Back in the days of Watergate, the Washington Post went toe to toe with the New York Times—and won. As recently as a decade ago, Post reporters and editors measured themselves against “brand X,” as Posties derided the Manhattan-based daily. Since then the Times has become the nation’s preeminent journalistic enterprise, and the Post has faded.
If there was any doubt that the Post is no longer in the same league as the New York Times, media writer David Carr put it to rest with his scolding of Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
On Monday, Carr used last week’s sacking of executive editor Marcus Brauchli and the appointment of former Boston Globe editor Martin Baron to observe of Weymouth: “Four years into her tenure at the top, she still seems to be struggling to get a grasp on a huge job at a company whose journalism has at times altered the course of a nation.”
And: “Many staff members worry that she is overseeing the decline of one of journalism’s crown jewels.”
Carr, who covered the Post when he edited DC’s City Paper, points out the obvious but misplaces the blame for the Post’s sad state of affairs. Weymouth is part of a deeper set of problems and poor decisions that begin at the top.
Katharine Weymouth has been at the Post’s helm since 2008, and she has to take responsibility for hiring Brauchli. He turned out to be a lifeless leader. He failed to lead his newsroom troops through a demoralizing series of buyouts. True, he gets credit for melding the Post’s print and digital operations, but Raju Narisetti, the chum he handpicked to reengineer the Post’s web site, botched the job.
Brauchli and Weymouth clashed over budget cuts that fell on the newsroom. The staff, once numbering 900, now stands at 600. But the strategy for cutting costs to balance the books came from the Post Company board of directors. Revenues from advertising and circulation were falling, and the board ordered Weymouth to reduce operating costs. Thus, buyouts.
By contrast, the New York Times applied a different strategy. Rather than simply cut costs and reduce staff, the Times built its brand, maintained its robust reporting staff, and bolstered its journalism by attracting some of the Post’s top talent—from Mark Leibovich and Peter Baker to Jo Becker and Michael Shear, to name a few.
Carr’s critique of Weymouth overlooks Steve Hills, Post president and general manager. Sources inside the Post tell me Hills has been calling the shots on many of the decisions that have sapped the newspaper’s strength.
Ultimately, it’s instructive to see Weymouth’s role at the Washington Post as a family matter. Her great-grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post. Her grandmother, Katharine Graham, became the iconic leader who piloted the paper through Watergate, its greatest days. Katharine’s son Don—Weymouth’s uncle—ran the Post for years and passed it on to her. He now chairs the Post Company board and oversees the cartel.
The succession begs an essential question: Did Katharine Weymouth really want the job? Unlike Kay and Don Graham, Weymouth was not steeped in the newspaper world. She was raised in New York, by Don’s sister, Lally Weymouth, rather than in the political town of DC. She was schooled to be a lawyer, not a journalist. She worked first in Washington as an attorney before moving to the Post on the legal and business sides. She never worked in the newsroom.
Weymouth, friends say, has always centered her life on being a single mother of three young children, rather than a newspaper publisher. In my August 2008 profile of Weymouth, she allowed that she never thirsted to be publisher of the Graham family jewel. It seemed like a duty rather than a passion.
Don Graham had a passion for newspapering and now the digital side of journalism. Ultimately, the fate of his family’s brand falls on his shoulders. It was Don Graham who directed Post staffers to produce a product for and about Washington. Then he watched as the newspaper gutted the staff that might have produced quality journalism to fulfill that pledge.
So David Carr can write: “The Post now finds itself sharing a destiny with struggling regional newspapers.”
Which leaves the New York Times alone as the best national newspaper, where it seems to be surviving so far.