Washington Post needs to do some structural work on its shaky new strategy

[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.

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]


  1. says:

    I agree with most of your piece on The Washington Post, but I think you’re wrong about Jim Brady and anonymity. Under Jim, the site instituted enhanced registration requirements, a comments-monitoring operation and a simple social networking platform (Pluck) that exposes commenters’ usernames. Yes, people can create fake
    profiles on washingtonpost.com (just as determined users can on Facebook), but to say Brady is somehow a diehard defender of anonymity at the expense of holding readers accountable for saying stupid or offensive things is a gross mischaracterization.


    Russ Walker

  2. Tom Grubisich says:

    The practical result of the “enhanced registration requirements” at washingtonpost.com that Russ correctly credits to Jim Brady was — nothing. Go to any post.com discussion area, and 99.9% of the commenters wear paper bags over their heads. Who would want to find or build an online home in this kind of community?

  3. Tom,

    Three points in response to your response:

    1) A determined reader can create a fake profile at just about any site on the Web. There’s no way to get to 100% accuracy on that, at least not now.

    2) The Pluck system that washingtonpost.com uses DOES at least tie comments to a specific registered user in the system. So an abusive commenter can be banned.

    3) I hope you are not arguing against anonymity in every case. Much great journalism is based on anonymous sourcing. Also, some readers may have valuable information or commentary to offer but can’t do so under their real name for various reasons. I think the wp.com system, imperfect as it is, does empower readers to sound off AND gives the Web site a way to ban abusive commenters. Readers are encouraged to flag abusive comments, and there is a small staff that works to respond to those complaints.

    A question to you: Do you want a comment policy that closely mimics the “letters to the editor” page in newspapers?

  4. Tom Grubisich says:

    In an OJR article last year on managing anonymous commenting, I dealt with the questions raised in Russ’s new comment, including the very important one of how to protect whistle blowers — http://www.www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/070806grubisich

  5. Jonathan Krim says:

    Tom, thanks for the provocative commentary. We are striving continuously for deeper and broader engagement and to build community, in many areas and on many levels. Some items perhaps you missed in your site visits:

    Our searchable directory
    of more than 400 area bloggers who signed up to be included, complete with tag cloud, latest posts, etc.

    Our spring and summer blog by a group of readerswho kicked the tires on the new baseball stadium in DC.

    A series on childhood obesity, a particular problem in inner cities, complete with a virtual, interactive store to help readers learn how to shop for healthier food.

    Our mashup of charitable-giving opportunities so that those with more could help those with less this holiday season.

    Our multi-part series on the woeful state of DC’s schools, with interactive, school-by-school database documenting the horrors, and a follow-up look at charter schools, with discussion boards on each school.

    A series on DC slumlords who forced tenants out on the streets so they could turn their buildings condo. It also taught residents how to report abuse. DC housing inspectors were fired and landlords fined as a result of the investigation.

    Just a sampling. All best,

    Jonathan Krim
    Assistant Managing Editor/Local

  6. Tom-

    What you’re talking about with an Internet community gathering place housed by news sites sounds a lot like what Ning can offer. But I’m curious how that would even begin to work with a journalism-based outlet, where although social media and engagement are encouraged, site interactivity and functionality are also strictly controlled.
    There are many media-based nonprofits that utilize Ning right now, but they also have a hard time keeping engagement up despite having almost all the same tools as Facebook. This might not be a problem for an outlet that has a big readership, but I’m curious as to how a news org like WaPo–assuming its goal is ultimately civic engagement–would be able to steer participation toward thoughtful comments and critical thinking rather than blather. Any ideas?

  7. I agree with everything you said. I really hope that Washington Post will care to read your post.