This post was updated at 5:21 p.m., May 11, 2012.
Accurate accounts are sparse of exactly what transpired last month when a bevy of veteran Washington Post reporters broke bread with Steve Hills, the publication’s president and general manager. Those who attended the April 17 session at the home of former Post reporter Bradley Graham agreed to keep the details secret, and they are doing a good job.
The fact that a troop of celebrated journalists—among them Pulitzer Prize winners Dana Priest and David Finkel—would ask Graham to set up a secret meeting with his friend, Hills, is revealing in and of itself. It points, once again, to the lack of leadership within the newsroom.
Reporters and editors are loath even to drop in on their publisher, who at least straddles the fence between the business and editorial sides. Hills is pure business. He came to the Post in 1986 and never left, becoming president and GM in 2002. Why would reporters cross the divide and look to Hills?
Bradley Graham (no relation to the Graham family that controls the Post Company) said the reporters were "just interested in knowing him better," according to Adweek, which broke the story.
Who's buying that?
The reason Priest and other veterans took a pilgrimage to the top of the business side--without executive editor Marcus Brauchli by their side--is that they were not getting answers from Brauchli and his deputies. The sense among many within the newsroom is that reporting and journalism, elements that have been at the Post's core for decades, are no longer valued. Many reporters believe marketing is beginning to compromise the newsroom, and a thirst for pageviews has diminished the Post.
"We seem to be committed to indiscriminate traffic," says a veteran Metro reporter and union rep.
While the minutes of the Hills meeting might never be revealed, the reactions of the journalists in attendance rippled through the Post newsroom, ranging from anger to disappointment. From what I could confirm, Hills disparaged journalism awards, said the Post should publish photos from any source that might attract pageviews, and compared the paper to the Dayton Daily News--all of which was reported in Adweek.
No journalistic enterprise has figured out a profitable business model in the digital age; the Post has been losing revenue and circulation for years.
But Hills's comments about the Dayton Daily News hint at a deeper problem, especially coming from the business side. The Dayton paper is purely local and has a circulation that hovers around 100,000, about a fifth of the Post's. At Hills' level, the question is whether the Post can survive best as a local publication. Right now it's attempting--at great cost--to cover local, national, and international news.
And it's failing.
UPDATE: With apologies to Marcus Brauchli, upon further reporting, I have discovered that Brauchli knew that Post reporters had set up a meeting in April with general manager and president Steve Hills. It was not, as I insinuated, an end run around Brauchli, Post executive editor.
Contrary to my Thursday column, some Post journalists, including those who met with Hills, see Brauchli as a champion of the newsroom battling budget cuts and buyouts. The reporters who met with Hills wanted to press their case for preserving the integrity of the news operation.
I stand by my reporting that they were disappointed with Hills' reaction, and that the Post is fundamentally confused about its mission and future.