There are many reasons to discount the rumors.
Downie will complete 17 years as the Post’s top editor in September. He turns 66 in May. By many measures, he has been a strong leader, and the Graham family owes him a debt for loyalty and dedication.
Downie guided the Post through almost two decades of change and turmoil in daily newspapering. To meet the demand of the suburban readership, he launched the “Extras” zoned editions. He encouraged investigative reporting and projects. Some years the Post won scores of prizes, some years it didn’t do well in the big contests.
But Downie’s tenure has been dogged by declining circulation, falling revenues, and a series of buyouts that have drained the newsroom of talent and experience. The print newsroom on L Street in downtown DC is losing stature and momentum to the Post’s online publication, washingtonpost.com, based in Arlington.
Donald Graham, chair of the Post Company, was publisher of the newspaper when Downie took over from legendary editor Ben Bradlee. But while Graham is devoted to Downie and the newspaper, he has also shifted his attention and resources to washingtonpost.com and the broader concerns of the company, now dominated by its Kaplan educational unit.
While he could stay on as top editor, Len Downie might see this moment as an opportune time to step down.
Katherine Weymouth has just been named Post publisher, taking over from Don Graham and his close associate Boisfeuillet Jones. Weymouth, Don Graham’s niece, is also chief of the online operation, with the intention of making the two publications function together more smoothly.
Weymouth apparentaly is not sending any signals that it’s time for Downie to go; she hasn’t been at the helm long enough. But many reporters and editors believe Downie’s time has come and gone. At a time when newspapers have to change or die, many Posties see Downie stuck in the paper’s past.
Working among lots of East Coast elitists educated at Ivy League colleges, Downie often talks about his midwestern roots and degree from Ohio State University. The Post under Downie often has seemed leaden and stodgy, which has lead to comparisons between Downie’s leadership and Ohio State’s conservative ground game under its legendary football coach Woody Hayes: “Three yards and a cloud of dust.”
If Downie has decided to step aside, he certainly could do better than simply taking the buyout being offered to other staffers. The Grahams would be happy to give him a title and salary. Ben Bradlee is still a vice president and has an office in the executive suite.
But Downie has not groomed a successor. To the contrary, he has gone out of his way to choose a pliant lieutenant in Philip Bennett. In a Machiavellian way, choosing Bennett as his number two was smart. Bennett has delivered much of the bad news about buyouts and reassignments, which has allowed Downie to keep his hands somewhat clean during the bloodlettings of the past few years.
If Downie vacates his post, Katharine Weymouth will not find an obvious successor in the newsroom among the assistant managing editors beneath Bennett. All are capable, but none have the stature to become number one.
If she looks beyond the Post, some potential leaders stand out. One is Dean Baquet, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. He became chief of the Washington bureau after leaving the top editor’s job at the Los Angeles Times in 2006 because he refused to go along with big staff cuts.
Or she could merge the newspaper and the fast-growing online operation under one editor, perhaps Jim Brady, now editor of washingtonpost.com.
Whether the newsroom rumors about Len Downie taking the buyout are accurate or not, his tenure at the Post is not likely to last much longer, and there is increasing talk within the paper about the post-Downie era.