By BEN SMITH
The once-cautious Washington Post has begun to invest heavily in the liberal blogosphere, transforming its online presence – through a combination of accident and design – into a competitor of the Huffington Post and TalkingPointsMemo as much as the New York Times.
The Post’s foray into the new media world received some unfavorable attention last weekend when its latest hire, Dave Weigel, who covers conservatives, referred to gay marriage foes as “bigots.” But the resulting controversy brought into relief a larger shift: The Post now hosts three of the strongest liberal blogs on the Internet, and draws a disproportionate share of its traffic and buzz from them, a significant change for a traditional newspaper that has struggled to remake itself.
Besides Weigel, who came from the liberal Washington Independent, the Post also has Ezra Klein, hired last May from the American Prospect to bring his brand of deliberately wonky policy writing to its website; and Greg Sargent, who the paper said Tuesday will soon move to the Post itself after coming from TPM to run a political blog for the Post-owned website, WhoRunsGov.com, as well as two editors recently hired from the Huffington Post to handle online aggregation and social networking.
Post National Editor Kevin Merida said the Post is simply trying to respond to the demands of a new online audience.
“The web is a place where people want to come to the news of the day and developments in the political world and public policy from different vantage points, so you’re trying to offer people online a pretty robust smorgasbord,” he said, noting that the paper – sharply criticized from the left for its support for the Iraq war and other editorial opinions – has always carried opinion columns.
“The blogging space is a unique space between reporting and commentary,” he said, describing Weigel as working in “the same way [Fix blogger] Chris Cillizza does, the same way Ezra does – at the intersection of politics and policy.”
The liberal hires have drawn criticism from two directions.
Conservatives have complained of being covered by people they perceive as liberal. Having Weigel on her beat was “like assigning a weasel to watch the hen house,” Concerned Women for America chief executive Penny Nance told the conservative blogger Matt Lewis Tuesday, after Weigel wrote “I can empathize with everone I cover except for the anti-gay marriage bigots. (He later apologized for using the word “bigot,” but didn’t deny the lack of empathy.)
Traditionalists, meanwhile, worry that the Post is sacrificing a hard-won brand and hallowed news values.
“It’s a danger to the brand if they go too far with it – if there really are only liberal voices – because they’re in a different ballgame than the Huffington Post is,” said Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, who once worked at the Post. “It’s a good sign to get some of these provocative voices in there. The question is do they want to become MSNBC, and I don’t think they do,” he said, noting that the Post is “still trying to appeal to a broad swath of people.”
“I don’t see it as compromising what we stand for,” Merida responded. “It’s added value.”
The recent hires seem to have less to do with ideology than the impulse of every media company to try new things in a changing environment, in which it is widely viewed as having lost a step to online publications – including POLITICO. Filling analytical and ideological space that POLITICO and others do not could be a way of jumping ahead.
“People need to stop wishing they’d gotten in in ‘05 and ‘06 and [instead to] get the content that they need as a reaction to the changes in the media in ’05, ’06, ’07, and ’08,” said Klein, who argues that while the market for news and opinion is saturated, demand for his “analysis and explanation” remains high.
Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, referred to Klein as a “new paradigm” that the paper would “very much like to replicate,” rankling some in the newsroom, and the hire of Weigel on his recommendation confirmed his high stock among Post executives. Managing Editor Raju Narisetti (who drew his own rebuke from the Post’s ombudsman for opinionated tweets) is said to be a particular champion of the blogging genre. Narisetti, in India on vacation, wasn’t immediately available to comment Tuesday.
“It seems like the rest of us could take some lessons from [Klein’s] success in realizing how much readers value the voice of earned, fully reported authority, beyond the usual ‘he said-she said,’” Alec MacGillis, a Post National staff reporter who also covers domestic policy, said in an email. “We can’t go as far as the bloggers do, but there’s a spectrum, and editors who celebrate the popularity of someone like Ezra perhaps can also encourage a more authoritative voice across the newsroom.”
The Post’s frequent detractors on the media-critic left also view the shift warmly.
“Online, ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ is as likely to be trusted as the View from Nowhere or ‘straight down the middle’ approach, perhaps more so,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen in an email. “In effect, then, adding bloggers to the national staff is a hedging device against loss of trust in the old model. It protects the brand, and extends it to a space the old guard is less comfortable with.”
Weigel’s hire brought with it some internal confusion, as might be expected of a journalist whose journey took him from the libertarian Reason Magazine to the new progressive fixture, the Washington Independent. He made his name covering the dark corners of conservatism – purveyors of rumors that President Barack Obama is gay or a foreigner – that play widely among Democrats eager to view conservatives at their worst. He offered early, respectful coverage of the tea party movement, occasionally leavened by sharp jabs at conservatives on his personal Twitter account. He is nobody’s doctrinaire conservative, though some Posties said he was initially viewed as such internally. And he uses his eclectic views to bond with conservative sources, he said.
“I’ll try to find the one conservative issue I agree with them on,” he said.
Merida said he never asked Weigel about his politics, and Klein said he presented him to the paper simply as the best reporter on the subject.
Some at the paper took Weigel for a true conservative counter-balance to Klein’s wonky, but fairly reliable, liberalism, two people familiar with his hiring said. Merida, in a web chat last month, was asked, “Will you (or Chris Cillizza) be adding more conservative/Republican voices to better balance what is now your predominately liberal/Democratic leaning coverage?”
He responded that “we recently have added to our staff the well-regarded Dave Weigel, who writes the new ‘Right Now’ blog,” before mentioning conservative columnists Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer.
Weigel’s politics are, as he says, “all over the map”: He views himself as a libertarian, though he opposes legal abortion in most cases. He is a registered Republican who voted for Ron Paul in his party’s primary, but says he has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election.
“I’ve never heard him referred to as conservative,” said Ben Domenech, a conservative blogger who was hired in an earlier Post experiment in blogging, then resigned for plagiarism.
The experiment in the liberal blogosphere isn’t the Post’s only new direction. It recently launched PostPolitics, a rebranding of its politics homepage, and named Cillizza, a traditional, neutral political writer, as its managing editor.
But the Post’s experiment with openly ideological reporting marks a new, and important turn, noted Sargent, whose blog regularly ranks near the top of Technorati’s list of the blogs with the most recent incoming links.
“It’s obviously a pretty huge privilege to be able to try to do opinionated reporting in the blogospheric idiom from a hallowed platform like that which has a tremendous amount of journalistic cachet and a great reputation,” he said. “It’s a really interesting experiment on their part to let people try this.”