Monday, February 08, 2010

How Influential are Washington Post Editorials?

Your author usually gets the phone call after sunset. “The Washington Post is going to write an editorial against Issue X,” the politician whispers. “It’s going to be bad.” That’s because everyone knows Post editorials can make or break a candidate or an issue.


For many years, the Washington Post has been considered the area’s Paper of Record. Its local news reporting was more circulated and discussed than the more numerous articles of its Gazette subsidiary or any product put out by the Washington Times or the Sentinel. Its editorial writers were cloistered in their 15th Street offices where they would issue periodic decrees on matters great and small like Vatican high priests. They were widely read, respected and feared.

But that is changing, for three reasons.

1. Brain Drain
Consider the last three Post editorial writers on local issues. Until earlier this decade, Robert L. Asher was the lead local writer. Asher began working as a copy aide at the Post in 1959, covered local issues as a reporter for decades, became an adjunct professor of journalism at Howard University and won multiple awards for his work. Now mostly retired, Asher was widely praised for his vast knowledge of local issues and is still respected by many political veterans in the Washington suburbs. Lee Hockstader began taking over some of Asher’s writing duties in 2004. He started with the Washington Post in 1984 as a local reporter, but shifted his reporting to international and national issues five years later. Hockstader has reported from Jerusalem, Rome, Moscow, the Caribbean and Texas. He returned to D.C. five years ago but left for a year-long sabbatical from which he recently returned. Hockstader is thought to be an able writer, but he has more experience outside of the D.C. area than in it. His local experience does not touch Bob Asher’s. Finally, the Post relied on intemperate and inexperienced intern Steven Stein – the infamous and now-departed “Boy King” – while Hockstader was gone. That decision earned the Post an avalanche of ridicule. While Hockstader is now back, the Post could very well find another Boy King in the future for reasons of low cost. All of the above demonstrates a rapid slide in editorial knowledge of local issues over the last five years, a drift that cannot be hidden from the readers. There are no Bob Ashers in waiting.

2. Declining Circulation
The Post’s peak average weekday paid circulation was 823,752 in 1993. The Washington Business Journal reports that the Post’s paid weekday circulation in the six months ended September 30, 2009 averaged 582,844, a drop from peak of 29%.

The Post calculates that 90% of its circulation is in the Washington Designated Market Area (DMA), which includes 32 counties and 7 independent cities in four states surrounding the District of Columbia. Twenty percent of its DMA circulation is in Montgomery County. That means the Post is selling just over 100,000 copies per day in the county, a number that has almost certainly plummeted over the last fifteen years.

But that does not mean that 100,000 people read its editorials in print. Most print readers do not read the entire newspaper. Time constraints push the vast majority of them to prioritize. Our hunch is that most Post readers probably read international and national news first, followed by sports, local news, prominent columnists and - of course - the crossword puzzles. The editorials may be among the least popular parts of the paper. How many Montgomery County readers are faithful followers of local editorials? The number may only be a few thousand, with more than that around local election time. Over 500,000 people voted in the 2006 primary.

Just as importantly, the print editorials do not have permanence unless the readers clip and save them. Compare the number of people who regularly do that to the number of people who Google politicians’ names for information on them. The former is the core audience for the Post’s editorials, whereas the latter are more likely to find blog posts. Which group will be larger next year?

3. Online Presence
The Post’s still-sizable print circulation creates some audience for its local editorials. But the action is increasingly shifting to online readership and the Post’s reach there is much smaller.

First, the local editorials are hard to find on the Post’s website. They are never promoted on the home page. They are buried below the Post’s columnists near the bottom of the opinions page. They are not divided by county or issue. The writers are rarely identified. A reader has to go out of his or her way to find them every day. That violates a basic principle of web page design: if you make it hard for readers to find something, most of them will not read it.

The Post does not release any web readership statistics, but we can infer them through Google Reader subscriptions. The Post’s entire editorial page, including its national and international editorials and its columnists – George Will, Kathleen Parker, Colbert King, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder and more – has just 200 Google Reader subscribers. How many of them read its Maryland editorials? Perhaps a couple dozen. MPW has 305 Google Reader subscribers, all of whom are interested in Maryland politics. DCist, the King of all D.C.-area blogs, has 5,198 Google Reader subscribers and 25-30,000 additional weekday site visits on average. In the world of cyberspace, the Post’s Maryland editorial page is a pygmy.

Those who believe the Post’s editorials are still all-powerful are missing a final point: readers increasingly do not settle for mere opinions. They want information. Over and over again, when your author meets an MPW reader for the first time, that reader will say something like, “I disagree with a lot of your opinions. As a matter of fact, you really blew it on Issue X last week. But I like the information you put up and I’m happy that someone takes the time to do that.” The modern informed voter gathers information from many, many sources – including blogs, talk radio, Facebook and YouTube – and uses them to form his or her own opinions. No one media source can drive voters’ views anymore. That can only happen if multiple outlets agree, feed off each other and repeat their common points until a rough consensus develops.

And so the politicians who obsess about the Post should rest easy. The voters have a proper perspective for both the Post’s editorials and the rantings of bloggers, even if the politicians do not.