Howell’s “OmBlog”

Post ombudsman Deb Howell’s internal column for Posties when you click below…She weighs in on Ford coverage, story length and more…

The Post has been at its best in covering Gerald Ford’s death _ great analysis and history. From the wonderful obituary to coverage throughout the paper _ the economic legacy, his love of sports, Haygood’s deadline appreciation, even his old house being on the market. Bob Woodward’s pieces were terrific! While I got some stiff criticism on Woodward’s stories running before his burial (see below), I think getting them in the paper immediately was the right thing to do. Congratulations to all.

I’d like to start a conversation next year on length of stories. I’m hearing a fair amount of flak from reporters irritated by new story-length guidelines. Readers seldom comment on story length, but they do cancel their subscriptions because they “have no time to read.” I’ve had a couple of reader complaints lately about missing elements in stories and reporters both blamed story length. If the critiques come back or at least freeform posting, then let’s look at stories and be willing to comment if they’re too long. My bent is that stories always need context but not always tons of background. And that Post stories have a tendency to run on.
For my part, if I think a story is too long, I will drop a clip in the interoffice mail just to the reporter and will mark those parts of the story where my interest flagged. In a newshole crunch, it all counts. Space saved in one story can be used in another that needs to be longer.

The selling of the Minneapolis Star Tribune was a stunner and really shows how unstable this business is and what owners will do if they feel pushed. The new Strib owners paid less than half what McClatchy paid 10 years ago for that paper. But they obviously needed the money to pay off the Knight-Ridder buy and didn’t like the margins they were getting.
My old friends at the paper are in a state of shock. My stepson, the Strib’s metro columnist Nick Coleman, took off McClatchy’s hide in a column today, which is posted on Romenesko. That’s how people I’ve heard from in both management and the ranks feel. And my old paper in St. Paul just lost 21 of their best and most experienced people in a buyout.
When you’ve got a yen to kvetch about this place, remember that you’re working for a stable and enlightened ownership and that you don’t have to worry that the paper is going to be sold out from under you. What a blessing!

A campaign started yesterday complaining that it was unseemly for Woodward’s interviews with Ford to be used before his burial. I got about 30 calls and e-mails about that. Frankly, it never struck me as unseemly since Ford had said it was okay to use after his death. But the mail was pretty vitriolic, probably driven by a Web site.
Glenda Waggoner of Texas City, Texas., writes: “Gerald Ford is not buried yet, but Woodward rushed to print an article badmouthing people he evidently has made a living off of loathing. He’s like a lifer-putting the shiv in and taking out internal organs. What lack of character and soul this needy man exhibits! A story or his opinions of a story before decency. Now, because of his need to prematurely edificate, he has put the former President’s family in a very awkward position and has intruded upon their grief and the nation’s. Bob, it’s not the interview that matters, now, it’s your total lack of appropriate timing.”

However, I did get a couple of nice letters about the story, including this from Anoop Desai of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.: “My heartiest congratulations for providing the scoop of the month. I am referring to President Ford’s interview in which he criticizes Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney for starting the war without proper information on WMD. He has a knack to pull out honest and true feelings of even the hardened politicians. For last 30 plus years, Woodward has provided important scoops. He has also been honest and follows all the guidelines required to disclose such information. Keep up the good work, Bob. We need people like you to keep our government honest!”
John Dowd, a District lawyer, wrote: “We got a big hoot out of your coverage of President Ford-in all sections-yesterday. You would think the man could walk across the Potomac or perhaps replace Lincoln. We do not recall such glowing reports when the poor man was alive. According to The Post he was a stumbling, bumbling, stupid politician who could be rolled by the best in town. When did The Post come to this epiphany?” However, Dowd, who has criticized Iraq coverage several times wrote back that he thinks coverage has gotten much better.
The next biggest slug of e-mail was over my year-end column. A lot of folks just don’t like me and that’s that. But I also got a few compliments as well. A sample:
Con from Michael Swaine of I know not where: “How can you be so out of touch that you could think that you could write your own review and not evoke boos and catcalls? How could you have considered it to be consistent with the job of being an ombudsman? Do you have such a tin ear that you can write that most complaints have been resolved satisfactorily or ‘I have disagreed with the reader’ and not realize how that sounds?
“The Abramoff mistake was a whole lot worse than you seem to think. A reporter who so grossly misrepresented the facts would deserve to be called on the carpet. Given that you claim to hold an ombudsman to a higher standard of accuracy, you should have resigned. And if not over that error, then over one of your many others. I admire the Washington Post and its many excellent reporters. I think it was an excellent decision to create the job of ombudsman. I think your tenure in that job has been a failure.”
Pro from Edward Friedman of Marblehead, Mass.: “I must admit that at times I’ve felt like throwing something through the computer screen at you, but in my opinion (for what it’s worth) you do your job far better than your counterparts at the New York Times or the Boston Globe (neither of whom I waste my time writing to any more). You are far more responsive, and you don’t spend nearly as much ink trying to justify the unjustifiable. Keep up the good work next year.”

