Home >Opinion >Washington Post regains its place at the table

Nothing in God’s creation is ever as good as it once was, but The Washington Post is coming pretty close.

The once-embattled newspaper is in the middle of a great run, turning out the kind of reporting that journalists—and readers—live for. That includes coverage that played a role in the resignation of the director of the Secret Service and investigative work that eventually led to the conviction of a former governor of Virginia on corruption charges.

The people who work at The Post have been clobbered for decades for not matching the glory days of Watergate—it’s doubtful anyone ever will—but more recently, after a series of layoffs and some management blunders, the decline in ambition and quality was there for all to see. The Post became seen as more of a basket case than best in class.

As Politico—started by disaffected Post journalists—gained traction with its aggressive coverage of politics, the whispers that The Post was no longer relevant became a loud refrain. The Columbia Journalism Review argued that by laying off hundreds, leaders at The Post had “diluted" its quality, Vanity Fair lamented it had become “a symbol of decline" and The New Republic called it a “newspaper in disarray".

The Graham family, longtime stewards of the newspaper, finally decided a little over a year ago that deeper pockets and different thinking would be needed to preserve the paper, and sold it to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

But now, more than a year after the sale, that narrative has changed and The Washington Post is being talked about for all the right reasons. Did Bezos have some digital lightning in a bottle that altered the math of modern journalism? Far from it, but his willingness to finance hiring new employees—over 100 so far this year—has created an atmosphere of confidence and financial stability.

The Post has been guilty of boring its readers in the past, but the current version is a surprising, bumptious news organization—maybe not the pirate ship that Ben Bradlee helmed as executive editor, but it is a sharp digital and daily read. It’s creating challenges for, ahem, its competitors, and bringing significant accountability to the beats it covers.

Only a nitwit would root against the health of the daily newspaper in the nation’s capital. The Post both covers and is part of the permanent class in Washington, and there is a broad civic interest in having a well-funded news outlet with sources and insights into Beltway bureaucracy and politics.

One of the deeper pleasures of covering the media world is that sometimes a single person, arriving at the right time, can change the fortunes of an organization. Think Tina Brown at The New Yorker, Eugene Roberts at The Philadelphia Inquirer or Adam Moss at New York magazine. At The Post, Bezos may have ensured the lights stayed on, but it is Martin Baron, who became editor at the beginning of 2013, who pushed the newspaper back into the conversation.

“Marty is a very good newsman, a no-nonsense, really bright guy who believes in the power of news, and that is highly contagious in a newsroom," said Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute. “Momentum matters a lot in a news organization."

Baron is a well-travelled and well-thought-of veteran who worked at the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times before becoming the executive editor of The Herald in 2000 and then quickly moving to the top job at The Boston Globe in 2001. In that period, he distinguished himself as a leader of journalists, but at both The Globe and The Herald, his tenure coincided with financial chaos, cuts and reduced ambitions.

The Post is the first time he has been handed a baton that was not on fire—Marcus Brauchli, the previous editor, was not universally praised but made important moves to modernize its approach to news—and he has run with it.

“With Jeff, we have the stability and resources to invest," Baron said by phone. “I think there are also intangibles in our business that matter enormously. Reporters need to know that they will be supported, that their colleagues aren’t going to disappear and that they can do their job without being worried all the time about losing it. Optimism, like negativity, can be infectious."

Part of The Post’s current visibility has to do with an increasing sophistication in promoting its content nationally; according to comScore, this July, The Post had 39,452,000 unique visitors, an increase of 63% from the previous year. But it’s more than digital magic. The killer app, as I have written before, is real, actual news. And The Post has generated a ton of it.

Apart from the unfolding story on a series of security lapses at the Secret Service and the reporting on the Virginia corruption, there was a great investigation on the police seizing millions from motorists not charged with crimes, and a piece on how good project management took a back seat to politics during the health care roll-out.

There have been many others, but the current run began with a huge bang in June 2013, when Barton Gellman brought a series of high-risk, highly complicated articles to the newspaper based on leaks from the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The Post, along with The Guardian, received a prestigious public service Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

“I think The Post is a very confident newsroom right now," said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, who competes against—and is friends with—Baron. “They pick the right stories, throw a lot of reporters at them and go after them hard. That’s a well-led newsroom."

For all their bluster and outward crustiness, newspaper people can be delicate flowers who have trouble doing their jobs when they believe that they are under threat. The directionality of the business—are we going up or are we going down?—is a kind of destiny. For years at The Post, and elsewhere in the industry, so many goodbye cakes were ordered that it became a verb: caking.

“It’s human nature," said Marc Fisher, a senior editor at The Post. “If every Friday you are getting called over to share cake with a departing colleague, it’s going to make you feel a little different if you see all sorts of cool new people getting hired. In that kind of atmosphere, Marty has done a great job of raising the ambitions of the place."

Good news about journalism is as rare as Beltway bipartisanship, so watching The Post’s return to the big boy table has been fun to watch.

As it turns out, the Grahams’ final act of stewardship—conveying The Post to an owner who could afford and support it—was among their most important. While Bezos may not have figured out how to use drone delivery to change the economics of owning a newspaper, he has financed excellence and stayed out of the way.

No one is going to mistake him for a print sugar daddy—last month, the company announced draconian cuts to pensions, like eliminating medical benefits for retired employees. There was also a freeze in a defined-benefit plan for managers with an eye toward imposing the same on The Post’s union employees.

And it’s also not to say that The Post has reinvented the math of producing high-quality information in a commodity-priced age.

But for now, enabling journalists to break news, chase scoops and light up the web seem like a better path than letting them eat cake.


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