New ‘Washington Post’ M.E. Bennett Fields Questions from Readers

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By: E&P Staff

The Washington Post’s newly named managing editor, Phil Bennett, sat for an online chat today, which naturally took place at his paper’s own Web site. A few highlights:

Q. How much more does The Post rely upon stringers today than they did in the past — 10, 20 or 30 years ago?
A. The passing of the age of the stringer is a sad casualty of shrinking space for news, and also of the expansion of our network of fulltime bureaus. As somebody whose first paycheck was a stringer (in Peru, for The Post) I’m sorry to see these windows close. You’ll still see extraordinary exceptions, such as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a remarkable Iraqi journalist who filed for us this week from inside Fallujah.

Q. Your web site, washingtonpost.com, appears to be drawing readers from your print edition. Stories often appear online before they are in print. Have you considered using the online edition to promote the print edition more aggressively? I, for one, prefer reading the newspaper in print after spending much of my day at a computer.
A. The relationship between the newspaper and the web site is one of the most exciting things about The Post; it’s also an evolving relationship. The idea of continuous news that so dominates our site and other news sites was an original and challenging concept for the paper. The newsroom has adapted to it remarkably. Common sense would seem to support your suggestion that people reading The Post online might be less likely to read the paper. I wonder how many people have experiences like my own, in which the web site and the newspaper, with their different sensibilities and metabolisms, appeal to me in different ways. I like them both (okay, I love the newspaper). As for promoting the paper more aggressively: wonderful idea!

Q. This is more of a general media question, but hopefully you can help. Why was the Republican party “red” and the Democratic party “blue”? Did they choose these colors, or were they assigned by the media?
A. I don’t know the answer to this question. Does anyone? Deconstructionists welcome.

Q. A week ago much of the American journalistic world was shaken by the power of white Christian heterosexuals. Do you think The Post, as a leading media outlet, has been guilty of shorting their coverage in a commitment to “diversity” (meaning coverage of everyone else)?
A. A very good and provocative question. My answer: no. I think it’s possible that we underestimated the influence on the election of organized Christian groups and of the issue of same-sex marriage as translated into a question of morality. But I don’t think this was because we were not predisposed to see it. I think that many newspapers have yet to figure out how to cover the influence of religion and religious groups on U.S. society. We should do that. It occurs to me parenthetically that part of the power of this group of voters, if that’s what it is, is its sense of common grievance of standing outside the media’s attention.

Springfield, Va.: The Post is regularly accused of (and regularly denies) having a liberal bias. There are a number of Web sites devoted to “showcasing” examples of media bias. Do you ever check any of these sites to see how your critics view your coverage of a particular story or series?
A: As the foreign editor, I don’t have to go looking for charges of bias; they come to me, in the Inbox. And, yes, I read those messages and try to respond to the civil ones. Claiming to be free of bias requires constant vigilance and self-criticism. It’s not the end of a discussion, but the beginning of one. We have it here all the time.

New York, N.Y.: Have you sought the advice of former managing editors still around The Post newsroom, like Steve Coll, Bob Kaiser, and Ben Bradlee?
Phil Bennett: Let me see: are any of these three in New York today? Seriously, I am seeking advice and counsel from all my colleagues at The Post. This is a collective enterprise. The three you name are in a class by themselves. And I will be working for Len Downie, the Executive Editor, who has run the paper for 13 years, and who became managing editor himself 20 years ago.

Q. The news story about your appointment mentioned the paper’s circulation decline. Can you discuss what The Post might do? Is the newspaper’s situation different than other major papers?
A. Decline in circulation is something many American newspapers are experiencing; this doesn’t make it bother us any less. Some people suggest this decline is structural as people find less time for newspapers, read less, or turn to other media. But it’s also an urgent incentive, among many, to improve the paper and the way its serves readers. We’re engaged in a number of discussions at the newspaper about how to do that. The bond between The Post and its readers is a sort of sacred trust that defines the character of the paper and, one likes to think, part of the character of our region (and beyond, for those of you reading us on the Internet). This much is certain: the newspaper must continuously improve.

Q. Your reporting on Iraq has been excellent and your reporting specifically improved with the introduction of your Arabic speaking journalists. Other than your Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Anthony Shadid, do you have plans to expand on your foreign desk with more Arabic-speaking journalists since the Middle East will be such an important place for foreign affairs and international relations over the next decade?
A. We don’t have plans to expand the foreign staff. But I often advise aspiring (and current) journalists that if they can do one single thing to ensure an interesting and challenging career it’s this: learn Arabic.

Q. How is the Post covering the current battles and events in Iraq? In other words, where are The Post’s reporters based at the moment and how many are “in-country?” Thanks.
A. We have two fulltime foreign correspondents in Iraq today. Karl Vick, our acting bureau chief, is in Baghdad. Jackie Spinner is in Fallujah with the Marines. She is there with Omar Fekeiki, an Iraqi journalist who is a member of our Baghdad bureau. Other members of our local staff our assisting with the coverage. We’ll be sending in some additional correspondents, including Anthony Shadid, in coming days.

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