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It all started, the rumors said, with a spider.
Marcus Brauchli, fresh off resigning from Rupert Murdoch’s newly acquired Wall Street Journal, was interviewing with Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth for the paper’s executive editor job in 2008. Their day started with a breakfast interview, according to the New Republic, and then a drive to the Post’s office on L Street NW.
But while Weymouth was driving, a spider jumped into the car, terrifying the publisher. Brauchli nonchalantly picked up the spider and tossed it, winning Weymouth’s trust, according to a newsroom rumor she’s denied.
Weymouth returned the favor at a newsroom meeting Tuesday morning, announcing plans to yank Brauchli from the Post’s masthead like a distasteful bug and replace him with Martin Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe for the last 11 years.
Later that day, Weymouth told the Poynter Institute that leaving the job was Brauchli’s decision. But just last month, with rumors already swirling about his impending exit, Brauchli told Bethesda magazine that he intended to stay at the Post “for the long haul.”
In a way, Brauchli was proven right. After he leaves the Post’s newsroom on Dec. 31, Brauchli will ascend to the executive suite as a Washington Post Company vice president “evaluating new media opportunities.” But even that might not be a long-term gig. Brauchli had a consulting deal with Murdoch’s News Corporation after leaving the Journal, only to end up at the Post a few months later.
Under Brauchli, the Post won four Pulitzer Prizes, but went unmentioned at the 2012 awards. While its website remains a chore to navigate, marquee bloggers like Chris Cillizza and Ezra Klein have increased the paper’s national-politics profile. Brauchli managed to avoid any full-blown journalistic scandals, with the exception of a 2009 debacle over Weymouth’s plans for off-the-record “salons” featuring Post journalists.
But enough about the short-lived Brauchli era, which lasted a little more than four years. Come Jan. 2, the Post belongs to Baron, for as long he can keep it, and Brauchli has left him with a number of issues to resolve.
As with any transition, the first question for the Post is, “Who’s getting fired?” If Weymouth has picked the right editor for her agenda, the answer might be “a lot of people.”
Brauchli and Weymouth had long been at odds over Weymouth’s desired cuts to the newsroom. Even employee buyouts in February, and, according to the New York Times, intervention from Post Company CEO Donald Graham and an eventual compromise from Brauchli didn’t shake Weymouth’s desire to replace him.
That Brauchli, who came to the Post with a reputation for stiffness and a multimillion-dollar payout from Murdoch, would end up cast as the great defender of the Post’s journalism is just another ironic element in the dimming days of the American newspaper. Not that Weymouth is particularly wrong—a look at the company’s quarterly earnings report, which reveals a 14 percent drop in print advertising revenue in the first nine months of the year, suggests that the paper has to cost less to produce if it’s going to stay in business.
Weymouth’s ouster of Brauchli means that there will be cutbacks, whether or not Baron agrees. But he will play a role in deciding what gets cut, and that depends on what kind of Post he wants to run.
Until five years ago, the Boston Globe had a bureau in Bogota, Colombia.
A metropolitan daily paper that isn’t named the New York Times operating foreign bureaus seems like an expensive exercise in hubris these days, and that’s due in part to Baron, who shuttered the Globe’s three foreign bureaus in 2007.
Baron has shown that he isn’t afraid to chop off a paper’s bleeding limb to save the body. That should help him find an answer to one of the great outstanding questions about the Post: Is it a great regional paper, or a second-rate national one?
In the fat years of editors Ben Bradlee and Len Downie, there was enough money to avoid answering that question. Even Brauchli was helped by Kaplan, the Post Company’s for-profit education division. The company’s revenue this year ballooned thanks to campaign ads bought on the company’s TV stations. But the next presidential election is four years away, and Kaplan is under closer regulatory scrutiny, with its profits dipping. The Post may have no other choice but to become less ambitious.
There are many reasons not to cut foreign and national coverage. They’re an obvious prestige boost for the paper, and much of the local news in the capital of a country is national news. There are happy synergies, too—when reporting on military closures in Virginia, the Post has a Pentagon reporter, while the competition may not. And the Post still pulls off great national stories, as reporter Jason Horowitz proved when his article on Mitt Romney’s high school past dominated the presidential campaign cycle for a few days.
Any newspaper editor who has risen as high as Baron would want to dominate at both the national and local level. But if the Post wants to do one great, it could soon have to stop doing the other well.
Even as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have put much of their Internet content behind subscription paywalls, Brauchli opposed doing the same at the Post, telling attendees at a journalism conference, “We are quite content being the largest free premium newspaper online.”
But the Post’s daily print circulation is in decline, dropping nearly 9 percent year-to-year in the latest audit figures, and the temptation to open up a new revenue stream must be strong.
Baron’s record here is mixed. He implemented a paywall at the Globe last year, but it has struggled at times to gain subscribers, suggesting that few readers are interested in footing the cost for paywalls other than the Times’ and the Journal’s.
The management of the larger Washington Post Company is largely beyond his control, but if Baron is as much of a defender of journalism as his supporters say, he’ll call a meeting with Graham and Weymouth about the bizarre diminishing of the company’s cash reserves. As chronicled in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, the Post Company has been spending extravagantly on stock buybacks and lucrative dividends, when it could be reinvesting that money in core businesses like the Post—or at least using that money to eke out a few more years of great journalism.
Baron’s tough talk would have to extend to executives’ compensation, too. Weymouth, for example, has been offered a six-year stock grant incentive plan that could leave her with as much as $15.4 million in stock, in today’s stock prices. Even if the price declines, as it almost certainly will, Weymouth would be left with a hefty sum that anyone outside of Weymouth’s immediate family can see would be better spent elsewhere.
Then again, Baron’s predecessor tried to fight the publisher, too. And everybody knows what happened to that guy.