|A Newspaper, and a Legacy, Reordered |
By JEREMY W. PETERS
New York Times
February 11, 2012
ON a Sunday in early December, Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of The Washington Post, summoned some of the newspaper’s most celebrated journalists to a lunch at his home, a red brick arts-and-crafts style in the suburb of Bethesda, Md.
He asked his guests, who included the Pulitzer Prize winners Bob Woodward, Dana Priest, David Maraniss and Rick Atkinson, along with Dan Balz, the paper’s chief correspondent, and Robert G. Kaiser, a senior writer and editor who has been with the paper since 1963, to help him — and The Post.
He wanted to know how they thought The Post was covering the 2012 election and what might be improved. The paper, they told him, needed to strike a better balance between the ferocious 24/7 news cycle and more ambitious longer-term projects. Newsroom morale was suffering and needed his attention.
The meeting was an unusual gesture from Mr. Brauchli. In the nearly three and a half years since he became the first outsider to run the paper in seven decades, he has often fought perceptions that he is inattentive to concerns of his staff members.
But Mr. Brauchli is acutely aware of the tension that lies at the heart of his mission — a tension being faced not just by newspapers but by media companies in music, film, books, magazines and television. He is charged with maintaining the standards and legacy of a great institution — in this case, the newspaper of Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee and Mr. Woodward and Carl Bernstein — while confronting the harsh reality that in the digital age, the grandeur is gone.
Mr. Brauchli refuses to be held hostage to the past. “There are a lot of nostalgia-drenched people in the journalism field who look back at what newspapers were and have a fairly static view of what they should be,” he said in an interview. “Just because The Washington Post used to be a certain way doesn’t mean The Washington Post has to be that way in the future.”
T0he Post faces the same problems as other daily newspapers, whose revenues have sunk as the Web and the tough economy have sapped advertising. But in some ways, its situation is even more daunting. Unlike most other papers with national aspirations, The Post serves a purely local print market, one that for decades had limited competition, and it has depended on local advertisers and subscribers who have since fled to the Web.
Though company managers say privately that The Post is modestly profitable, its newspaper division, which also includes a group of community papers and The Herald of Everett, Wash., reported an operating loss of nearly $26 million through the first three quarters of last year.
Compounding its troubles, The Post’s safety net ripped a giant hole. For decades, The Post could rely on Kaplan — the money-minting, for-profit college and test-preparation business that the company bought in 1984. But Kaplan has been squeezed under the weight of new federal rules that place greater limits on how for-profit colleges can recruit and enroll low-income students.
Once by far the largest and fastest-growing business in the Washington Post Company, Kaplan is now a laggard. Education accounts for less operating income than two divisions that were historically less crucial to its profits, cable and broadcast television, according to the latest financial reports.
That has left the newspaper and the company’s other businesses exposed. The newsroom, once with more than 1,000 employees, now stands at less than 640 people, depleted by buyouts and staff defections. The newspaper’s Style section, once one of the most coveted assignments in American journalism, has shrunk from nearly 100 people to a quarter of that size. Bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are gone. There were so many Friday afternoon cake-cutting send-offs for departing employees last summer that editors had to coordinate them so they didn’t overlap.
“The survival of the institution is not guaranteed,” Mr. Kaiser said in an interview before the December lunch. Over the course of his five-decade career with The Post, he has been a summer intern, a metro reporter, a foreign correspondent and the No. 2 to Len Downie, Mr. Brauchli’s predecessor.
“When I was managing editor of The Washington Post, everything we did was better than anyone in the business,” he said. “We had the best weather, the best comics, the best news report, the fullest news report. Today, there’s a competitor who does every element of what we do, and many of them do it better. We’ve lost our edge in some very profound and fundamental ways.”
Last week, the paper announced a fresh round of voluntary buyouts, an effort to cut 20 more positions as managers reckoned once again with the painful reality that The Post was not making enough money to support the staff it employed.
Mr. Brauchli has reacted to the upheaval by overseeing one of the most sweeping and closely watched reorientations of any newsroom in the country. The editors now stress online metrics and freely borrow from the playbooks of more nimble online competitors like Politico and The Huffington Post.
The outcome of their efforts could offer a high-profile case study on how a company can foster an entrepreneurial, digital culture while remaining true to its heritage. But the transformation has been far from easy. There have been tensions in the newsroom and visible fissures between Mr. Brauchli and his own publisher.
The Post has expanded its Web presence by trying to meld what was great about the old Post with new traffic-baiting tricks of online start-ups — creating new, high-minded blogs like Ezra Klein’s “Wonkblog,” along with “Celebritology 2.0” where news about the Kardashian sisters and Justin Bieber can be found. That has many inside the paper starting to wonder if online growth has come at too high a cost.
