

    Likewise, we had precisely the school-by-school discussions you recommend in the charter schools portion of our Fixing DC Schools series.

    What would connect the dots more than a full FAQ, maps, survival alerts and answers to individual reader questions on inauguration logistics?

    Or the multitude of other examples on our site. (One last one: We have one of the largest sustained, interfaith conversations on the Web about religion.)

    You seem to want to define engagement and building community in one, narrow way, which is investigative journalism that ends with highly prescriptive and call-to-arms material that, by definition, goes beyond simply shining a light and effectively seeks to campaign.

    That’s actually an interesting journalistic debate to have. But how about we engage it with open minds? We might not even be too far apart at the end.

    We are hardly perfect, and have miles to go before we sleep. But building community and engagement happens in any number of ways and in multiple venues, and is hardly limited to that type of journalism.

    All best,

    Jonathan Krim
    Assitant Managing Editor/Local
    washingtonpost.com

  2. Tom Grubisich says:

    Jonathan, you cite very good things that washingtonpost.com does. “Shining a light” (the term, I believe, was coined by Walter Lippmann in his 1922 book “Public Opinion

  3. Sigh? What Tom’s pointing out so nicely is that the Washington Post is still stuck in NewspaperLand. It does GREAT journalism. But it’s old fashioned, and in Webworld, not very useful to its community.

    By its nature, the Web is participatory (collaborative), interactive (between jurno and community members, not just interacting with a graphic), and solution-oriented, or, as Tom put it, action-oriented.

    Solution-oriented doesn’t mean the jurno provides the answers. Solution-oriented means that the jurno provides links to all people and organizations who are attempting to solve the issue. It means providing a way for members of the community to interact virtually to discuss, address and solve the problem. It means following through until the issue is resolved. The days of parachuting in, doing good work, leaving, and not returning for a year or two or three are over.

    A news organization’s community knows that the Web is a continuous beast, and if its journalists don’t serve its needs, the community will turn willingly to someone who is.

    A good example to follow is the WestSeattleBlog. It’s run by a wife-and-husband team who serve their community better than any other news organization whose journalists parachute in and out of that community. (If they had to do it over again, they wouldn’t call themselves a blog. As Tracy Record says, they’re not bloggers; they’re journalists using a blogging format, which, by the way, IS the format every jurno should use.

    I’ve gone on ad nauseum about this on ReJurno.com, where you can find some guidelines on what the Web demands of journalists and journalism. Clearly, Tom gets it and Jonathan, whom I know is very smart, doesn’t yet or isn’t being allowed to.

  4. 69.139.144.49 says:

    Jane, thanks for your comment. We are at odds on one thing and one thing only: Your decision to ignore the myriad examples of our work that match precisely what you suggest we do.

    The store with our obesity series is not merely a pretty graphic, it’s an interactive tool with which people engage and participate to learn and take control of their diets.

    We didn’t just parachute in to our schools or our slumlords. If you’d looked at publication dates you’ll see that we have gone back repeatedly, and will continue to do so, building community conversation and involvement along the way.

    More: Our OnFaith and PostGlobal features offer provide some of the largest, sustained conversations on their topics on the Web. Our Giving Map allowed potential givers to find the best outles for their philanthropy. We have more blogs than any comparable news organization, some of which have writers/contributors from the community.

    Are we satisfied? Hardly. Do we intend to do more and better? Yes. Can we benefit from ideas from people such as you and Tom? Absolutely.

    But across the spectrum of engagement, building community and participation, we are doing a fair amount and have in fact been industry leaders. And large and growing numbers of readers are participating.

    So I wondered why you and Tom would insist otherwise? I surmised that Tom was perhaps urging a higher level of advocacy journalism than we are ready to embrace, though as I said it’s a great and important debate to have.

    I guess the other conclusion is that our work simply doesn’t fit the narrative of hopelessly out of touch, old media types who simply “don’t get it.” I submit that the facts get in the way.