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Sunday Late Nite: Year-End Ombudsing

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For her year-end column, Deborah Howell gave The Washington Post, its owner, editorial page, management, and journalists a jolly good thrashing because she finally wised up to her job description and realized how much she’d let down loyal long-time readers of the paper in 2007.

Ha, ha.
 Just kidding. 

She had me at the title of her year-end summary, though. Somehow I knew today’s column would surpass her usual weekly paean to the wisdom of management and the excellence of the odor of Donnie Graham’s boxers: Enduring Values in a Time of Change. See, there’s so much resonance in her title alone: the strong traditionalism of Enduring, the wide appeal within cocktail-weenie circles of Values, and the acknowledgement that, underfoot, the plates of journamalizm are shifting: a Time of Change. Lots of WaPo writers will claim they don’t write their own headlines, but this slug has the stink of Deb all over it.

And she jumps right in with her primary complaint about her work: it simply will not stand still.

In my two years as ombudsman, The Post and the newspaper business have been changing at whiplash speed.

How anyone whose preferred mode is statis can be attracted to the constant impermanence that is the news-gathering and -reporting business is beyond me. But Deb’s got more complaints about the swiftness of the changes, and how much her noggin hurts.

The Post, in journalistic and business terms, remains rock-solid, but it, too, has suffered declining circulation and revenue. Since October 2005, when my term began, Post circulation has decreased 45,000, to 648,517 daily; Sunday circulation has dropped by 64,671, to 904,413.

I wonder if early twentieth-century buggy-whip manufacturers labelled a 6.6% unit sales decrease over two years as "rock-solid." More importantly, does Wall Street really label Class B Common stock increase in value over two years by only 4.5% "rock-solid?" Because I’ve got a piddly credit union certificate of deposit that outperformed that by more than twice as much, and I don’t consider that performance "rock-solid:" after all, it’s federally insured and just down the street.  Never fear, though, the real measure of a newspaper’s value — advertising revenue — must have done well for Deb to apply that "rock-solid" label, right?

Advertising revenue has plummeted because of a sharp decline in real estate advertising and the move of classified and employment ads to the Internet.

Befuddled by the business side of journamalizm, Deb wisely moves on to take some deep sniffs of Donnie Graham’s underthings, and finds their sweet scent entirely satisfying:

The values of the newspaper’s owners make all the difference — that and owning Kaplan Inc., the education powerhouse. The Graham family has followed principles laid down by Eugene Meyer, Post Co. Chairman Don Graham’s grandfather. Among them: "The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners" and "In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good."

Fully engorged on the owner’s excellence, values, and enduring capability to sign her paycheck, Deb moves on to discuss the whiplash Internet advances the Washington Post has made:

Post newsroom changes have been swift. Reporters are adapting to the Internet. A recent washingtonpost.com video of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was taken by Dan Balz, a longtime national political writer. Not an expected video credit line.

Snicker.

Yup, Deb, the last time I saw a video credit to a fellow named Balz, you are correct: it was not on the Washington Post website. I expect to see video credits to Mr Balz, um, elsewhere.  You have come a long way, baby.  Parenthetically, Mrs Howell laments that she must find her super-strong reading glasses while perusing the funny papers:

(I am mourning the shrinkage of "Opus.")

Perhaps this is meant to build an alliance with the common people, those "readers" she’s always hearing about who so enjoy the comics. In discussing the reporting that likely most shook the Bush Administration this year, Mrs Howell throws a bone to the two reporters who worked for months exposing the Walter Reed saga, but in an understated, almost backhanded way that somehow lets us know they are not the Kewl Kidz at Mrs Howell’s cafeteria table:

Anne Hull and Dana Priest, the Post reporters who wrote the series, are experienced journalists.

Then there’s a paragraph about blogs, which surely must be written by Deb’s assistant, as we know she doesn’t have anything to do with that icky Washington Post Online Interactive Thingy. Luckily, though, she returns to her speciality (missing the point of what’s said to her directly) when Dana Milbank aims her way a workplace-related complaint any shop steward would recognize on its face:

Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank said, "Virtually everyone is producing more for the Web. I look at it as a matter of self-preservation. If I’m going to make it to retirement in this business, it has to be on the Web, TV and radio and writing books. You can’t just depend on the newspaper anymore." Milbank went from three to four Sketches weekly plus a video sketch. "They’re getting more blood," he said, "from the same stone."

This Mrs Howell provides without further comment. She wraps up her year-end wrap-up with a weepy digression about Salih Saif Aldin, the Iraqi reporter who lost his life working on a Washington Post story, calling it "the saddest event of the year." While I am very sure it was quite sad for his colleagues and his family, the saddest event of the year at the WaPo for me, Mrs Howell, has been your weekly output.

It continues to amaze and startle your readers, madame, that you use your column — just as you used your year-end real estate — not to criticize, pester, challenge or engage the Post’s employees to create better news product but to justify, explain, and cheerlead the wisdom and excellence you wrongly think the paper represents.  How about just a little afflicting of the comfortable?  Would that be too much for us to ask?

Read the comments attached to today’s column  to see the puzzlement, anger, and sadness your work represents to those you are supposed to, well, represent — the readers, or as you might describe them, Those Formerly Known As The Audience.  We are, simply, outraged at you and your failure.

By any measure, lady, your paper is in big trouble. If you think your tenure over the last two years has done anything but contribute to its decline, you are sadly mistaken. Just leave. Didn’t you tell me in an email long ago that you had a two-year contract? Please tell me that Donnie Graham, preppie legacy publisher that he is, has not renewed your employment papers.

When, Deborah Howell, will you be gone?

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