Merida on Obama: Both of Us Are New at This

By: Harry Jaffe

Kevin Merida thinks he has at least one thing in common with Barack Obama.

“I’m about to take over a big job in tough economic times,” he says. “It’s the toughest job I’ve every had. Neither of us has had much experience at it.”

Except that Obama gets to be President of the United States, and Merida becomes the Washington Post’s top editor for national news. Running the national desk makes him responsible for rehabilitating the Post’s political-news operation, suffering from defections and months of disarray.

How will he shape national coverage?

“We’re witnessing the rebirth of the country,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What did we produce to help people understand the moment of great change?’ No one knows what the country is going to look like.”

The same could be said of the Post and newspapers in general.

Merida never sought the national-editor job, but executive editor Marcus Brauchli offered it. Merida has been at the Post since 1993, after reporting and editing for the Dallas Morning News. He had covered Congress and President Clinton and the 1996 presidential campaign; he had written features for Style and a column for the Sunday magazine. He had coauthored Supreme Discomfort, a biography of Justice Clarence Thomas, with colleague Mike Fletcher.

At 52, he was sitting pretty as an associate editor. He could take his pick of writing or editing projects. Why accept a job laden with meetings and management hassles?

“Journalism and the Post have been good to me,” he says.

Merida has local roots. His father, a geologist, brought the family to Southeast DC from Wichita when Merida was four. When he was ten, the family moved to Seat Pleasant.

“I was in the first class of busing in Prince George’s County,” he says. From Central High, he was bused to Crossland High in Temple Hills near Andrews Air Force Base. “There was some conflict, some scuffles,” he says.

Merida says he was encouraged to write by an English teacher, Linda Wanner, now assistant principal at Montgomery County’s Blair High.

As national editor, Merida has to help oversee the merger of the Post’s print and online operations. He also has to motivate a staff that’s lost a dozen veteran reporters. “We can long for people we lost,” he says. “Many were my friends. But we have many heavy hitters on our squad.”

They are competing with, among others, the Wall Street Journal, which has invigorated its Washington staff, and the New York Times, whose veteran staff includes former Posties such as Mark Leibovich. How will Merida motivate his staff?

“It sounds kind of corny, but we all need people who believe in us,” he says. “I will encourage and prod them to step into this moment.”

Merida lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Donna Britt, a former Post columnist now writing a memoir, and sons Skye Merida and Darrell Britt-Gibson.

He’s never met Obama, though he’s interviewed him by phone for a story about Obama’s father and helped write a book of pictures about the presidential race. “I don’t think he’ll be watching me,” Merida says of the President, “but I will be watching him.”

This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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