Washington, Asharq Al Awsat – Four months after the request was made to ‘The Washington Post’, the prominent American paper finally agreed to host ‘Asharq Al Awsat’ in its newsroom for one day. Kate Carlyle, head of the Washington Post News Service, whose Arabic copyright is obtained by Asharq Al Awsat, apologized for the delay. Leonard Downie, “The Post’s” Executive Editor, had to approve the request and to choose someone to oversee the visit, she said. He asked Lexie Verdon, deputy assistant managing editor for continuous news, to show me around, and he kindly informed his staff of my visit and advised them to help introduce me to the newsroom.
More than six hundred reporters, editors, commentators and photographers work in the newsroom. The paper is published daily in, at least, five sections (main, metro, sports, business and style) with a minimum of approximately 60 pages. The total number of pages rises to about 600 on Sunday with extra sections (travel, arts, books, source, outlook), magazines (TV Week, Parade, The Post Magazine) and numerous advertisement supplements. There are other sections that are added during the week (food, real estate, health, weekend and regional editions to cover metropolitan Washington).
The “newsroom” actually occupies two floors of the building. Six floors and its staff are divided according to the above-mentioned sections. The paper’s website, Washingtonpost.com and Washington Post Radio are recent additions.
The hundreds of staff members work mostly in open areas, although short partitions provide relative privacy. There are separate glass offices for heads of divisions (exactly as the film “All the President’s Men” showed some 30 years ago).
Distribution of the paper starts at about four in the morning, the printing presses begin at midnight and the last news items are added about an hour before that. The first reporter arrives at approximately 4am, metro staff meets at ten, the main news meeting takes place at 2pm and there is a brief meeting at 6pm.
This morning, Debbie Wilgoren was the first reporter to arrive. She works in the Continuous News section which monitors the news in the absence of other reporters and prepares reports for the radio and the website. She said she woke up at 3am and leaves the office after midday. She followed the latest news, depending on news agencies, TV, and the internet and checked her email in anticipation of stories sent by local, national and international reporters.
Two items caught her attention that morning. A local story about a serious accident on Wilson Bridge, on the Potomac River not far from Washington DC, causing major traffic problems for the hundreds of thousands of commuters heading into the city from the suburbs. The second item was from Iraq: a group disguised in police uniforms kidnapped 56 men.
Wilgoren wrote an article of approximately 300 words on the traffic pile-up, based on a story by the Associated Press (AP) and telephone interviews with traffic officials. She sent a copy to the radio and another to the website.
Fred Barbash arrived at 5am and started working on a piece about a case at the Supreme Court on racial discrimination in high school. As it was too early to contact legal sources, he used a wire piece and added background information from another article he had written earlier for the paper. He also sent a copy to the radio and another to the website.
Barbash is a veteran journalist; he was in charge of the business section, a bureau chief in London, a Supreme Court reporter and the author of three books: “Financial Market”, “Investing Your Money” and “The Founding: A Dramatic Account of the Writing of the U.S Constitution”. Currently part of the continuous news section, he was surprised by a question on why he was “demoted.” He answered lightheartedly that he wanted to lower his workload slightly after he finished writing his last book.
At about six in the morning, Wilgoren walked a few steps to the radio station for a live interview about the traffic accident. She had already contacted traffic officials to obtain quotes. At that time she was probably the most informed individual in Washington on the details of the accident.
At that early hour of the day, the newsroom remained quiet. Scattered newspapers, magazines and reports have always been a standard feature of newsrooms, but thanks to the internet, there were a lot less of them in the Post’s newsroom that day compared to, say, when “All the President’s Men” was filmed.
Another standard feature was posters: the Statue of Liberty as a skeleton, Israeli settlements almost swallowing up the West Bank and a poster in Farsi about “A world without America.”
At 7am Barbash walked to the radio section for a live interview about the Supreme Court’s case. Because he was well-abreast in the subject and had written a book on the US constitution, he was able to provide satisfactory answers.
The rest of the morning remained quiet. What if a catastrophe occurred such as a hurricane like Katrina? Wilgoren said, “We have procedures for emergencies. Reporters would rush to the office, some would call from their homes and cars and would quickly come to their desks and make phone calls. If there was another Hurricane Katrina for example, regional reporters would report from the scene, local reporters would talk to relatives of those affected, business reporters would write from an economic angle, and so on.”