UNTIL just two years ago, the Washington Post Company was considerably behind many of its competitors in innovating on the Web. Its digital and print operations were even separated by a state line. The Web site’s offices were across the Potomac River in Virginia and run by a different set of managers.
That changed after Mr. Brauchli and Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s publisher, integrated the two sides in the first half of 2009. Journalists whose primary responsibilities are to the Web site now work next to reporters in The Post’s headquarters on 15th Street in downtown Washington. Under the direction of Raju Narisetti, one of two managing editors brought in by Mr. Brauchli, the Post newsroom was reoriented to think about one primary goal: bringing the most visitors as possible to Washingtonpost.com.
Mr. Narisetti, who left the paper last month for a new job at The Wall Street Journal, where both he and Mr. Brauchli had worked before The Post, brought large flat-screen monitors into the newsroom that projected in real time what the most popular stories were online. He installed a new internal publishing system that required reporters to identify Google-friendly key words and flag them before their stories could be edited.
There are 35 different daily reports that track traffic to different parts of the Web site. Editors receive a midday performance alert, telling them whether the site is on track to meet its traffic goals for the day. If it appears that they might miss their goal, editors will order up fresher content.
“I’ve been at lunch, opened up that e-mail and called people and said: ‘Looks like we’re not delivering enough content. What can we put up?’ ” Mr. Narisetti said in an interview before his departure.
Top editors have embraced the view that studying traffic patterns can be a useful way to determine where to focus the paper’s resources.
“Let’s say you’re looking at your local staff, and because of pressures you need to move people. So you’re telling the local editor, here is the data, here are the business needs of our audience,” he said. “And in some cases people have moved an editor into a reporting role, or people have said we are reorganizing these beats so we don’t need four people covering this system. We can have three.”
Traffic isn’t the only factor that editors examine when determining whether to kill or expand a blog. They can look at where online visitors are when they read the site. And if their computers are registered with a government suffix — .gov, .mil, .senate or .house — editors know they are reaching the readers they want. “That’s our influential audience,” Mr. Narisetti said. “If a blog is over all not doing that great but has a higher percentage of those, we say don’t worry about it.”
Post employees are regularly schooled in the lingo of Web traffic. In memos to the staff, Mr. Brauchli is as likely to cite terms like page views, unique visitors and social media referrals as he is to laud a journalistic achievement. At the beginning of the month, he started an e-mail to the newsroom this way: “January was an excellent month for us digitally. We surpassed all our previous records. We beat our monthly records for page views by 9 percent, for visits by 14 percent and for unique visitors by 12 percent.”
He added: “Growing everywhere is a sign that we are adapting effectively to what our readers want.” By one important measure, The Post’s efforts are paying off. Recently, it has averaged 19.6 million unique visitors a month, according to comScore, making it the second-most-visited American newspaper Web site, behind that of The New York Times.
Mr. Narisetti and Mr. Brauchli were close partners in the digital reinvention of the newsroom, but their relationship became tense at times toward the end. In one spat witnessed by reporters in December, Mr. Brauchli confronted Mr. Narisetti in the newsroom over an erroneous blog post that said Mitt Romney was using language from the Ku Klux Klan in his speeches. The item forced the paper to issue an uncharacteristically self-flagellating correction citing “multiple, serious factual errors that undermine its premise.”
In an interview before his departure, Mr. Narisetti was asked if he believed that the newsroom would be the same size at the end of this year. “One thing no editor in any newsroom in this country can avoid saying is that it will be smaller,” he said, adding that if his bosses asked him how many people he needed to put out the paper, “the chances are we wouldn’t say 630 people.”
Despite the emphasis on digital delivery, The Post has continued to thrive by more conventional measures. Mr. Brauchli points to the journalistic distinctions under his watch, including five Pulitzer Prizes, and articles like an investigation into the insurance giant AIG and its role in the economic collapse of 2008.
“The Washington Post doesn’t need to cover everything,” he said. “But what it does cover it will cover well. I think the staff of any newsroom today surely understands that we are in a fast-changing industry, facing constant competitive pressure, significant economic challenges and great opportunities to rethink how we cover things.”
Some who were around when The Post’s mission was to cover everything said they understood how hard Mr. Brauchli’s job was, and they think he did not always get the credit he deserved.
“Whatever you’re going to say about the paper and where it is, it’s a time of convulsion for all newspapers,” Mr. Woodward said. “But you have an absolute first-class news person in charge who really does have the clarity, zeal and drive of Bradlee.”
NO one bears the weight of The Post’s legacy more than Katharine Weymouth, the paper’s 45-year-old publisher and the fifth member of her family to hold that title. Her grandmother was the beloved Post matriarch, Katharine Graham. Her uncle is Donald E. Graham, the former publisher and now chief executive of the Post Company. It is a testament to Mr. Graham’s standing among his employees that despite the difficult times, few hold him in anything but the highest esteem.
