OPINION: Patrick B. Pexton, Ombudsman
The Post’s coverage of the Penn State story relied too heavily on columnists
By Patrick B. Pexton
November 11, 2011
Sometimes it seems as if half the people I know in Washington are from Pennsylvania, so it’s no surprise that I got a lot of phone calls and e-mail this week about Joe Paterno, Penn State University and Happy Valley’s descent into sadness and scandal.
Most of the readers found The Post’s coverage — in print, less so online — lacking in volume and depth and too much reliant on columnists. I think they’re right.
Compared with the New York Times and USA Today, The Post was slower to respond, and when it did, its columnists were the featured players, rather than news reporters on the scene in State College, Pa.
On Nov. 5, a Pennsylvania grand jury accused Paterno’s former defensive coordinator, Gerald Sandusky, of abusing eight young boys and recommended charges. Post print readers first learned of the scandal on Sunday only if they went to the Sports section, where Mike Wise’s column, appropriately questioning Paterno’s role, led the section’s front page. There was no news story in that day’s paper.
The Times, in contrast, had a lengthy front-page story that jumped to the Sports section.
On Monday, The Post ran a short Associated Press story on the third page of Sports. That’s all. The Times had two staff-written stories, one on its Sports front and a second inside the section. USA Today had a front-page teaser leading to its Sports section, where it featured a story on the scandal.
On Tuesday, The Post had a fine John Feinstein column on Penn State that began on the front of Sports and then jumped to Page D3, where there was again a short AP story on the scandal. The Times had a front-page photo teasing to its Sports section, which had two stories and a column. USA Today hit the scandal hard that day. Its front-page featured story was on the scandal, and in Sports it had two more stories, plus a column and a reader poll on Paterno’s fate.
By this time, Post readers were getting angry. A faithful reader of The Post for 48 years wrote me this: “The Washington Post’s coverage of the Penn State scandal has been appalling. John Feinstein’s column today was good, but the idea of covering this with sports columnists and the AP for a major newspaper in an area loaded with Penn State alums and not far from State College is a sad commentary on the way things are in the Post these days.”
By Wednesday, The Post began to catch up. It had sent Steve Yanda to Pennsylvania the day before. A front-page teaser led to the Sports front, which included a long story from Yanda and a Sally Jenkins column. Tracee Hamilton’s column on Sandusky ran on D3.
Post baseball reporter Dave Sheinin then rushed up to State College and is still there, filing at least one story a day.
But the pattern of Post competitors doing more continued through the week.
In all, through Friday, The Post published seven columns and five news stories in the newspaper, two of which were wire stories. The only front-page article was Thomas Boswell’s column Thursday.
The Times did 15 stories over the same time frame, including four which ran on its front page, plus three columns. The Times also consistently made an effort to give the story a national focus — what this story said about the power of college football and college sports in general. USA Today had 17 stories, three of which ran on its front page, plus three columns.
Matt Vita, The Post’s sports editor, defended the newspaper coverage: “We have had people on the ground up there for most of the week. Beyond that, our columnists are the backbone of our section, and when you can put out interesting, provocative commentary by Mike Wise, John Feinstein, Sally Jenkins, Tracee Hamilton, Jason Reid and Tom Boswell, we are doing our readers a tremendous service. We are bringing more to a story about a university campus that we normally don’t cover.”
Online, The Post’s coverage was more extensive because it ran dozens of AP stories and its many bloggers weighed in as the scandal unfolded. That’s appropriate for online. But the vast majority of The Post’s revenue still comes from print circulation, and on Penn State, The Post’s newspaper fell short.
I know that Pennsylvania is outside The Post’s coverage area and that resources are limited, but I think this scandal was big enough, and close enough, to merit a larger commitment of time and reporters.