I get a fair amount of flack about not enough news being on Page 1 and about meandering leads. Here’s a recent one:
Donald Coney of Haymarket, Va. writes: ” This message is being sent to comment on annoying trends I’ve noticed in The Post. First, the fact that The Post states that it is a newspaper, however there is usually very little up front current news, especially on Sunday. As an example the paper for Dec. 17 had six front-page articles, one listed as analysis, one, the lead article, on the edge of being current (that is 24 hours or less old), and the other four are features. The first true ‘news’ article doesn’t appear until Page 4, regarding Senator Bayh’s decision. The next news article (the first with a dateline) appears on page 6. The balance of the “A” section contains primarily feature articles. Where did all the current news go, why isn’t it reported?
“Another frustrating trend is the way articles are written. They are usually repetitive, and certain key information doesn’t appear until many paragraphs into the article. There is usually a significant volume of words (often times redundant) before getting to facts (who, what, why, where, when and how taught in journalism classes) of an article. Recent examples are election stories where the percent for candidates are a long way from the headlines.
“A third annoyance is the blurring of the line between news reporting and ‘analysis.’ Analysis-labeled articles are frequently written by the same news reporters who also include big chunks of ‘analysis’ in what are ostensibly news articles. My overall question: Is the Post a Newspaper or a daily Features Document?”

Ralph Nader calls now and again, usually with something interesting. He thinks that Post Iraq casualty box should include non-combat casualties, because all occur in a war theater.
He also thinks The Post doesn’t mention often enough in nuke stories on Iran and North Korea that Iran is a signatory to the U.N. Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and that Korea signed it but pulled out in 2003. He thinks that context is needed.

I get frequent complaints from readers who think The Post underplays Iraq casualties. This one is typical. L.M. Sampson of Garrett Park, Md., write: “We now have lost more US soldiers in violence in Iraq than we lost US citizens on September 11. Although The Post publishes ‘Faces of the Fallen’ from time to time, The Post also day after day buries the Iraq War Casualty Report anywhere from page A10 to A23, in different spots on the page _ an affront to the deceased’s families and friends who read your paper, and who deserve better recognition of their sacrifice. Sometimes it is hard to find this report at all.
“Since we’re being reminded so often for political reasons that ‘We are at war’ (so vote for me!) and ‘I am a war president,’ then please move the The Post’s war tally to a much more prominent page. If not a corner of page 1, then page 2 or 3 of the A section.”

For Peter Carlson on his New Yorker cartoon story. Ben Beach of Bethesda writes: “Fascinating & well written.”
For Annie Groer and Jura Koncius, Bethany Hardy of Arlington, Va., writes: “I’d like to commend the Washington Post for including a story about how nondrinkers celebrate the holidays. My husband is approaching 11 months of sobriety and I know the holidays are tough for him, as a busy lobbyist in a city saturated with alcoholic events. Articles like yours help us remember that it’s not abnormal to be sober. I liked that the story mentioned how acceptance of alcoholics has increased over the years, because I think that’s true. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of societal acceptance and understanding of what alcoholism really is ( i.e., it can affect anyone, regardless of age or socioeconomic status). It’s especially tough for recovering alcoholics who are younger, because there’s that widespread assumption that drinking is the best way to socialize and get ahead. Articles like this really go a long way toward helping increase awareness and acceptance.”
For Patricia Sullivan, William T. Berry wrote: “My son, Rocco Anthony Berry (Rocky) died on Nov. 9, 2006. The Post ran the death notice on Nov. 13 and an obituary on Dec. 8 based somewhat on information that I submitted to your newspaper.
“Patricia Sullivan contacted me concerning the obituary. She thought there would be much interest in my son’s life, and suggested an obituary be considered for the Sunday edition, to include a photo or two. After that, she ran with the ball. She contacted various people and obtained their comments, and very succinctly wrote an article on “A Local Life,.” which appeared in your Sunday paper of December 10, 2006. It was extremely well done, and very much appreciated by our family. We have received many, many favorable comments regarding the article, with so many people stating that they did not even know the Post did that sort of thing. Obviously, a tribute to the Post and to Patricia Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan was most helpful, very efficient, thorough, and extremely professional. She is a credit to her profession and to the Post.”
For Donna St. George, local reader B. D. Moran wrote: “Today’s best article — in my opinion — was the excellent front-page feature about the young Hispanic woman from Woodbridge who fought in Iraq with the Virginia National Guard and survived to return home and begin a new life. Congratulations to reporter Donna St. George for an outstanding human interest story with far-reaching implications.
“This story was well-written, succinct, yet full of meaningful anecdotes about Monica Beltran’s previous home life, her brave and challenging transition to adulthood in the military, and prospects for what the reader hopes will be her well-earned and happy future. A very uplifting and validating look at the human spirit, and especially at the soul of our young veterans.
“This story illustrates poignantly the flipside of the antimilitary ‘soldier as social victim’ approach that many celebrated liberals … never see beyond. Whether driven by socio-economic considerations or purely patriotic emotions, millions of veterans of humble backgrounds have served our nation in uniform and contributed much to our society, and many in the new generation will benefit materially, intellectually, and spiritually from their experiences. Job Well Done!”
From Katina Slavkova, originally of Bulgaria, now of Silver Spring: “First, let me say that the excellent Washington Post has been my main source of news coverage and analysis for the last six years (the time since I immigrated to this country). The quality of journalism displayed every day on the pages of the Post is outstanding. I will most certainly continue to be a loyal reader of your paper. However, I would like to express my disappointment with the almost absent coverage of the Libyan trial against the six medical workers. (Omb note: She had missed some significant Post coverage.) On the other hand, the day after the death of Turkmenistan’s dictator, the Post ran 3 extensive articles in the same issue. Mrs. Saparmurat Niazov’s death was even featured in the obituary section.”
For The Post and from Steve Martin, “a blue collar guy and former pressman for both Seattle papers: “I worked for the two newspapers in Seattle for 40 years so my knowledge of them is above average. My greatest disappointment to date is declining readership of newspapers in general. I wish I had a magic bullet to share the way to success. I don’t.
“The Washington Post has the best Web site by far of any of the major papers. I regularly go to Boston, New York, and Miami web sites. New York would be better if they didn’t have the pay only section. Tell whoever needs to know, one reader thinks you guys do a GREAT job.”