Mr. Graham, who graduated from Harvard and was drafted into the Vietnam War, joined the Washington police department before taking a job as a Post reporter. Ms. Weymouth, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, attended the Brearley School and then Harvard, had an indirect path to The Post of a different sort. After graduating from the Stanford Law School, she moved to Washington to work as a corporate lawyer.
In 1996, she joined The Post as an assistant counsel and was named publisher in February 2008, right as the Great Recession was getting under way. In one of her first major decisions, she surprised the newsroom by reaching outside the organization for Mr. Brauchli, who had accepted a large payout and resigned from his previous job, running The Wall Street Journal under its new owner, Rupert Murdoch.
In Mr. Brauchli, she saw the kind of leader who could be a strong partner in shaping the company’s business strategy for the next generation. “I think he came in with his eyes wide open,” she said in an interview.
Mr. Brauchli was also willing to take on the undesirable task of paring down the newsroom. “It’s a job that Ben Bradlee didn’t have to do, and that Len Downie only had to do a little bit of,” she said, referring to the paper’s previous two executive editors.
Ms. Weymouth is a careful student of her family’s history, even if she says legacy isn’t something she spends a lot of time thinking about. “I just can’t think like that,” she said.
Her tenure got off to a rocky start. In the summer of 2009, Ms. Weymouth had to apologize after it became public that The Post was planning to charge lobbyists and others for access to exclusive “salons” at her home. Seeking a new revenue stream, the company wanted to create a series of events featuring Post journalists that would attract sponsors. Though magazines host similar conferences all the time, it seemed particularly undignified for an institution as esteemed as The Post. And the blowback was fierce.
Though Mr. Brauchli always understood his job would entail how to put out a daily newspaper and run a 24/7 Web site with shrinking resources, some of his editors have noticed that his relationship with the publisher has cooled.
One veteran newsroom manager said Mr. Brauchli has described “a constant fight” with the publisher over making further cuts. In an act that went largely unmentioned at the paper, Mr. Brauchli refused to accept a bonus one year, this person added.
Though such a gesture, coming as it did when the paper was reducing staff significantly, may have helped lift morale and engender good will, Mr. Brauchli chose not to make his decision public. And when Ms. Weymouth wrote a year-end memo to the staff praising its accomplishments and thanking people by name, his name was curiously absent, leading many staff members to believe that she had snubbed him. In fact, said another person who had seen an original draft of the memo, Mr. Brauchli’s name was mentioned in the first version but he asked that it be taken out. He left the misperceptions uncorrected.
Many at The Post are still trying to adjust to life under a new regime, one in which “Donnie-grams,” congratulatory notes from the chief executive, arrive in your in-box along with spreadsheets on the latest Web traffic metrics, and where the walk-around management style of Mr. Bradlee and Mr. Downie is gone. Employees often fault Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Brauchli for not circulating enough in the newsroom. By her own acknowledgment, Ms. Weymouth lacks ease and rapport with the newsroom. Her uncle Don, she said, “has an amazing knack for names that unfortunately I don’t share.”
On election night in 2008, she brought her young daughter into the newsroom to witness Post journalists putting together the paper that would report on President Obama’s historic election. Reporters and editors, most of whom rarely saw their publisher in the newsroom, were taken aback but impressed with what that said about Ms. Weymouth’s attachment to the paper.
“I hope they see me as a champion of the news. I do my best,” she said. She added that she didn’t visit the newsroom “nearly as much as I’d like,” saying: “You get stuck in meetings, you’re traveling. I’d like to get down there a lot more.”
Mr. Brauchli’s own response to the criticism was similar: “The journalism is where I want to spend my time, and the journalism is where my passion is. But there are a lot of issues that require my attention.”
THIS summer, Reuters tried to poach Mr. Balz, one of the country’s most prominent political reporters. Mr. Brauchli and the national editor, Kevin Merida, were loath to see him go — not just because they were wary of more brain drain but also because of the potential damage to newsroom morale from the defection of such a revered and well-liked colleague.
They flew a young political reporter, Philip Rucker, to Michigan, where Mr. Balz was on vacation and considering the Reuters offer. Mr. Rucker appeared on Mr. Balz’s doorstep carrying a basket with cheese and wine and a book they had made called “Campaign Crescendos: The Election-Night Writings of Dan Balz.” Editors and reporters had signed it, urging him to stay.
He declined the Reuters job.
“To me, The Post was and is a great newspaper,” Mr. Balz said. “Is it a different place today than it was? Sure. But in the end it’s still a great place to do great journalism.”