The Washington Post (WPO) has long been one of a handful of what can rightfully claim to be great national newspapers. No longer. As of this week, the Post is adopting a humbler but perhaps savvier goal: to be a great regional newspaper -- albeit one with a national readership.

Years in the making, the shift in strategy is both epitomized and completed by the closure of its last domestic bureaus, in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. On an operational level, it's a relatively small matter, affecting only nine staffers. But as symbolism, it's big. "We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience," executive editor Marcus Brauchli told Howard Kurtz, the Post's in-house media columnist.
But "a national news organization of record serving a general audience" is exactly how the papers that the Post has traditionally competed with would describe themselves. These days, that means its East Coast power-corridor rival, The New York Times (NYT); to a lesser extent, Gannett's (GCI) USA Today; and also to a lesser but increasing extent, News Corp.'s (NWS) The Wall Street Journal. The Times and the Journal, in fact, are seeking to expand their footprint in cities other than their hometown: Both are starting San Francisco editions, and the Times is also adding a Chicago edition. (The Journal did, however, recently close its Boston bureau.)

So why is the Post moving in the opposite direction? Clearly it's because someone there realized that, as a national paper, it had become an also-ran.

There's no buzzier buzzword in newspaper-industry circles today than "differentiation." (Okay, maybe "hyperlocal.") The Times has its prestige, the Journal its business savvy, and USA Today its sheer mass and accessibility. The Post's best point of differentiation is its home-field advantage in covering politics, so its best bet is to concentrate all its resources on cultivating that advantage and defending its turf from Politico.com, which not only has the muscle to challenge the Post on politics but is now going after it on metro coverage, too.

It might make Katharine Graham spin in her grave. But then, Katharine Graham no longer has to answer to shareholders.

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