Managing Editor at Post Gets Very Mixed Reviews

Nineteen months ago Phil Bennett took over as Washington Post managing editor with two guns to his head: declining circulation and distrust by staff members who had preferred Eugene Robinson.

By: Harry Jaffe

He’s now second-in-command of a newspaper that is undergoing such turbulent changes that it appears to have a split personality. Support for Bennett in the newsroom is thin at best. He has fans such as Dana Milbank, Anthony Shadid, and Peter Baker, who says, “Phil is very engaged, very involved. He’s trying to save the franchise in difficult times.”

His detractors describe him as “icy,” “defensive,” and “moody.” Says one veteran writer: “He’s a kind of remote figure. A lot of people don’t know him.”

Bennett, who came to the Post in 1997 from the Boston Globe and served as foreign editor, didn’t respond to interview requests. I interviewed more than a dozen past and present Post staffers; few would comment for the record.

The Bennett portrait that emerges is one of a good editor but a poor manager. Investigative reporters give him credit for supporting their efforts, which were rewarded by two Pulitzer Prizes this year.

But he has given many coworkers the impression that he can be two-faced and reacts badly if challenged. Reporters and editors say Bennett would agree to coverage and management moves, then deny it.

Bennett’s shortcomings as a manager are exacerbated because he is driving painful changes within the Post: a recent round of buyouts, rearrangement of the paper’s sections, redeployment of journalists’ efforts to the Post’s radio and Internet operations.

Executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., who chose Bennett, has stuck him with some dirty work. Says an editor involved in the changes: “Leonard is leading the ship of state. Phil’s in the engine room.”

First impressions of Bennett were positive. At a party in Adams Morgan to celebrate Deb Heard’s appointment as head of the Style section in early 2005, Bennett danced all night. “Then he dropped from the radar,” says a reporter. “He hunkered down and was consumed by meetings.”

In his office along the north wall of the newspaper’s fifth floor, Bennett could be seen sitting with his back to the newsroom to face those on his couch. When he roams the newsroom, his hands often are jammed in his pockets.

When it came to telling top editors how many staffers they had to lose in buyouts, Bennett delivered the news. When it comes to dissolving the Health, Food, and Home sections and redesigning them as the Daily Source, Bennett is in charge of the mission.

Some female staffers have the sense that the three sections, read mostly by a female audience, are being changed by men with little regard for female readers.

The Post could use more readers. The latest report shows a drop of 3.6 percent in daily circulation to 724,242; a decade ago, daily circulation hovered around 800,000.

The decline is the impetus for many of the changes in the paper. Bennett finds himself in the tough position of forcing those changes.

Downie just turned 64, so people are discussing who might succeed him. For Bennett, it’s a question of surviving as managing editor.