Critique the Critique: Stuever Tells Off Washington Post

On the never-ending frontier of newspaper self-criticism, The Washington Post has launched a project in which individual staffers take turns reading the previous day’s paper and writing an internal memo commenting on it. Today, Style section scribe Hank Stuever took the opportunity to deliver an extended riff of meta-criticism—second-guessing not merely page-one placement decisions but the whole theory and practice behind newspaper-improvement initiatives. “I think we’ve overlistened to people who never read the paper, and yet insist it include more about their neighborhoods, lives, and concerns,” Stuever wrote. The opening sections of the memo:

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Hank Stuever, Style reporter

First my screed, then my critique. (Sorry, that’s how it goes, and it might run long – I might not get another chance at so many eyeballs.) This forum seems to have a lot of focus-group fallout, calling for: shorter stories, faster formats, oh my it’s all too much to handle, I can’t possibly read it all, I don’t know where to start, I get everything I need from my (pet electronic doodad). And, my favorite, from a critique a couple of days ago, the assistant news editor guy who reads the NYT, WSJ (so navigable! Huh?), then gets online and reads everything else, and then and only then might deign to read The Post, which is, again, too this and too that and is an incredible intrusion on his time. Remarkably, the paychecks navigate their way to his bank account every other Friday, which is another way for me to say that I firmly, firmly believe that if you can be bothered to work here, you can bother to read this paper – the meatspace version, not the Web, the printed result that we all worked so hard to make — every day before you read someone else’s. This is why I can never be allowed to observe focus groups: I will surely bust through that one-way glass window and administer hard spankings to each and every participant who seems incapable of just paging through a newspaper, looking at headlines and pictures, and deciding whether or not there’s something worth stopping on.

I think we’ve overlistened 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.”

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.

They will never let me do this critique again.