28 Jun 2009

Why Froomkin Got the Axe

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When the Washington Post announced it was terminating the blog written by Dan Froomkin, howls of outrage arose from the left blogosphere, along with paranoid accusations of WaPo free speech being curtailed by sinister neocon influence. Right! At the same Washington Post employing Dana Priest to leak national security secrets.

I was wondering myself though what went down, and today I finally found an explanation by Andrew Alexander. It wasn’t personal, it wasn’t political, it was just about the money.

(B)ased on my discussions with others at The Post, as well as Froomkin, here’s my take.

First, it’s not about ideology. My original Omblog post quoted Hiatt as saying Froomkin’s “political orientation was not a factor in our decision.” In my discussions with Froomkin, he has not cited ideology as the primary reason. And several veteran Post reporters have dismissed that as the cause. In an online chat this week, Post Pulitzer-winning columnist Gene Weingarten, who expressed “respect” for Froomkin and regret that White House Watch was ending, said: “I don’t know why Froomkin’s column was dropped, but I can tell you that the diabolical conspiracy talk is nuts. Froomkin wasn’t dropped because he is too liberal; things just don’t work that way at the Post.” It’s also worth noting that The Post hired Ezra Klein, a liberal political blogger, within the past several months.

Second, reduced traffic played a big role. White House Watch had substantial traffic during the Bush administration, but it declined noticeably when President Obama took office. The Post will not disclose precise numbers. Froomkin acknowledges the drop but told me much of it can be blamed on a change in format and poor promotion. He said that shifting White House Watch from a column to a blog when Obama took office was disruptive to his audience and “dramatically reduced the number of page views per reader.” He also said poor promotion, especially through links from the home page, had caused traffic to dip. “I felt that with adequate promotion, page views would have been much higher,” he said.

Third, money was a factor. The Post is losing money. The Washington Post Co.’s newspaper division, which is dominated by The Post, reported a first-quarter operating loss of nearly $54 million. Every aspect of The Post’s print and online operation is being scrutinized for cost-cutting. Thus, when editors detected the drop-off in Froomkin’s traffic and looked at what he is being paid (a former Post Web site editor puts it “in the $90,000-to-$100,000” range), he became vulnerable.

Finally, there was disagreement over changing the direction of White House Watch. Some reporters and editors at The Post view Froomkin as a superb, hard-working “aggregator” whose blog needed more original reporting. Weingarten, without expressing his own judgment, alluded to this in his chat: “I can tell you that there has been some disagreement about Froomkin’s column over the years between the paper-paper and dotcom; the issue, I think, was whether he was as informed and qualified to opine as people who had been actively covering the White House for years.” Froomkin said his editors were urging changes in White House Watch, and he acknowledged
disagreement over content. For example, he was urged not to do media criticism. “I had always considered media criticism a big part of the column, as a lot of what I do is read and comment about what others have written about the White House,” he said.

In the end, Froomkin said that he was told in a recent meeting with his editors that his blog “wasn’t working anymore.”

“They wanted me to do it differently,” he said. But “the public response suggests that the readers were quite happy with it the way it was.”

And that, I think, succinctly captures the issue from both sides. The Post, needing to cut costs, sees a blog that has lost traffic and believes its author is unwilling to adjust to boost his audience. Froomkin acknowledges a traffic decline, but insists he maintains a robust audience and cites the large and loud reaction to his dismissal as evidence.

It raises several questions. Would Froomkin have been willing to work for less? (He did not answer the question when I posed it, and Post editors won’t say whether they offered.)

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