WEB EXTRA: Post journalists discuss front page at library event

by Elise Kigner

What does it take to make the front page? A panel of Washington Post editors and reporters addressed that question - and more - at the West End Neighborhood Library Saturday morning.

Six Washington Post journalists addressed a 50-person audience consisting mostly of Foggy Bottom residents at the program, titled "The Front Page - How National Headlines Impact Us All."

"The big push in newspapers over the last several years is to broaden the number of kinds of stories on the front page," said Michael Abramowitz, a national editor. "We have to find stories that appeal to a larger audience and not just the political junkies in Washington."

The second in a series of programs titled, "Cover to Cover - Life Through the Lens of The Washington Post," the discussion was hosted by the D.C. Public Library Foundation, sponsored by The Post and moderated by the Newseum.

The paper's assistant managing editor for the news desk, Ed Thiede, described the daily process of sifting through stories to find the ones that deserve to make headlines.

Pointing to Friday's statistics, he said at the 2 p.m. daily story conference, 22 stories were pitched for the front page. By the 6 p.m. conference, the number was whittled down to six, The Post's average number of headlines. Stories from the international, national, Metro and business sections were all represented on the front page through teasers or pictures.

One story on Friday's front page, Oprah Winfrey's apology for defending James Frey's falsified memoir, sparked controversy among some audience members who thought the article was better fit for the Style section.

Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor of national news, defended the Post's Oprah coverage.

"It was about a large cultural event in our country," she said. "This is a country built on self promoters. I think it was a perfectly worthy story for the front page."

Abramowitz also defended the story for its human interest appeal.

He said, "Newspapers are under a huge amount of pressure. Readership has been declining of the past four or five years. We do think of ways to be more interesting to readers."

Bob Heller, a Foggy Bottom resident who audits classes at GW, criticized The Post for emphasizing human interest stories and avoiding tougher issues.

"You're not even trying to compete with The (New York) Times," Heller said. "You're trying to be a local paper."

Joe Davidson, the District extra edition editor, said Heller's criticisms are well founded, but he sees what Heller views as flaws in the newspaper as part of the new and improved image of The Post.

"The Post wants to be a more aggressive local paper," Davidson said.

The Post now features more Metro stories on its front page than before, and it is moving towards printing more in-depth local stories, the panel said.

The panel also addressed the new online culture of journalism, marked most recently by the blogging phenomenon. While the panel seemed optimistic about other changes in the newspaper, some traditional print journalists were hesitant about blogging.

Style section reporter Neely Tucker said he was personally opposed to blogging, saying a journalist's main responsibility should be in reporting accurate and comprehensive information on a story and not spending time on what he called an unnecessary blog.

Davidson also described his apprehension in moving away from print.

"There's a clash of culture between the print journalists and the dot-com people, as well call them. We need to slowly ease ourselves into this new culture," he said.

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