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The "Evaporation" of The Washington Post's Style Section and What It Means

by John Aquino on 03/04/19

The February Washingtonian Magazine ran a story on the Washington Post's Style Section "Is the Style Still in Style?", by Andrew Beaujon. He asks and goes on to explore the question, "But what if the important issue with Style isn't that it has gotten worse but that--at least in one important sense--it no longer exists?" The article meant something to me because the Post is my hometown paper and because I am a former contributor to the Style section.

My contribution appeared over 30 years ago on a Sunday. It was an article on the 100th birthday or the actor John Barrymore and included analysis of his film acting and how he influenced generations of actors. The article was a lengthy one--a column on page one of the section and a page and a half following. The Style section ran articles of that length on Saturdays and Sundays then and an number of articles on weekdays on the arts and "style." I remember visiting the bar named "Barrymore" in midtown Manhattan a few years later and seeing my article framed there. I am proud of that. Regular writers for the Style section included Tom Shales, Sally Quinn, and Judith Martin.

I wrote other articles that were published in the Post a decade and a half ago--one on fictionalization in fact-based films and another on the copyright for fictional characters, but they appeared in the Outlook section, never again for Style, although I tried. Most recently, seven years ago, I submitted an article to Style on the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Irving Berlin's last musical, Mr. President, in Washington, D.C. on its way to Broadway where it subsequently failed. The editors hemmed and hawed and finally rejected it, saying it was too lengthy and about something that happened too long ago. I finally posted it on this blog. Nowadays, a weekday Style section can have one mid-sized and two short articles, one or two op-eds, tidbits, and maybe a book review. On Sundays, the Arts and Style section will have are a few broader appeal articles, and perhaps a Q&A with a performer or director who is coming to town. I can go through a weekday Style in three minutes and, unless the Sunday section is on the Academy Awards or something, finish it in five.

The change in the Style section was part of a trend. In 2009, the Post stopped running its Sunday Book World as a stand-alone section. Book reviews now appear in the weekday Style section and the Sunday Outlook section. Beaujon's article notes that the change in the Style section has been gradual. It started with the decline in newspaper advertising. In 2012, Marty Baron, who was portrayed in the movie Spotlight on the Boston Globe's breaking of the Catholic Church's pedophile scandal when Baron was Globe's editor, became executive editor of the Post in 2013. He couldn't understand the Post's siloed coverage--separate movie reviews on Fridays in the Style and Weekend. In 2014, a major reorganization combined Style, Food, Travel, Weekend, the Sunday magazine, and other departments into the Features section. Articles tend to be first posted online. Beaujon suggests that this online approach works for some sections of the paper but not for the Style section. You can't find the print Style section online. Some op-eds, reviews of books, and articles from the Features department that are posted online ultimately find their way into the Style section of the print edition so that the print Style still, technically, exists.

In my three-plus decades of publishing, I have developed and been subject to a number of reader surveys. There's always a group of readers who complain that the articles in our publication are too long and they don't have time to read them. This complaint has grown as subscribers say they read articles on their phone or tablets. I and editors I worked for have, dutifully, implemented policies shortening the maximum length of articles and promoted this change to readers and advertisers. As an editor, I've never seen any increase in circulation, advertising or online hits after having made and promoted these changes. And in the next reader survey, there was a group of readers complaining that the articles were too long. 

The New York Times has retained its stand-alone book section on Sundays and continues to have reasonably-sized weekday and weekends sections covering the arts and style. Other newspapers have de-emphasized style, arts, and books sections. This gets into the discussion of the death of the print media, which has, I think, been exaggerated. There's no question the Internet has brought about decline in newspaper advertising and that some people prefer to read newspapers online on their phones and tablets. But the Post also gives away a free print version of the paper called the Express that subsists on advertising. You can go onto a bus or subway and see lots of people reading the physical Post paper and the Express. I seldom see people read newspapers online on the bus or subway, probably because of wifi issues. People have also been predicting the death of newspapers and bookstores due to a combination of people being able to order books on Amazon.com and reading newspapers and books on their phones and tablets. But Amazon has opened physical bookstores, and, according to the American Booksellers Association, independent bookstores are thriving.

My wife and I read the Arts and Book sections of the New York Times on Sunday and subscribe to the weekly London Times Literary Supplement. In February 2018, bookseller.com reported that TLS's circulation grew by 20% "as people value longer reads." I remember not so long ago reading TLS on the subway, and a teenager wearing a Cardoza high school jacket sitting next to me kept looking at the newspaper and finally asked, "Mister, what kind of paper is that?" I showed it to him, explaining that it was, basically, an entire newspaper devoted to reviews of books on all subjects. I said that I could sit on the subway and learn through long articles about books on biology, literary criticism, history, politics, almost any subject area. I asked if he would like to take it with him. He said, yes, and as the train pulled away I could see him out the window standing and reading the TLS. I like to think it perhaps spurred some interest.

I miss the having a substantial Washington Post Style section and Book World. The world is less informed and less literate because such sections are disappearing, just as it is because articles are running shorter. My hometown newspaper is a lesser one because of this loss.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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