TOPICS > Nation

Extended Interview: Karen DeWitt

April 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: As the Washington Editor of The Examiner newspaper, do you concern yourself with national news out of Washington, or local news, or what?

KAREN DEWITT: I concern myself with local news out of Washington, but also if there was a national connection, with national news as well.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it a bit odd for someone who spent her life in the newspaper business where they actually charged for the product to now work for one that they give away?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, this is subscription free because, you know, we do have advertisers.

But no, it isn’t odd because I never paid very much attention to the business side of anyplace that I’ve worked, whether it was The New York Times or The Washington Post, and I don’t really pay any attention here.

There is a division between business and editorial.

I think it’s really going to be quite exciting because this is a brand new newspaper. It’s like being at the beginning of the 19th century, you know, and starting it all from scratch.

TERENCE SMITH: And does it feel that way?

KAREN DEWITT: Oh, absolutely. We have a very young staff here. They’re very energetic. They produce two stories a day, which is an incredible amount of stories — one big story and one smaller story.

And I’ve got three reporters, waiting for a fourth, so you can imagine that we’re competing regionally with people who have much larger newsrooms.

TERENCE SMITH: Who do you think you’re competing with?

KAREN DEWITT: I actually think we’re a niche. I don’t think we’re competing with anybody. I mean, there’s so many varieties and places that people now get information. For example, I start my day off with the Wall Street Journal, and I read The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Examiner online — until I get my copy when I come in the office.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, but The Examiner is one of two relatively new, freely distributed tabloid-shaped newspapers in Washington. That sounds like competition to me.

KAREN DEWITT: Well, I’ll have to be honest, I have never read Express. I also have never read any of the local free papers until I started at The Examiner. But I think in looking at them now, The Examiner is unique and that’s what will make us successful.

TERENCE SMITH: Unique in what way?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, you’ve got stories from all over the world, but you have local stories, and a lot of people want to know about what’s happening locally. For example, today in our paper one of our reporters did Marion Barry’s son getting a plea bargain. Well, I think to local readers that’s very important. I mean, Marion Barry, as you know, has been tied to this city for many, many years. He no longer is sort of the only thing happening here, but for a lot of people that resonates. And it was buried deep inside the Washington Post, our other local papers buried it deep inside, but I think most people will be talking about that.

TERENCE SMITH: How are you supposed to cover Washington with three or four reporters?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, the same ways people cover it with 26 and 30 reporters, but we’re going to be very much more specific, and we’re looking for real storytelling. We’re not going to cover the sort of obvious things.

For example, we have one freelance reporter who discovered that the Frederick Douglas House — which is a significant historical house in Washington — which everybody associates with being — it was called, I think, the White House east of the river — was actually originally a sort of muddy brown, and that there’s going to be a great hoo-ha about this among citizens who have got accustomed to it, sort of like people are used to the Parthenon in white, when in reality they were, you know, painted with all kinds of tawny colors.

Well, it turns out that this White House east of the river was actually probably brown. And the Park Service is painting it brown again, so I imagine that will cause quite a bit of stir in that neighborhood.

TERENCE SMITH: As somebody who has worked in the New York Times, the USA Today, and other papers, how is this different?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, you know, I am a 20th century woman, and this is the 21st century, and we have got different young people reading papers. I’ve taught at a couple universities, I’ve taught journalism schools, I’ve made them read my papers, and initially they liked USA Today. I was at USA Today when it was a color paper and everybody laughed about it being a comic.

I think the trend now — because people don’t have time — is for a quicker read, a brighter read, a tighter read, and I think this is where The Examiner is and where it’s going.

TERENCE SMITH: And that’s what you’re trying to get out of it.

KAREN DEWITT: Absolutely. Yes. But good stories, too. We want depth. I don’t think — and I learned this at USA Today — that shortness doesn’t mean that it has to be light. I mean, I do just as much reporting for a story on the Middle East at USA Today as I did at The New York Times, and our reporters are going to do just as much depth reporting. We’re just going to make it tighter.

TERENCE SMITH: The paper has a decidedly conservative approach on its editorial page. Does that affect the newsroom, in your experience?

KAREN DEWITT: Not at all. I’ve only been here two weeks, but it doesn’t affect us at all. I don’t think it will affect us. I read the Wall Street Journal, which I love, but I don’t read their op-ed page. They say what they say; it is what it is.

I don’t think it’s going to affect the news, and I’ve got an indication from people at much higher grades than I am that it won’t affect the editorial.

TERENCE SMITH: But I’m wondering if that makes The Examiner’s natural competition not The Washington Post but The Washington Times.

KAREN DEWITT: No, I don’t think so at all because I know at The Washington Times, actually they do have some influence on what comes into the paper.

I know this because when I covered stories in South Africa, I ran into The Washington Times reporter in South Africa, and he was doing a kind of spin that was impossible to justify, and he eventually quit, and that is not going to happen here, I’m sure.

TERENCE SMITH: What was your first reaction when the thought occurred to come to The Examiner?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, I was approached several times because I had a couple of other opportunities that were also shaping up, and Nick Horrock just said, “You don’t want to do that. You’re going to have fun here.”