CNN, during its 8 o’clock news bulletin, provided more details about the kidnapping of the Iraqis. Nelson Hernandez and Saleh Saifeddine, the paper’s Baghdad correspondents, had sent a lengthy piece. Wilgoren opted to wait until the arrival of people from the foreign desk to proceed with the piece, but selected parts of it for the website, with additions from CNN.
Wilgoren did not use her byline; “Why would I write my name? I only took parts of the news item from Baghdad.” But she put her byline on the Wilson Bridge piece; “Because I worked hard on it and obtained important quotations from traffic officials.”
Lexie Verdon, deputy assistant managing editor and continuous news desk boss arrived at about 9am. Before this job she had worked in other sections of the paper and was in charge of the Health supplement. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, assistant managing editor, arrived at about ten o’clock. A young man, he joined the paper ten years ago and was, until last year, Baghdad bureau chief. Although he is in charge of continuous news, Verdon is running the desk because he is writing a book. He went straight to his glass office, presumably to work on the book which is expected to be finished at the end of the year; it is about Iraq, specifically the life of American forces inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, under the title: “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.”
Leonard Downie, the executive editor walked in about the same time, said good morning as he walked by and went to his office.
Verdon checked the latest news with Barbash and Wilgoren, went through her mail, checked the television channels and brought up a list of the day’s events that she had prepared the previous day: President Bush would make a speech on his opposition to gay marriages, the Supreme Court would look into discrimination in high schools, Michelle Wei, a fifteen-year-old golf player might be the youngest to win at PGA, Fairfax County supervisors would discuss the taxes situation, and other items.
William Branigan, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the paper, arrived at about ten. He spent two years on the suburbs news desk and, prior to that, covered the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 when he accompanied the forces that entered Baghdad. Before that he had spent over ten years as bureau chief in Mexico, Thailand and the Philippines.
One of his first assignments for the day was to pick up the phone and to read a message from a reporter covering Wei’s golf competition; she lost. Branigan’s name did not appear in the byline; “I just wrote down what I was told. I am not at the gold tournament.” What if the miracle girl had won? Branigan would have probably included more to the story.
Daniela Deane arrived two hours late but she had already informed her boss, Verdon. A former correspondent and bureau chief in several countries, Deane returned to Washington after twenty years abroad and worked for a while at the real estate supplement. Vanessa Williams, Verdon’s deputy, was absent that day; she used to be head of metropolitan news
As time passes, many reporters arrived, and the bosses of the various sections started mapping the following day’s news.
At the foreign news desk, they picked the kidnapping of Iraqis as a major item for tomorrow’s paper and requested the latest developments from Baghdad. The Metro desk took charge of the Wilson Bridge item and found that photos from the scene were available. The National desk proceeded with the Bush address on same-sex marriages and Congress’ discussion on the subject. The sports desk proceeded with the now less exciting article on Wei.
Verdon, during short lulls of incoming news, explained the process of managing the news. “The reporter on the scene is our primary source. Here in office we add information to the piece and edit it.”
She said a reporter’s byline depends on how much he/she contributed to the piece; multiple bylines mean major contribution from other reporters; and if the contribution is less important, the other name is mentioned at the end of piece.
“Journalists do not deserve to add their names if they only added a few sentences to another person’s piece,” she said.
“I don’t see our journalists fighting over bylines”, Verdon said. She added that she ran her office as a team, avoided bureaucratic rules and trusted her staff. “Of course it is important to have one person in charge, but we work like a sports team, not like a military unit.” The journalists’ union takes care of issues related to work, including working hours, vacation, health plans, she explained.
Verdon wondered about my questioning of staff discipline, and asked lightheartedly, “Don’t you say that we Americans worship work? We worship work as Americans and also love it as journalists.” She added that a high percentage of the paper’s reporters came from other newspapers and/or graduates from top universities, and didn’t need to be “policed.”
She said that she did not constantly watch over staff, interfere in their personal lives or order them to work a certain number of hours. She said she cared more about the product than the office hours and expected staff to do an excellent job. She didn’t admonish anyone for neglecting their work; “Perhaps it happened, but I don’t remember.”
