We published Post Watch every month for 18 years because most Washingtonians read the Washington Post. Like the Redskins and Metro, it connected residents of our region. In 1990, the Post arrived on more than a million doorsteps every Sunday and 800,000 on weekdays. Post Watch tried to get inside the newspaper, putting faces on the bylines and looking at what it did well and not so well.
Now those numbers have been nearly cut in half and the Web has changed how we get information. A friend asked why I write every month about the Post: “It doesn’t count anymore.” It certainly counts less, so this is the last Post Watch. Next month we begin Media Players, with a wider scope.
The Post explains its distress by saying it’s facing the same market forces that are affecting news organizations worldwide. That explains business challenges, but the paper’s journalism also has gone downhill.
Since coming to the Post from the Wall Street Journal three years ago, executive editor Marcus Brauchli, 50, has sapped the newsroom’s vitality, according to staffers, past and current. A diffident and shy man, he seems unable to rally the troops. His assistants, Liz Spayd and Raju Narisetti, also have strained relations with staff. A Brauchli confidant recently asked staffers how he could “build back support.” One response: “He’d have to start from scratch.”
From the day Brauchli accepted the job and announced—while reading from three-by-five cards—that he was excited to become executive editor, he’s been physically and emotionally unavailable, Posties say. In the redesigned newsroom, he can get from his office to an elevator without encountering reporters.
A news organization runs on energy and loyalty. Executive editor Ben Bradlee got both; his successor, Len Downie, inspired the staff to do its best work. Many of the Post’s top reporters have left, among them Anthony Shadid, Bart Gellman, Robin Givhan, and Howard Kurtz. Each had offers and personal reasons, but none stayed because they wanted to work for Brauchli.
Brauchli’s damage to the Post has been self-inflicted—and poorly explained.
“There’s a sense in the newsroom he doesn’t know stories and doesn’t care,” says a writer. “Metro, Style, and Sports—he doesn’t care at all.” Posties say he favors the financial section.
Take the publishing side’s idea in 2009 to hold “salons” in which reporters would attend meetings sponsored by companies they might cover. Bad idea. Bradlee or Downie would have killed it; Brauchli was against the salons—but only after the plan became public. He wound up apologizing for his vacillation.
On Brauchli’s watch, typos have proliferated, sports coverage has become leaden, local Metro coverage has been starved. Brauchli has introduced a Web site that readers say is cluttered and hard to navigate.
To run Style, he tapped Ned Martel, a New York journalist who’d never edited at a daily. He paired Martel with veteran Post editor Lynn Medford to coedit what Brauchli called a chemistry experiment. It blew up in screaming matches. Medford moved to the Sunday sections; Martel alienated writers and finally stepped down to write—but not before he reportedly clashed with Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion writer Givhan, who left. Brauchli issued a memo saying how pleased he was that Martel would be writing. In truth, it was another Brauchli management disaster.
Brauchli’s decision to kill a first-person essay by reporter Jose Antonio Vargas was typical. Vargas pitched his tale of how he had been a successful journalist, including five years at the Post, but lived a lie as an illegal alien for much of his life. Brauchli invited the piece, editors worked on it for months, then Brauchli spiked it. The New York Times Magazine published it in June. Brauchli never explained his reasoning to his editors, staff, or readers.
What needs explanation is why he’s still in charge.
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.