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The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser will soon be traveling to Finland to do some reporting. Kaiser won’t say exactly what the trip will yield, but the resulting stories will likely echo the diaristic tone of the pieces drawn from previous trips to Siberia and Central Asia. Post photographer Lucian Perkins will provide the visual documentation, and many of the pair’s discoveries will appear on washingtonpost.com, which Kaiser calls the project’s “most enthusiastic supporter.”
Kaiser on Finland: “It’s a very interesting country that Americans don’t know much about.” Kaiser’s fascination rests in part on the country’s embrace of technology—it’s a world leader, for instance, in cell-phone ownership.
At a time when such bleak places as Iraq and the Sudan are generating headlines, Finland must be counted as a journalistic luxury. The last time it really mattered was World War II. As for famous Finns, well, there are composer Jean Sibelius and Santa Claus.
Obsessing over such a country is a perfect pursuit for someone in Kaiser’s position—that is, an associate editor at the Washington Post. It could well be the cushiest title in all of journalism: no job description, nice office, good pay, and the resources of a rich corporation at your fingertips. You’re encouraged to write books and articles that tickle your fancy. Top it off with a boss who’s not exactly hounding you. “We don’t have a list of associate editors, we don’t have associate-editor meetings…we don’t have associate-editor picnics,” says Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
What the Post does have is perhaps the largest class of emeritus editors of any paper in the land. Although a list is indeed unavailable, there are at least nine associate editors working—often at their own pace—at the paper. The New York Times has three, according to spokesperson Catherine Mathis. And papers that are part of big corporate congloms, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Knight Ridder–owned Philadelphia Inquirer, don’t have room for reservoirs of institutional memory. “We don’t have any of those—not a single one,” says Anne Gordon, the Inquirer’s managing editor.
The reason that other publications don’t carry such an advisory class is that it’s not a bottom-line kind of job. Sure, associate editors are always available for consultation and can plug a hole here and there. Yet they’re not around to fill that holiday-weekend news hole in Metro. Together, the Post’s associate editors doubtless claim upward of $1 million in salaries. Are Washington Post Co. shareholders getting any value out of this arrangement? Post Publisher Boisfeuillet Jones responds, “I’d have a concern if they’re not productive for the paper, but they are.”
The output just isn’t measured by traditional journo benchmarks. Talk to these associate editors about their work and you’ll bring back lots of synonyms for “adviser.”
Says Associate Editor David Maraniss: “I’m the editor for [feature writer] Anne Hull and I’m a mentor to several other reporters there, and I write books and come back when the Post needs me.”
Says Associate Editor Kevin Merida: “I have come to describe my duties, other than writing, as trying to become coach/internal talent scout, reporter advocate, agent, problem solver, consigliere. Amazingly, it keeps me a lot busier than you might think.”
On that last point at least, the Post’s associate editors face some skepticism in their own newsroom. “I think it’s a shame that all that talent should be allowed to go off and do nothing,” says a Post reporter, who declines to be identified over fears that pissing on newsroom legends would destroy his future at the paper and perhaps beyond.
In fairness to this privileged class, four associate editors—David Broder, David Ignatius, Jim Hoagland, and Eugene Robinson—actually do deadlines. Each of them writes a twice-weekly column on the Post’s Op-Ed page. “I told everybody for the first six months, ‘I’m going to do nothing but learn this column thing,’” says Robinson, a former top Style editor who started as an associate editor this year. “If at some point there is some coaching role that I could occasionally perform, that could be something I do.”
Having a platoon of elderly statesmen jibes with the Post’s self-identity as an outlet that spares no expense in reporting the news. In fact, the associate-editor program has even helped churn out a book praising papers that set aside money for things like associate-editor programs. “Journalism can make a palpable difference in the community, sometimes in the entire country or even the world. The best such journalism is often produced by reporters and editors who have the luxury of pursuing topics they think are important without having to worry excessively about how much it may cost…”
Those thoughts come from The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, written by Downie and Kaiser and published in 2002. In addition to skewering profit-driven journalism, Kaiser has used his associate editorship to elevate the Post’s copy standards and assist with various washingtonpost.com initiatives. And if he gets tired of those things, there’s always another project. “There’s no situation I’m aware of where someone will say, ‘That’s Kaiser’s job,’” says Kaiser.
Given such perks, it’s a wonder every high-ranking editor at the paper isn’t looking to go associate. Steve Coll thought the same thing back in 1998, when he took over Kaiser’s position as managing editor: “I remember when Bob was handing the [managing editor’s] office to me….I said , ‘Can’t I just, like, skip over the managing editor and go straight to associate editor?’” Coll, whose book Ghost Wars this week won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, would have to wait until January 2005.
And what could possibly possess a Postie to pass up an associate editorship? Humility, perhaps. In 1998, 37-year-old Assistant Managing Editor for Style David Von Drehle considered an offer to move into this emeritus class. At the time, the associate-editor roster was headed by Broder, Kaiser, and Hoagland. “Those are some pretty big dogs….I mean, the dean of the paper and the former managing editor…so I though it might be a good thing to aspire to later in life.” Von Drehle went to the national desk as a regular reporter.