Harry Jaffe has an interesting piece in the Washingtonian about the declining circulation of the Washington Post.
That might not sound like such a big surprise since the decline in newspaper readership in the face of competition from electronic media is almost a cliche. Yet, Jaffe notes that the Times, the Boston Globe and USA Today are all gaining readers. And according to statistics Jaffe cites, the Post was one of only two papers in the top ten nationwide to lose circulation last year.
The article speculates on, but doesn’t quite arrive at an explanation of why this is happening. And the thrust of the piece is that Post management can’t figure it out either.
The broad story seems to be that the newspaper world, which was once built on big city newspapers, is polarizing towards a crop of, in effect, national newspapers and a larger universe of much smaller ones that are intensely local in their focus. The Post, for a series of reasons, seems to be getting caught betwixt and between by that polarizing trend.
One personal note, though, that I should add. I’m sometimes caustically critical of the Post — particularly a few specific reporters and members of the editorial page. And I’ve always had an instinctive preference for the New York Times, though I freely grant that’s in part a matter of cultural prejudice of a sort. When I’m travelling or getting on a train and want something to read, for instance, I’ll almost always grab the Times rather than the Post.
Yet, writing TPM day in and day out for years now has given me a certain brass-tacks way of evaluating the quality of reportage over time. Allow me to explain. I do a fair amount of original reporting for this site. But most of what I do is, inevitably, a matter of mining other news sources for bits and pieces of information and piecing them together with other pieces of information, showing too-little-noticed connections or explaining or trying to interpret their meaning.
Over time you get a good sense of which news outlets consistently generate new information and which don’t. And by this measure — on the issues I follow closely, which I’d say are foreign policy, defense policy, intelligence and national politics — the Post consistently outclasses the Times, particularly on the first three topics. When it comes to who’s generating fresh information rather than summarizing the story a few days later or relying on hand-fed stories, my experience putting together this site tells me I usually end up finding new information — which stands up over time — in the Post.
Needless to say there are a number of Times reporters on these topics who are first-rate, peerless and a number at the Post who, to put it coarsely, suck. But on balance — and to some degree to my surprise — that’s my experience.