And I have to say it’s been long hours, it’s exhausting, we have a very young, enthusiastic staff, so it’s fun. It’s new. It’s exciting. And, you know, when you go to newspapers — I was just talking to our staff a moment ago, the managing editor, Nick Horrock, and the Virginia editor, Mary Ann Kuhn, the Maryland editor, Tim Maier, and we were trying to understand — they have the opportunity to start something. I said, You know, if you go to The New York Times you’re going to have to scrabble your way up the chain and get somebody to notice you. Here you have an opportunity to be noticed right away, with good writing and good reporting. So it’s exciting.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you this: What does this — the idea, the concept — business model, if you want to call it that, of a freely distributed newspaper that relies principally on advertising for revenues? What does that say to you about the business that you’ve been in for a long time, and its relative health?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, I don’t really know the business model and, you know, I don’t want to speak specifically here. But I just remember that before I worked for The Washington Post I freelanced for it, and it was at a time when Katherine Graham was breaking the unions, and somebody said something to her about the paper, and she said — and I’m paraphrasing her — I could put out a “penny dreadful” and still make money.

Which means that really advertising has always driven it. When I’ve taught journalism, I explained to students that, you know, it’s not your subscription that keeps the paper rolling. It’s advertising. So I just think that we’re just moving to, you know, what’s obvious.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, I find it interesting that at the time that this starts up, The Washington Post has lost 11 percent of its circulation of the simple unit, an alarm bell for any organization, when the population of the area has grown. So what’s going on?

KAREN DEWITT: Right. It’s a younger population. That’s exactly what happened when I was telling you earlier about my journalism students, you know, when they have a choice of reading The New York Times, the local paper, and USA Today — they chose USA Today. They want it light, tight, bright. Things are moving much faster, so we want to give them short stories. That doesn’t mean short in content, but short so that they get the gist of things, and it really helped me actually to work for USA Today.

I want to give them a compliment because my writing is cleaner, crisper. I covered South Africa in a five-part series that was 20 inches long, and believe me, you learned how to get to the point very quickly, and I think that’s what people want.

You’ve got people commuting, working long hours, you know, we’ve got mothers who are working that have been soccer wives. You’ve got to give them something that when they’re on the way to work they can read it and know what’s going on in the world.

TERENCE SMITH: Can you see this paper coexisting with The Washington Post, The Washington Times, conceivably The Express?

KAREN DEWITT: I’m going to be diplomatic because I was going to say — you don’t want me to be diplomatic? We’re going to take their lunch! We’re going to take their lunch from them because I tell you, this is the wave of the future. We are going to be eating their lunch! All of them.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, that’s going to be — you actually envision cutting into the strength and position of The Washington Post, which is without question one of the most established papers in this country, and has one of the saturation circulation figures?

KAREN DEWITT: Absolutely. I remember when I worked with the New York Post, and I was recruited to work for The Washington Post. This was before Woodward and Bernstein. This was when The Washington Post was still not the famous paper that it was. So I think that’s where we are now. I mean, what do they say — when you succeed, you relax, and when you are working to come up, you work really hard. So I think that’s where we are.

I think you can get really comfortable if you’re the big cheese in the market and we’re going to give them some competition.

TERENCE SMITH: The Post is a little too comfortable?

KAREN DEWITT: I wouldn’t say that, but they know where they are, and as you just said, you just quoted the statistics. So yes, I think when you’re fat and happy sometimes, you know, you don’t have as much edge.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, in truth, the alarm bells are going off around The Washington Post.

KAREN DEWITT: Oh, I believe it.

TERENCE SMITH: They’re very aware of at least their problems, if not their solutions.

KAREN DEWITT: Right. Right.

TERENCE SMITH: The other thing that they made an interesting point to me about the very area that you cover, Washington, and that you’re trying to cover, the population change. It has been overwhelmingly the result of immigration.


TERENCE SMITH: Not every one of whom is comfortable in English. So how do you address that?

KAREN DEWITT: Well, I don’t know how the paper — what the management side is. I would like at some point for us to do something, a pullout that’s in another language, maybe several other languages. I don’t know. I mean, that’s something for people, as I said, above my pay grade to consider.

But it’s not just the demographic changes. I think it’s covering the city and covering things that people are interested in, and I think that we are going to be doing that job. It hasn’t been done well.

TERENCE SMITH: When you do look at Express, you will find that their approach is something of a mirror of The Washington Post. In other words, precedence is given to national and international news, and only then to local news.

And here, clearly, there is an emphasis on your page on local news. So tell me the thought behind that.

KAREN DEWITT: I think that’s what people want to read. I think we’re now on a 24/7 news cycle. You’re driving your car to work, you hear about international things, you hear the pope, for instance, 24/7, so we don’t really need to cover that as much. You hear it on your radio, your television, your local news things.

We’re looking for the stories that people aren’t seeing, that are just as important, but that people cover regularly because they’re easy to cover.

I think there’s a certain amount of ease in covering things that everybody else is covering, and covering the thing that you see come across the Associated Press wire. Well, we’ll just go out and do this story in a bigger format. And I think that’s what we’ll be doing.

We’ll be doing stories that people aren’t.

There’s always stories that are going on. When I was at Nightline and the country got consumed with the Clinton-Lewinsky issue, there were still enormous amounts of stories that were going uncovered. But it was so easy for everybody to go with that story. As a matter of fact, Ted (Koppel) did something unprecedented, which is that a couple of nights he didn’t cover that. He covered other stories, because news continues, and there is news out there. News is supposed to be news, not the thing you find at 7, 11, 5, and the next day on the front page of the newspaper.


KAREN DEWITT: You’re welcome.