When it comes to newspapers, journalist Dave Kindred is a hopeless romantic. He long planned to write a book that would serve as an ode to their greatness. But after two solid years of reporting on the Washington Post, the story he uncovered proved much more complex. Morning Miracle: A Great Newspaper Fights for Its Life is the latest book from Kindred, a onetime Post columnist, Pulitzer Prize nominee and seasoned sports journalist. He spoke to TIME about the ups and downs of the iconic D.C. broadsheet.
You dedicate a lot of space to the Post's Pulitzer triumphs in recent years and to the grand newsrooms of the past. How does today's Post live up to its legacy?
They're in the middle of a great revolution, and no one knows where it's going to end. They're trying to hold on to those things that made them great while inventing something new. I'm a sportswriter. It's almost as if the Yankees had suddenly been ordered to play cricket. It's a whole different game.
How long and deep down the Post rabbit hole did you go while reporting?
I worked there as a columnist just over seven years, but I spent much more time in the newsroom in the last two years of reporting than I ever did when I worked there. Most of these people I knew by name but had never met. So it was all just basic reporting: introducing myself, telling people what I was doing, what I hoped to do. I was getting them to spend time with me like any reporter would do on any subject. It's just that this subject happened to be the newspaper.
You say you set out to write a "valentine" to newspapers, but the past few years were a pretty bleak time for the Post.
In the end, it proved to be a tumultuous time. I certainly didn't know what it was going to be like when I started. Ten, 15 years ago I wanted to do a book about reporters and newspapers, and when I finally got around to doing it, all hell broke loose. What was supposed to happen to newspapers in the next 15 years the inevitable, irresistible decline in circulation and revenue happened instead in 15 months [because of the recession]. What I wanted to do was a romance, and it became an elegy. The executive editor lost his job, the publisher lost his job, and they won six Pulitzers. It was like the best of times and the worst of times.
Journalists are often typecast as square-jawed heroes or self-loving dilettantes. How would you describe the average, real-life reporter?
They're curious. They want to know why. They want to know what's happening and why the hell it is happening. They all have their own means of getting to the answers to those questions, but I think they're all Don Quixotes. We're all tilting at windmills in one form or another.
When writing about the Post's coverage of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, you quote an editor who says that "Five days," in the news world, "is like a year." How long is five days in 2010?
Five days is five years now. It's mind-boggling the way that news is suddenly old. And that's going to lead to some very bad journalism. It's going to lead to some bad mistakes and superficiality. It's leading to just opining instead of reporting, and that's a slippery slope.
People have gotten used to getting things instantaneously. Do you think it will cycle around to where readers really clamor for that old-school kind of journalism?
I certainly hope so. I asked columnist Steve Pearlstein, "How long will it take for people to understand what they're missing?" He said it would be 10 years before the pendulum would swing back and people would understand that they're getting thin gruel in journalism, and they'll demand more. I hope he's right. I don't know that he is.
After all your research, do you have an answer to that nagging question: What does a newsroom require to succeed in the modern era?
No. I don't think anyone does. I don't think we're ever going to be back to what [editor Bob Kaiser] called the glory years of the '80s when newspapers were flush and could do anything they wanted. But Watergate was done at a time when the Washington Post had half as many people as it has now. So there's no reason it can't be a great newspaper with fewer people.
For reporters looking to the future, how many parts should be excitement and how many parts should be dread?
Right now? Well, I think it's nine parts dread and one part excitement. I don't think there's anybody that's thrilled with the way journalism is going. Everyone is confused. It's like a Chinese fire drill. I guess the ultimate question is, "How are we going to make enough money to do great journalism?," and no one's figured that out. The dread is that people think it's never going to happen.
Out of all the things the Post covered, you devote a lot of time to the most recent presidential election. Why did Obama, Palin and McCain all get so much space?
That was a hard structural decision, and that was part of the rewriting of the book. I was originally trying to contain it inside the political campaign actually. So I probably spent more time than I should have covering that, but it was important because it showed the character of the newspaper, by way of showing how important it was to the Post, like their sending reporter Sally Jenkins to see [Sarah Palin's parents in Alaska]. I thought that was an indicator of a newspaper that might be in financial decline but still had great ambitions.
O.K. Fight of champions: the New York Times and the Washington Post enter the ring. Who emerges victorious and why?
In my mind, the New York Times has always been the newspaper. And I think it remains the newspaper. They've done, certainly in my lifetime, everything that you dream a newspaper could do. The Washington Post's aspiration was always to match the New York Times, if not surpass them. There may have been moments when in fact they did, and those moments may have been as recent as 10 years ago. But now the financial crisis has reduced the Post much more than the Times.
You say you didn't paint a rosy picture of the Post's future, but if you had to guess, where do you think the Post will be headed in five, 10 years?
As long as chairman Don Graham is in charge, they will continue their efforts to be a great newspaper. Whether they have the muscle to make those ambitions real is the question.