Washington Post Boring Itself to Death

By Mark Judge

Magazines have life cycles. That was said several years ago by a journalist in reference to the New Yorker, which had entered an uncertain period in the 1990s when Tina Brown took over as editor. Magazines, the man said, have lives -- they are born, they live, they die.

It turned out that it wasn't the New Yorker's time. Tina Brown left in 1998 and was replaced by David Remnick, who had brought the magazine back by going back to the standards that once made it great: long, well reported stories on interesting subjects and salient criticism of the current arts scene.

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Newspapers also have life cycles. And maybe it's time for the Washington Post to die.

The Post recently fired its editor, Marcus Brauchli, apparently because he didn't get along with Post publisher Katherine Weymouth. But all the inside baseball about the Brauchli ignores the big picture.

The typical accusation about the Post and its decline over the last several years is that the paper is too liberal. The problem is even more fundamental than that. The Post's writers and editors no longer have any idea what makes an interesting story. It's as if a hospital hired doctors who did not know the human body. I genuinely think the problem is that simple, and that profound.

For instance, I have in front of me a copy of the Post from Sunday, December 2, 2012. Here are some of the stories and editorials that are in the paper:

  • "Only One of You is Real," a story on the front page of the once-mighty Outlook section, about celebrity holograms;
  • "The 2012 Kennedy Center Honors," a full page spread in the Arts section;
  • Long, endless profiles of Dustin Hoffman, Natalia Makorova, Buddy Guy and David Letterman.
  • Columns by Dana Milbank (Republicans are right-wing), George Will (there is liberal censorship on college campuses);
  • A profile in Sunday Style of Jonah Friedlander, the hairy dude who wears trucker hats on 30 Rock;
  • A Walter Olsen piece on how there is "surprising support for gay marriage" among Republicans.

Here are some of the book reviews in the Book World section:

  • Jonathan Yardley reviews A Small Town Near Auschwitz;
  • John Pomfret reviews Restless Empire: China Since 1750;
  • There are reviews of two books about wine, the Dallas Cowboys, and biographies of Thornton Wilder and Louisa May Alcott.

The problem isn't liberal bias. The problem is that the writers and editors of the Washington Post are just stone cold boring. Honestly, reread some of those story selections. Holograms. Cheers for gay marriage. Dull book reviews of boring books that cover topics that have been covered for decades. (And seriously, a book about the Dallas Cowboys? In the Washington Post?)

The one that truly baffles me is the Arts section spread about the Kennedy Center honorees. When I saw it I literally tried to imagine a reader in Washington -- or anywhere else -- actually seeing those profiles and being excited to read them. Is there anyone who doesn't already know a lot about David Letterman and Led Zeppelin?

Again, this isn't about bias. It's about terrible story selection. The Post hires people who just aren't very interesting, to write on topics that have been covered to death for years.

In the last couple decades the Post has made the same mistake the New Yorker made when it hired Tina Brown in 1992. Instead of sticking with its strength, well-reported stories and incisive cultural criticism, the New Yorker dumbed things down. The stories became shorter and fluffier, and they tried stunts like bringing in guest editors -- the low point being the issue edited by Roseanne Barr.

In the digital age, this is the worst thing you could do. As the web was exploding with information and convenience, the Post decided to cut back coverage.

Last week here are some of the things that I enjoyed:

  • Political coverage of all shapes and varieties on Real Clear Politics;
  • Bold and brilliant comics and graphic novels that I ordered on Amazon and that make the Post's comic page look like wet tissue paper;
  • Very smart and informative and gracefully written music coverage in the New Yorker;
  • Commentary, opinion and investigative piece in the Huffington Post, the Daily Caller, National Review and First Things;
  • Coverage of my Washington Nationals baseball team on several different local blogs, written by people who are passionate and knowledgeable.

Now remind me again, why should I subscribe to the Post?

Mark Judge is a columnist for RealClearBooks and author, most recently, of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll.

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