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Sale of The Post could be a good thing

August 11, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

In some ways, I feel as if a part of me has died; in other ways, I feel as if the Washington Nationals have just traded for Miguel Cabrera. Journalism just might be saved after all.

In a ritual that today’s teens would find eminently dopey, one of my greatest joys as a 17-year-old was to drive 7 miles into town for a copy of the Sunday Washington Post.

I read the comics, sure, but not as much as you would think. The real treasure at that time was the Sports section, which included throughout the years such great writers as Tony Kornheiser, Richard Justice, Sally Jenkins, John Feinstein, Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan and Thomas Boswell. Not to mention the late Shirley Povich.

What a stable. But of that group, only Boswell is still around — on occasion.

The Style section was usually next, where I’d marvel at writers whose words glistened on the printed page. I read the Opinion section, too, especially David Broder, Meg Greenfield and George Will, who, being a traditionalist, remains. Boy, were they good. (Then-columnist emeritus William Raspberry’s Nov. 11, 2008, piece on the election of President Obama and its implications on race has proved startlingly prophetic.)

As a kid, I read the front page as well, because I found the news stories to be just as compelling as those in any other part of the paper. With proper writing, even the thickest, dullest topic can be spun into poetry, and I will forever blame the Post reporters of old for my addiction to current events.

I still read the Washington Post today, online, in a loveless, 40-years-of-marriage kind of way. The juicy, investigative reporting I knew as a kid is a rarity. The columnists are fine, but by comparison have the feel of a suit off the rack after one has grown used to Saint Laurent.

The political coverage has gone the way of Broder — Post writers (perhaps in fear of being tarred with that dreaded “liberal bias” brush) last fall were finding all sorts of scenarios in which Mitt Romney could win, even as digital-eyed data miners such as Nate Silver were offering conclusive proof by the end that the Republican’s chances were no better than 1 in 10.

And maybe that’s the problem: This awkward transition between old and new, where we want to believe in the past, despite a growing unease that the past is no longer valid. Yes, I show my age when I confess that I prefer the old way of picking elections with gut hunches and the reading of tea leaves. I don’t like knowing the result ahead of time. For me, it takes the fun out of it.

I like bookstores, where a thousand possibilities leap off the shelves at once, and you can see other people who are just as absorbed as you, and understand that you as a reader are not alone.

But old-fashioned shoe leather has been replaced by high-tech databases, and musty old bookstores have been replaced by e-readers, and the fact that I find this distasteful is my problem, not society’s in general.

And that’s why I’m happy that someone like Jeff Bezos is on our industry’s side. Someone has to show us the way, because we journalists ourselves clearly don’t know the wind’s course (see above paragraph.)

As traditional journalists, I think, we tried too hard to make you like us. Following the USA Today model, we dressed ourselves up in clown suits of fancy graphics and tutti-frutti colors and danced the short-story jig — deciding that your minds were such chum buckets that you were not capable of reading any story longer than 500 words.

We didn’t attract any more readers, of course. All we did was drive from the profession legions of talented people who had no taste for trafficking in pabulum. And, citing quarterly profit reports, if they didn’t leave on their own, we fired them.

There are still a lot of good reporters and editors out there — they just don’t work for newspapers. So newspapers will have to go hang out in the same sites and same formats where they hang out and try to win them back. And I wonder if that isn’t what Bezos has in mind.

I don’t have any particular fear that Bezos will, in any obvious way, try to run the Post like he does Amazon: Place the Reliable Source and E.J. Dionne in your cart and head to express checkout.

But, then again, he might. And it might be the right move.

The sale of the Post from the venerable Graham family to an Internet mogul feels a bit like the recent suspension of a dozen Major Leagers for drug use: 1. It’s sad. 2. It had to happen. 3. Because it has happened, there are better days ahead both for the reader and for the journalist who still values the profession.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

 

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