former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Five Things Jeff Bezos Can Do to Upgrade The Post and Win Over Its Readers

In Blog on August 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Since you’ve paid cash ($250 million) to buy The Washington Post, I’m assuming that you can afford to spend a bit more to enhance your property. Think of these suggestions as adding a new wing to your DC pied-à-terre. I believe they will actually make The Post more attractive to its readers, and since you say you are all about pleasing the customer, they might appeal to you.

Restore The Post’s ombudsman. Last  April, The Post discontinued its ombudsman position. That was a short-sighted move.  You can reverse this decision.  The Post needs an independent and wise journalist to look over its shoulder and assess its performance. An ombudsman is the paper’s conscience and its customer service rep, the person who can respond to reader concerns and complaints in a thoughtful, meaningful way. And if you do take this suggestion, hire someone feisty and brave, like The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan.

Hire more copy editors. As a reporter, I always resented editors for getting in my way. They do, and they should.  The good ones ask the right questions, guard the grammar, spot errors, and help shape stories. After waves of buyouts, you can see The Post has suffered from an editor shortage. Stories often are pointlessly long, lack focus, and leave readers frustrated for lack of basic information. Don’t take my word for it.  Read the corrections page each day, and the “reader’s comments page” on Saturday.

Beef up the Health-Science section. The Post Health section used to be plump with solid health journalism. Now it is thinner and a mishmash of health and science news, often snatched from wire services. Surely, an aging population of wealthy readers is pretty obsessed with health news.  Give them better, more comprehensive coverage from health journalists.  If you don’t want to staff up, give more in-depth assignments to free-lancers. Medical Mysteries is one feature that is a winner for the section, but it needs more heft.

Bring back Book World. For a book seller this should be a no-brainer. Washington is one of the most literate cities in the nation. It deserves a separate books section. Even if Book World were digital only, it would greatly enrich the paper, and certainly enhance synergy with your other business investments.

Cover federal agencies as beats. The Post hasn’t done a good job of covering federal agencies for a long time. You can prove Maureen Dowd wrong.  As I wrote in The Nation, Dowd reportedly vowed when she was assigned to the New York Times Washington bureau that she would not be covering “those dreary regulatory agencies.”  But these agencies deserve our attention. The Food and Drug Administration, the IRS, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, have a huge impact on our lives, our health and our environment. DC is at the hub of agency performance and Congressional surveillance of those agencies.  If The Post doesn’t do this job, we can’t leave it to the trade papers.  The broader public needs to understand how their government works.  Consider it an act of good corporate citizenship.

Writer’s note: A small disclaimer, I wrote one free-lance story for The Post’s health section, and I work for an NGO that focuses on science issues and improving federal agencies.

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