“Bylines are not just to give writers their dues, but also to help us if we need more information and want to know who wrote the piece, and to hold the writer responsible for mistakes in his/her piece, if there are any.”
The Washington Post, like other workplaces, has its problems, Lexie said. “There is rivalry, as well as envy and jealousy. But jealousy is an emotion and not logical; we prefer not to mix it with work.”
At about ten, the first of three editorial meetings is held in the offices of Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for local news. A board on the wall opposite his desk had two columns: one for time-sensitive news items and the other for features. The meeting lasted fifteen minutes and was both relaxed and serious. Reporters presented their pieces and it was clear that Mr. McCartney would make the final decision as to what pieces he would present, with other heads of sections, in the main meeting four hours later.
In addition to aforementioned pieces about Iraq, Wilson Bridge and taxes in the suburbs, reporters added items such as: Virginia schools offering extra credit for students who do not visit the bathroom as often as others; local Somalis concerned about civil war in their native country; a father reunited with his daughter after more than ten years; pieces of human bones appearing at an old cemetery; and the follow-up of two inmates who broke out of jail.
Reporters laughed at the article about high schools and visits to the bathroom and encouraged their boss to present it for the front page during the main editorial meeting. One said, “Let’s have a break from wars and crimes.” Information about the availability of photos, graphs and maps to go with each piece was presented, and the boss was expected to make the final decisions. It was clear, by the end of the meeting, that suggested articles are almost equally divided between news and features.
As time passed and it was almost noon, the newsroom was still relatively quiet and empty; almost half the desks were still empty. The reporters who were present were diligently busy, except for few side conversations.
Verdon chatted with Deane about a children’s event and one of them promised the other to bring photos the following day. Another reporter passed by and talked about a soccer match that involved some of the paper’s staff, and a third was heard talking about a party that weekend.
At two in the afternoon, Downie chaired the main editorial meeting. Like the first one, it was quiet, friendly and official. Some reporters were dressed casually while others were more formal. Some men were in suits and others wore shirts and ties without jackets or just shirts, and most women wore dresses. On the wall there was a replica of “The Post” front page announcing the resignation of President Nixon in 1974; a picture of Ben Bradlee, former managing editor; and an antique American flag.
The editors of each sections presented their articles and, obviously, each one competed for a space on the front page, but without being direct and confrontational. It seemed that they all looked to Downie to make a final decision – and he knew that – though he was courteous in listening to each one.
When the Metro section presented the aforementioned article regarding bathroom breaks in high schools, there was a roar of laughter and that increased the likelihood of the article appearing on the front page. Downie decided that the story would feature on the front page.
The Foreign news chief presented the earlier-mentioned article on Iraq and others including: Victory of Islamists in Somalia’s civil war (the paper had no correspondent there yet); nightlife in downtown Beirut (photos available); childbirth in Afghanistan (photos taken by writer, map and statistics available), Communist party of China initiative to encourage entrepreneur creativity; and a piece about an old British castle. He said he was expecting news items during the day concerning election results in Peru and a referendum initiative in Palestine.
The national desk chief presented the articles about Bush’s address on same-sex marriages, Congress’ debate on the subject and the Supreme Court discrimination case. He added other items such as the risks taken by illegal immigrants as they cross the border into Mexico (staff photos, maps and statistics available) and lobbyists spending money to entertain members of Congress. He said he expected pieces later in the day on a GSA official who would testify on his relations with lobbyist Abrhamoff; a press conference about a memorial for 9/11; and the testifying of a Federal Reserve chairman.
Downie said that, as usual, the front page needed a feature story and asked if the story about the borders contained pictures and maps. When the head of the national news desk answered affirmatively, Downie announced: “the borders.” Downie decided which news and reports should appear on the front page, after a short and relaxed discussion. No one raised significant reservations on his decisions and it was clear who had the final say. He spoke in short and quick sentences, “Let us follow-up Iraq”, “Let’s wait for the constitution story” and “Let’s remember Bush’s speech”.
Keith Harrison, deputy managing editor for metropolitan issues, also had his own glass office. An African-American who grew up in Washington, he hung pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on the wall. He was in charge of more than 150 reporters, but most of the desks in front of him were empty. Where are the rest of the journalists? How did he know who was working and who wasn’t? Did the absentees ask for permission? Harrison seemed surprised at these questions and repeated that there was plenty of trust between him and his team.
