The Washington Post bets its brand on Circus Maximus II’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, 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.

New AOL's credibility threatened by editorial/advertising marriages

It’s easy to poke fun at AOL’s goofy corporate image campaign as the new Time Warner spinoff tries to look like a winner. My favorite among the “reveals” that are being rotated behind the new capital-lower-case “Aol.” (please don’t try to pronounce that phonetically) is this one:

Aol logo

If you wanted to visualize the impact of the AOL-Time Warner merger, wouldn’t the result be something like this?

But much more important than image gimmickry is the value and integrity of AOL’s content, which is spread among 80-some sites. Can the reborn company create a mosaic whole that is greater than the sum of all those parts?

Some of the 80 sites are quite respectable, editorially. Like AOL Money & Finance, or the blog Engadget, or the new Politics Daily. They’re clearly run by pros. A few, like Mapquest, are struggling to stay competitive. Then there’s Netscape, once the No. 1 browser (before Microsoft’s Internet Explorer), which still has a ghostly presence in the AOL lineup.

But what I really wonder about are those blogs with the weird names and even weirder rationales for existence – like Lemondrop, Luxist and Holidash?

These three blogs, from my examination, are cheesy attempts at unholy marriages between editorial and advertising that could nullify the good things that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is doing to recreate AOL as a premium content provider. Armstrong has hired some strong editorial talent, including Saul Hansell, the New York Times telecommunications reporter who started the well-regarded Times technology blog Bits.

I’m not talking about the well-publicized efforts by the new AOL to maximize search engine optimization by encouraging bloggers to load their posts with keywords that Google and other search engines will sniff out. The theory is that AOL will attract more users and advertisers if its stories wind up with more prominent search placement. Boneheaded in isolation, but not necessarily a fatal compromise of editorial independence.

What’s unambiguously troubling is how AOL, well before its Nov. 10 spinoff, has been using some of its blogs to shamelessly hawk advertisers who buy sponsorships on the sites.

One of the most egregious example I saw involves Holidash, which landed Walmart as a sponsor for its “giveaways.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with advertisers sponsoring content. But the bright line is definitely crossed when a site starts boosting a sponsor. That’s exactly what Holidash did when it ran this post rating America’s biggest retailer far ahead of Whole Foods in cost savings for holiday food shopping.

The Luxist blog ran a rave review of the 2011 Cadillac CTS coupe (“Cadillac has proven itself capable of taking on Europe’s finest”). Cadillac is one of Luxist’s sponsors.

The unholy marriages go back at least a year – to when Lemondrop went to bed with Schick Wilkinson-Sword: “the one-month ‘Stocking Stuffers’ campaign, editors will create original content that integrates Schick’s brand with posts such as ‘Best & Worst Guy Gifts,’ ‘Dating Survival Tips During the Holidays’ and ‘Genius Gifts from the Drugstore,'” AOL bragged in a press release.

As editorial director of AOL’s new content management platform,, Hansell will be in charge of Lemondrop, Luxist, Holidash as well as other AOL content. Very quickly he has to break up the unholy marriages of editorial/advertising typified by what’s going on at Luxist, Holidash, Lemondrop and who knows what other sites. Otherwise, AOL will not only be spinning off the worst merger in corporate history, but also spinning into a whole new batch of trouble.

Wanted: Less rhetoric, more critical thinking about 'The Reconstruction of American Journalism'

The new report “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson is one more example of what what’s wrong with the debate about the future of journalism. The Columbia Journalism School-sponsored report shovels out overviews, conclusions and recommendations by the pound, but with barely a few grams’ worth of critical thinking. Jan Schaffer, in her reaction to Downie and Schudson, said it best: “Darts for the mile-high, inch-deep reportage.” Schaffer, who is executive director of American University’s J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism and Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter and business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, zeroes in on the report’s fatal weakness:

“If we really want to reconstruct American journalism, we need to look at more than the supply side; we need to explore the demand side, too. We need to start paying attention to the trail of clues in the new media ecosystem and follow those ‘breadcrumbs.’ What ailing industry would look for a fix that only thinks of ‘us,’ the news suppliers, and not ‘them,’ the news consumers? I don’t hear from any of those consumers in this report.”

Alan D. Mutter, whose Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, provides a good share of the small amount of rigorous, economic-centered thinking that’s gone into the journalism crisis, also gave a mostly scathing review to “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.”

Downie and Schudson come to their drastic recommendation of a “National Fund for Local News” using the kind of sleeves-rolled-up but shallow analysis that typically informs newspaper editorials on big issues (e.g., health care reform and the U.S. role in Afghanistan) A typical sentence from the report: “With appropriate safeguards, a Fund for Local News would play a significant role in the reconstruction of American journalism.” What are “appropriate” safeguards? What are the con’s as well as the pro’s of letting the federal government, through funding decisions that are made by appointed “national boards” and “state councils,” “play a significant role in the reconstruction of American journalism”?

Downie and Schudson focus, appropriately, on the threat of continued editorial staff downsizing to journalism’s “‘accountability reporting that often comes out of beat coverage and targets those who have power and influence in our lives—not only governmental bodies, but businesses and educational and cultural institutions.'” But creating a spider-web-like network of grant-dispensing boards sets the stage for all kinds of abuses that, ironically, would provide fodder for accountability reporting.

Missing from the Downie-Schudson report are the basic elements of critical thinking:

  • Digging for causes instead of reacting to symptoms.
  • Measuring as well as marshaling evidence.
  • Recognizing all the stakeholders.
  • Asking “why” questions.
  • Testing conclusions and recommendations.

Perhaps it’s unfair to hammer the Downie-Schudson report too hard. It’s symptomatic of what passes for analysis of the crisis in American journalism. We get too much rhetoric. The rhetoric is often well phrased – after all, it’s usually written by journalists – but we don’t need more rhetoric, however polished it may be. What we need is more case-method and other critical examination. Journalist/teacher/consultant Jane Stevens pointed the way with her studies of three community, and Stevens and her co-author Mark Poepsel, a University of Missouri School of Journalism PhD candidate, take a close look at what the sites are doing on the journalistic, community and revenue fronts. The studies, if they are expanded to other websites, may lead to a flexible business model that can be tailored to work in a variety of communities – without federal money being doled out by national and state boards packed with patronage appointees.

(Stevens, by the way, gives Newsweek a well-deserved whack for its recent superficial take on the future of community journalism, which came to optimistic conclusions, but for the wrong reasons.)

Maybe the Downie-Schudson report will provoke enough tough reactions – on top of Schaffer’s and Mutter’s – that, cumulatively, will prod journalism’s practitioners and thinkers finally to start thinking critically about a crisis that won’t be solved with rhetoric, no matter how elegantly and urgently it’s framed.