By: Lesley Messer
On Aug. 9, the New York Observer and several blogs posted a leaked version of Washington Post style reporter Hank Stuever’s witty critique of his own paper, which emerged from the newspaper’s new, normally private effort to solicit more internal feedback. Among other things, Stuever criticized the trend toward local news, redesigning papers with ?rails? and ?gee-gaws,? and offering fewer pages (despite evidence that Americans like obesity).
?I wasn’t upset about it [the leak] and it certainly didn’t bring anything punitive upon me,? Stuever tells E&P. ?I raised some points and I tried to do so in an entertaining way. That’s it.? He adds that, somewhat surprisingly, ?I haven’t really received anything disagreeable or upset from inside or outside.?
Stuever, a two-time Pulitzer finalist, arrived at the Post in 1999 after working as a features writer at the Austin American-Statesman and at The Albuquerque Tribune. He said that the internal critique system has proven to be useful in terms of allowing everyone the opportunity to voice their opinion about the paper. It also provides a forum for responses to those suggestions.
Among his comments: ?I think we’ve over-listened to people who never read the paper, and yet insist it include more about their neighborhoods, lives, and concerns. A newspaper is filled with criminals, celebrities and fools and I for one am happy when it doesn’t include my life or neighborhood in theirs. Then again, no one is interested in my new slogan for The Post: News Flash — Everything’s Not Always About You.?
He closed his comments with: ?They will never let me do this critique again.?
The internal critique system at the Post was instituted at the beginning of the summer, he explains. Everyone, from top editors on down, is assigned to write critiques of the previous day’s paper. Some of them are written in strict journalese, he said, while others are more light-hearted.
?I wrote it as fast as I could and thought, ‘This is kind of funny. Maybe this will entertain people and make them think about the things I’ve been thinking about,’? he says. ?I got a lot of messages about it.?
And the next morning, when the critique appeared on the Internet, even more letters poured in. Stuever said that he received about two dozen e-mails from newsrooms across the country: ?It was received very warmly,” he said. “I was surprised that people read it and liked it.?
His only complaint was that blogs often tagged misleading headlines to his writing. ?They put up items like, ‘Stuever tells the Post to stuff it.’ There was no payoff to that.?
More from Stuever’s critique:
?Why are we obsessed with the paper being too much, too large? Our counterparts at McDonalds, Google, iTunes, Comcast Digital, The Cheesecake Factory and Barnes & Noble have already learned: People do not complain because something is too big and they can’t possibly read, listen to, watch or eat it all in one sitting. (American consumers so rarely seem to be saying this, except in newspaper focus groups. Otherwise, they seem to enjoy being overwhelmed.)
?I have worked at newspapers that fretted, angsted and test-marketed all sorts of ‘news you can use’ and entry points and time-savers. We added geegaws, rails, skyboxes, refers, breakouts, sidebars; we set the articles in ragged-right and whacked the living shit out of them. It helped not one bit, but this identity crisis ultimately created a paper you really could read in 10 minutes. And soon enough, it started to feel like something that wasn’t worth the 50 cents they charge for it.
?So I really do reach for my air-sickness bag when we start passing around prototypes of a redesigned A1 with rails and time-savers, and an AME wonders (in yesterday’s critique) if it might be good idea execute a blanket reduction in story lengths. If we want to redesign the paper to make it look like the coolest thing on the planet, fine, that’s an image crisis I can live with. I prefer that if we do, the aesthetic end result reminds me of walking into the Apple Store, and not of a bulletin board in a middle school social-studies classroom.?