He said that Downie provided the head of each section with the number of pages available to him after allotting advertisement space. That day Metro had only five pages.
“Suzy has a story about a man who killed his lover. It is an excellent story, but it is short. Come with me; let us go to her office and see if she could add more.” He went; she agreed to add more to the story.
He said, “reporters gather the news, editors edit stories and section chiefs decide what to publish.”
How did he evaluate reporters under his leadership? “Once every year I write an appraisal on each one based on his or her activity throughout the year. This is why we don’t focus on daily input or on daily deadlines.”
Has he ever fired a reporter because she/he was lazy or irresponsible? No, not at all. “I have never fired anyone,” he said. Did he know of reporters who were fired because they failed? “These cases are rare. A reporter has to be very bad to be fired.”
Keith Richburg, head of the foreign news desk, also sat in a glass office and was in charge of 24 correspondents outside of the US, all a one-person operation, with the exception of bureaus in China and Iraq.
Three are in Washington and five edit overseas articles. Richburg has worked for “The Post” for almost twenty years. He was a correspondent in six different countries, three of them in Africa. After he returned from Africa, he wrote a book, “Outside of America: A Black man Confronts Africa,” in which he states he was disappointed in the Africans. He has a website that features all his articles. Richburg was also in charge of correspondents’ budgets and their performances.
He also contacts the paper’s correspondents in order to coordinate their stories. For example, “If Bush mentions the name of an important individual in Iraq; we want our Baghdad office to write about this individual. If the White House announces that the Japanese Prime Minister will visit, we want our correspondent there to interview him or write about the visit.”
Is there a difference between his work as a foreign correspondent and the head of the foreign desk chief? Joking Richburg answered, “When I was overseas, my superiors were not able to monitor my movements in foreign countries.” But, he said the type of work varied because he is now “managing the news and the bureaus”, whereas in the past he only used to “write”.
How did he evaluate foreign correspondents? “The newspaper doesn’t send a new journalist to be a correspondent in Paris or London. These are well-respected and well-trained journalists and some of them have more experience than me. I trust them.”
Were there any problems at all? He said, “only if you find that a correspondent hasn’t sent any stories for a month and finance has complained that he was overspending.”
The Evening Meeting:
The third and final editorial meeting of the day was held at 6pm but unlike the first two, it was short. It focused on the latest news, especially local and national from the nation’s capital because offices were closed by that time, and assigned reporters returned after covering day-long meetings and conferences.
Downie decided to that the article that would feature on the front page would be that regarding the Federal Reserve Chairman, and would move the peice on Bush and same-sex marriages to the inside pages. Pieces from Congressional hearings and press conferences were on their way.
After the evening meeting, reporters were working more on news items since features were already allotted for publication. The number of reporters in the newsroom increased but many desks remained vacant, as the journalists who arrived in the morning prepared to leave.
Verdon left late, after preparing a list of news and reports for the following day. “I will follow the news from home after dinner,” she said. Was that part of her official working hours? “I don’t know, it doesn’t make any difference.” If a major incident occurred, she would “call from home,” she said.
Last items were sent to production at about ten in the evening, and the urgent stories were sent at midnight when the printing presses would have started printing copies of the paper.
“The Washington Post” appears on the streets at approximately 4am.
Next Day’s Paper:
1- The front page included news on the Federal Reserve, Congressmen trips sponsored by lobbyists, the kidnapping of 56 people in Iraq, illegal immigrants crossing borders, the reuniting of a father and his daughter and the story on high school bathroom breaks.
2- Inside: the Supreme Court and racial discrimination in high schools, Congress on same-sex marriages, a memorial for 9/11, medicine to alleviate allergies, and the rise in costs of private tuition.
3- Foreign news: Mahmoud Abbas’s referendum, suspects charged with terrorism in Canada, Islamic militias entering Mogadishu and the feature on women of Afghanistan suffering from a lack of care for their children.
4- The Metro section: prison officers responsible for a jailbreak, a man was charged with murdering his lover, the Wilson Bridge accident (buried inside the paper in a reduced version because it was no longer considered as important) and, finally, a feature on the Somali Diaspora trying to keep up with developments in their home country.