Margie Jones of Springfield, Va., writes: “I was outraged to read the headline story in today’s (December 24) Metro section about the mother and child who were rescued from a lake. No where is blame given to the mother for talking on a cell phone and losing control of her car on a rainy day with wet pavement. The husband states he ‘was chatting with his wife on her cell phone ….. .the phone went dead.’ There are so many accidents today because of people talking on cell phones while driving, that I believe somewhere in the article blame should have been assed to this mother who put her life and that of her child’s in danger because of talking. Instead, the Post made it into a ‘feel good’ story.” Speaking of this, I had a fender-bender the other day. My fault. Dialing my cell phone. Dumb.

I agreed with this reader that The Post’s latest Sandy Berger story was a better than A31. Mark Johnson of Bethesda wrote: ” By the way, how ’bout thatSandy Berger! Interesting story!!!!! This one has man bites dog all over it. Too bad he’s a Democrat and not a Republican, we have to delve into the newspaper (if we are reading the Washington Post) to see this interesting story. Since Berger was a high-level Clinton administration official and is not a Republican, this obviously is not front page news!”

“I don’t write often, but today two things struck me about the front page that I regard as nuts. Further, I have been meaning all week to compliment something I think is extraordinary.
“1. Nuts. A federal pay raise in Washington gets only a small promo on A1. It should at least have off-led the paper, even if it was prominently displayed on the website yesterday, as it was. And the story about population trends in the metro region has this lede: ‘Maryland and the District are losing residents to other jurisdictions but making up for the loss by gaining immigrants, according to new census estimates released today. Virginia has followed a similar pattern, attracting vastly more newcomers from overseas than from within the United States and growing only marginally since 2000. This suggests that immigrants are not residents, but some lower class of life form.
2.Extraordinary and wonderful: Mary Otto’s compelling serial about the parental/drug counseling program in Maryland. It’s absolutely a must read, and reporting is fabulous. My only complaint is that it’s at the bottom of the page. There’s been nothing better all week.”
The omb hopes we follow that couple. I’m still worried about that little girl.

A Maryland reader who didn’t want to be named wrote: “I don’t want to be a Scrooge this close to Christmas, but for the sake of many, many people now who I have talked to and who agree and who HATE to read these things on the Style on the Go page, please read the piece about New Year’s celebrations on that page today, Thursday, Dec. 21st, and note how many times the writer, again, refers to ‘we’ or ‘us’ or ‘our’ or something. Who? Who is she talking about? Why? WE don’t care about the mysterious WE she keeps referring to. And the more that people don’t care, the fewer people are going to be reading this page.
“It is bad form. It is bad writing, point blank. Using this ‘we’ to try and make things cool or hip is juvenile. It sounds like a bad high school paper. Journalism students are taught NOT to interject themselves or mysterious legions of ‘we’ people into their copy, and that’s the rule that should be followed on this page. All they have to do is top referring to ‘we’ this and ‘we’ that! Just report what the heck the event is. No one cares what the heck “we” thinks about it.
“Besides the mysterious ‘we’ people thing, much of the information on this page is reported, better, in the always-fine Weekend section. The page is duplicative.”