How the Web can help the WaPo (and other papers) write a new chapter about the world of books

Book lovers mourned, some angrily, the Washington Post’s decision to kill off its free-standing Book World, which, until Feb. 22, was part of the paper’s Sunday print package. But the good news was the Post’s promise that the estimable literary section would stay alive online. “We intend to develop a strong, easy-to-navigate, well indexed Book World site,” new Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli (who wielded the ax) wrote in a response to the 122 Book World contributors who protested the decision.

But just how “strong” will Book World be online?

When the Los Angeles Times eliminated its free-standing print Sunday Book Review in 2008 as part of its nonstop cost-cutting, the section was reincarnated online as Books in the Living section of the Times website. In addition to reviews, book-sale reports and a literary calendar, Books features a blog called Jacket Copy. But the blog, with its multiple authors, lacks personality. Overall, the online Books isn’t capitalizing on the strengths of the Web – particularly community building – and it doesn’t seem to have preserved the critical authority that was a hallmark of the print Book Review. Browsing through the skimpy site, you get the feeling it’s produced on a shoestring. There is no Steve Wasserman or Digby Diehl – past editors of the Book Review – setting and executing high standards.

The Washington Post is not going through the same financial duress as the LA Times, which is a helpless appendage of the fast-sinking and bankrupt Tribune Co. But the migration from print to online life, whatever the circumstances, is always tricky.

The print Book World was distinguished by both its gravitas and sprightliness. Holding it in your hands was like eavesdropping at a literary salon through which passed the likes of Morris Dickstein, Dahlia Lithwick, Laura Miller and George Packer, not to mention section regulars like critic Jonathan Yardley and essayist Michael Dirda, both Pulitzer prize winners. The only thing missing was the well-stocked bar.

Happily, Yardley and Dirda will continue to appear in the online Book World. Strangely, though, the lustrous brand name “Book World” seems to have been dropped. The departmental logo is now just “Books.”

It’s too soon to make sweeping judgments about the online Book World (or Books), especially whether it will meet the same fate as the online version of the LA Times’ Book Review. But it is dismaying to see how dull the newly unveiled site is, even in its pupae form. Yardley and Dirda are there, thank goodness, but they’re barely promoted in 8-point type.

The blog Short Stack, created back in 2007, is now daily, but, like the similar LA Times blog, has multiple authors, which impedes it from developing a personality to which readers can relate and react. The blog also seems to be limited to one entry per day. That’s way too leisurely to grab users’ attention and get them to join in what is now basically a one-way conversation. Why not at least add a paragraph or two at the end that wraps up always plentiful literary and publishing news and gossip?

The Post – and the LA Times – could learn some lessons about creating an online book section from the Guardian in the UK. Its site is big and splashy, but has enough gravitas to do a “Top 10” on books about Rome that includes Robert Graves’ “I Claudius.” The entire section draws loads of comments from users. (You have to wonder if some other newspapers that have eliminated or cut back on book coverage couldn’t learn from the Guardian too.)

For all their literary excellence, the print Book World and the Times’ Book Review weren’t suited for reader participation (beyond rationed letters to the editor). The medium was truly the message – a one-way message.

Kassia Krozser, founder and editor of the lively blog (“dissecting the book industry with love and skepticism”), said in a discussion on PBS’ News Hour last July: “What we’re getting online is, people are excited about books. They want to talk about books. And that’s really incredible….”

And how., one of the earliest reader sites, claims 500,000 users. It recently sold a 40 percent stake to AbeBooks,com, which specializes in selling used, rare and out-of-print books

Fast-growing last year completed funding whose investors included Amazon, the champion online bookseller.

Book World shouldn’t mimic sites like Librarything or Shelfari. But it now has a potential audience of 10 million unique visitors – more than 10 times the potential readership it had in the Post’s Sunday print edition.

What an exciting new chapter this could be in Book World’s life – if only the publishing and editorial bosses at the Post inspire it to be written.

The challenge 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, 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 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 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 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 – contain this stipulation: “… 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 toward a new paradigm – call it Web publishing 3.0 – that finally connects the dots between words and action?

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 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 –

I am a regular user of, 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 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. 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 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 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 users find help on community building more valuable than how to speed their shopping transactions?

Not incidentally, a fully engaged 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.” 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.