Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Morning Miracle: Inside The Washington Post by Dave Kindred

I won this book from LibraryThing and just couldn't wait to read it when it finally arrived. I've been a news junkie all my life; came by it naturally since my mother was too. Our political leanings were totally opposite, leading to countless debates, er, arguments about politics. I grew up in the state capitol of Illinois so there was plenty to argue about, and every Sunday we went downtown to get the Chicago Tribune which only added fuel to the fire.

As an adult I was a journalist myself at several newspapers through the years, only leaving the profession for better pay in another field. You can imagine then how I feel watching newspapers across the country being sold and/or dying. Some respected newspapers have actually become online-only news outlets. I read an autobiography of Katherine Graham some time ago so I already knew a lot about The Washington Post from an owner's point of view. This, however, is the Post's fight for life from a reporter's point of view.

Dave Kindred started out as a sportswriter which may be why I love his writing style. In sports a reporter has to learn quickly how to sum up an athlete in one telling story. Kindred takes that ability to the news room and the owner's office and to Bob Woodward and gets great interviews on the topic of the Post and news reporting in general.

I've wondered why so few people read a daily newspaper these days. Young people are so electronically wired in that they just naturally turn to the internet, their phones and so on, but I don't even see that many older people reading a paper anymore. Last night when we stopped for a slice on our way to a basketball game, I saw a middle-aged man reading The New York Times. I could hardly believe my eyes. The Post has an amazing number of Pulitzer prize winning reporters and feature writers, yet its subscription numbers have consistently fallen and revenues along with them.

Kindred gets the background on some of the Pulitzer winning stories (the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, the McChrystal report on Afghanistan, the Virginia Tech shootings, and more) with emphasis on how reporters got those stories. Those reporters didn't just waltz in, take a few notes, and write the piece. In the Walter Reed story, for instance, the two reporters spent time in Building 18 talking to patients and employees. They got to know the patients and their families, secured confirmation of all information, got a photographer in to take the damning photos, and were allowed to take all the time they needed. Then they wrote the story and as we all know, all Hell broke loose. Anyone who saw the movie or read the book about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate will recognize the work involved.

While these dedicated reporters were doing their job though, everyone knew their careers might be limited by the bottom line. A poignant part of the book is employee buyouts, retirement packages offered to them which eventually resulted in the 800 person newsroom being reduced to under 400. Katherine Graham's son Don moved himself up out of day-to-day operation in favor of the only family member at the paper, his niece Katherine Weymouth. Len Downie, long the managing editor and beloved by his reporters, was "advised" to take the buyout. The whole masthead was in upheaval.

This book is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions to a newsie like me even though I suppose younger people wouldn't see it as such. Kindred makes it all readable, a story of a mighty giant fallen, and although the Post survives, it is no longer that powerful force it once was. Congratulations to Kindred on a book well written, one that began as "a valentine" to the paper and ended as an elegy to a great newspaper.

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