Changes at the Washington Post Style Section

WaPo's "sandbox" section has another crisis of identity

By: Harry Jaffe

Washington Post subscribers soon might be surprised to find a hefty package dropped at their home, with a new Sunday Style tabloid and a separate arts section.

Didn’t the Post kill Sunday Style a few years ago and merge it with its arts coverage?

“We’re making a major investment in the Sunday print edition,” says features czar Kevin Sullivan. “This has been my baby.”

On the business side, investing in the Sunday sections reflects two factors: Publisher Katharine Weymouth has balanced the paper’s profit-and-loss statement by cutting staff, and she hopes that the newspaper, rather than the Internet, can still provide revenue and growth.

But in the newsroom, writers and editors are asking: Who’s going to write for these new Sunday sections? “It’s a fair criticism to say we have lost people and not replenished the staff,” executive editor Marcus Brauchli tells Post Watch. “We need fresh talent in Style.”

A staff that once included feature writers such as Judy Bachrach, Martha Sherrill, and Henry Allen is down to a group of eight that includes only one proven profile writer: Manuel Roig-Franzia. Many gifted writers have left the paper (Tamara Jones, David Segal); some have moved to other sections: Wil Haygood and Laura Blumenfeld are now in national.

Brauchli acknowledges that the staff is also divided—and he inadvertently created the divisions.

One of his first major hires was Ned Martel as Style editor. A Baltimore native, Martel, 43, came to the Post in 2009 after working at Men’s Vogue. He had freelanced for newspapers but never worked in a newsroom. Brauchli made him coeditor with Lynn Medford, a Post veteran. They cooperated for a bit, then clashed, openly and nastily.

Brauchli created “a two-headed beast,” in one writer’s words. Says Brauchli: “We tried an experiment. We have adjusted.”

The adjustment puts Martel in charge of daily Style, with Medford overseeing the Sunday sections and the magazine. Their offices are next to each other; the two don’t speak. They share staffs and critics, many of whom feel like children of divorce. Four writers—David Montgomery, Neely Tucker, Lonnae O’Neal Parker, and DeNeen Brown—went with Medford to the Sunday publications.

Style once was known as the sandbox; now it seems more like a mud-wrestling pit. Rumors of Martel’s departure still occasionally run through the newsroom.

“Ned is absolutely brilliant,” Brauchli says. “He has exactly the right idea of what Style should be.”

Which is what Brauchli wants it to be: devoid of the snarkiness and “riffing” readers came to love or hate in profiles and essays by writers such as Tom Shales and Sally Quinn. Expect more stories like Will Englund’s on the efficiency of escalators in Moscow’s subways. But is it Style?

Martel says he has pushed Style writers to do more reporting. “More voices,” he says. He has invited political writers such as Anne Kornblut to contribute. Some have embraced him, some not.

Robin Givhan did not; her relationship with Martel was a catalyst in her departure to Tina Brown’s Daily Beast.

Martel gets to hire replacements for lost columnists, and Brauchli hopes they’ll fill the new Sunday sections. What next—a resurrected Book World?

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