News & Politics

Young Stars Leaving the Washington Post

Losses are plaguing the Post as the newspaper merges its print and online operations.

The Post has endured the loss of lots of name brand journalists, both through voluntary departures (Mark Liebovich, Dafna Linzer, Jim VandeHei, John Harris, etc.) and buyouts (Richard Harrington, Steve Hunter, Tamara Jones, etc.).

But news this week that four young reporters are leaving the Post suggests a weakness at the paper’s journalistic core and raises at least two questions:

— Can the Post keep its best young talent?
— Is the Post botching the merger of its print and online operations?

Jose Antonio Vargas’s decision to leave the Post for the online publication Huffington Post was the most damaging loss.

“It was a personal decision,” Vargas tells The Washingtonian. “I was not unhappy at the Post.”

Vargas’s departure comes on the heels of news that technology columnist Kim Hart is switching to The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper; political writer Matthew Mosk is leaving for the Washington Times; and intern Kendra Marr has been scooped up by Politico.

Vargas, 28, came to the Post five years ago, wrote his way up through the ranks, and became the paper’s chief writer on new media and technology. He both covered new media and used it. In the aftermath of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007, Vargas contacted an eyewitness through Facebook. His reporting won him a piece of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a groundbreaking series on AIDS in DC; it has become the basis of a forthcoming documentary.

In the past few months, Vargas has been at the forefront of the Post’s attempt to navigate the Internet and social media. Post Company chairman Don Graham gave him a seat at lunches to brainstorm the paper’s future.

Why did he leave?

“Arianna Huffington has given me the opportunity to build something from scratch,” he says. Vargas says he will create a new technology “vertical” that will aggregate news and features, publish original content, and include his daily blog.

Why not do it for the Post?

“Not that I couldn’t do it at the Post,” he says. “But the infrastructure and the leadership at the Post are in place. I wanted to start something brand new.”

Sounds similar to Kim Hart, who will start a blog and website on technology coverage for The Hill, which covers Congress and the federal agencies. “I am excited about the chance to create, launch and run something new,” she says.

Vargas’ decision to leave for the Huffington Post is remarkably like the departures of Jim VandeHei and John Harris for Politico in 2006.  All three were rising stars at the newspaper, but the Post couldn’t keep them. The Post countered with money and promises but they left anyway. Vargas refused to say anything negative about the Post, but as with VandeHei and Harris, he came to the conclusion that he would have more success in launching something at a more agile news operation.

“I asked myself where I could have more impact,” Vargas says. “The answer was Huffington Post.”

Ironically, Vargas, Harris, and VandeHei met with former publisher Bo Jones back in 2006 to air complaints about and lobby for a more responsive internet site. They had to leave to create what they wanted to do.

Responding to questions about the departures, Post Editor Marcus Brauchli says: “In the course of things, you lose some good people, and these are all terrific folks. But you should note we've also added some fabulous talent, including Doug Jehl, Greg Jaffe, Ezra Klein.”

Sources in the newsroom now say that the Post’s effort to merge its web and print publications is going badly.

“They have blown up the newsroom,” says one reporter, “but they haven’t explained what will be next.”

According to other reporters, the merger of the newsrooms is almost complete; now the web site is under the direction of the print editors.

“It’s a step backward,” one Postie says. “The web is supposed to be quick, fast, fun, full of attitude. With the newspaper editors in control, there's a risk it might become slower, more methodical—more old school.”

And talented young writers seem to be fleeing for new schools—or different ones.        

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