News & Politics

Change Inside the Post: Decoding Len Downie’s New Memo

Is Downie losing touch with reporters and editors?

This week’s memo from Washington Post executive editor Len Downie about cutting costs and redeploying newsroom resources held few surprises for reporters and editors. They chalked it up to well-known industry-wide problems: Post circulation and advertising revenues are down; the corporate side ordered Downie to cut costs.

To be sure, the Post has weathered the storm faced by most newsrooms better than any other major paper, but Downie’s memo portended big changes.

It wasn’t what the executive editor said but the way he imparted the information that irked some of the staff. Downie’s language was confusing; he relied on jargon; he seemed to be talking around reporters rather than to them. Downie is widely respected at the paper, but in the view of many Posties, he is losing touch with reporters and editors. Many remember the last general meeting as a low point. Downie’s talk was met with silence and left the staff demoralized.

This week’s memo further widened the gap between Downie and some of his his troops. Downie said this moment “reminds me of my early days in the newsroom, when Ben Bradlee began boldly transforming the paper in the 1970s and 1980s.” But where Bradlee led his reporters up the hill to get “holy shit” stories and created signature sections such as Style, Downie is seen as leading a strategic retreat.

Deciphering the memo’s precise meaning became a parlor game inside the newsroom. “It could have been broadcast on Radio Free Romania,” said one writer.

In the spirit of decoding a document designed in the Kremlin, here’s an annotated version:

“We have much more to do to maximize readership of the printed newspaper, build audience on the Web site and further reduce costs in the newsroom.”

Meaning: We have no clue as to why we are losing readers.

“We must produce high quality, compelling journalism and carry out our public service mission while adjusting our cost structure to shifting advertising revenues.”

Meaning: Ad revenues are plummeting, and the cost of labor and newsprint keeps rising. Fewer reporters will have to produce more copy.

“We are not just cutting costs.”

Meaning: We are cutting everything, from story length to the number of reporters who can roam around on general assignment.

“We are redirecting newsroom staff and resources to our highest priority journalism in print and on the Web.”

Meaning: Bye-bye narrative journalism of the kind championed by former managing editor Steve Coll and veteran feature editor Mary Hadar.

“We are moving reporters and editors within and among staffs to accomplish this.”

Meaning: Welcome to the Loudoun County bureau.

“In the process, we will continue to shrink the newsroom staff through attrition, as low-priority positions become vacant.”

Meaning: Phew, no layoffs or buyouts on the horizon, like the ones that just cost the newsroom nearly 80 experienced journalists.

“We also are tightening up the paper’s news hole . . . .”

Meaning: We hope that less information will make the paper more digestible—at the risk of dumbing down the news.

“The revamped Outlook section is an example of the improvements we are seeking.”

Meaning: Outlook editor Susan Glasser has a strong shot at becoming the next Assistant Managing Editor for National News.

“We will take a new approach to story length, which remains an important challenge, despite the progress already made in some parts of the paper.”

Meaning: Stories will be much shorter. Style editors have already put out a memo this week ordering major cuts in length. For instance, 60-inch stories should be 40 to 45 inches.

“We will have another newsroom staff meeting on Thursday, December 14 to tell you more about what we are doing and answer your questions.”

Meaning: Oops—the meeting was postponed because the room was taken that day, according to a second memo from Downie.

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