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The managing editor slot at the Washington Post, a position that is traditionally draped in ivy and years of editorial helmsmanship, will soon be occupied by a graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles who got his start writing ad copy for Fender guitars.

Editor Len Downie, a steadfast captain not given to fits of risk in his six years since taking over the bridge, has decided to take a big one in Steve Coll, who has been running the Post Sunday magazine for the past two and a half years. Downie surprised everyone—including probably himself—in bypassing several long-serving assistant managing editors and anointing the 39-year-old as his No. 2. Depending on which extension you reach at 15th and L Streets NW, the hiring of Coll reflects Downie’s capacity to recognize his own limits or throws a wacky elbow at every tradition at the Post. Downie sounds pleased with himself—and even more pleased with his new playmate, even though Coll has as much experience running a daily news section as he does driving an ocean liner (none).

“He is aggressive, adventurous, has a strong eye for the narrative form of journalism, and knows where the stories are. He has demonstrated an ability to work collaboratively and make other people better in the specific case of the magazine,” Downie says.

Downie suggests Coll emerged as the most logical antipode to himself.

“Many editors are rooted in the next day’s newspaper. That’s where my rhythms are. Steve is a much better strategic thinker. In a memo he wrote, it was very clear that he had an appealing sense of what the future of the newspaper will be and the role he could play in helping me accomplish that,” says Downie.

A Montgomery County native, Coll boasts a career as remarkable for its achievement as for its lack of convention. After singing the praises of Stratocasters, he went to work for a nonprofit investigative reporter group affiliated with Los Angeles public television station KCET. Meanwhile, he became a contributing editor of California Magazine and then—after the magazine folded—moved back to Washington to write a book about the breakup of AT&T. He joined the Post in 1985 as a feature writer for Style and then bounced among various assignments, including financial correspondent in New York—he shared a 1990 Pulitzer Prize with David Vise for their investigative series on the Securities and Exchange Commission—and South Asia correspondent in New Delhi. He globe-trotted again as a roving projects and investigative correspondent for the foreign staff while based in London, before finally returning to run the magazine. Somehow he managed to write three more books between assignments.

“I have had a great run. A joyful, privileged professional life. I thought long and hard about that before I decided to take the idea seriously. I couldn’t have predicted that this is where I would end up after 20 years,” Coll says.

Coll takes command of a newsroom in good spirits over its conquest of the White House sex scandal, but before the Lewinsky affair reignited the paper’s raison d’être, the Post had been sailing through a long, torporific stretch. (The Post’s unimpressive showing in the Pulitzers reportedly continues this year, with just one finalist—for international reporting—to the New York Times’ eight.) The Times and more than a few Post readers had remarked about the paper’s lack of ambient sizzle. And Coll agrees you can’t depend on a White House intern to keep readers flipping the pages.

“I think there is a real hunger here to hit the high notes more often, even when you don’t have a story that is tailor-made for this paper’s strengths. We want to have that kind of excellence across a broader range of topics,” says Coll, who lives with his wife and three children in Bethesda. Coll’s youth and anomalous career path suggest that Downie wanted someone who could do more than tally a news budget.

“I think everyone here would deny to the death that this hire was an attempt to fill in the [sizzle] deficit, but I think Len realizes that he is a straight-ahead journalist, and we need new ideas—unconventional ideas—to appeal to a different generation of readers,” says one observer.

In a culture of complaint as abiding as the Post newsroom’s, Coll’s selection has provoked a minimum of angst. “It seems like Downie really listened to the newsroom and what we wanted. If he had just gone into his office and sat back in this chair to think about this, he wouldn’t have picked Coll,” says a Post source.

So it turns out everybody is surprised. Coll was among the mentioned, but he certainly wasn’t first on the cards of handicappers. Many students of the Post’s wiring diagram felt that Karen DeYoung, assistant managing editor for National, or David Ignatius, assistant managing editor for Business, had shoveled enough coal—and diamonds—to succeed current managing editor Bob Kaiser. They are reportedly chagrined by Downie’s sudden break with orthodoxy—as are some of their colleagues, who now must deal with thwarted expectations because the round of musical chairs that would have benefited others will not take place.

“I’m sure some people at National are pissed,” says one. “Their duke lost.” Another source suggests that Ignatius and DeYoung may end up in search of other kingdoms now that the new kaiser has been crowned.

“I would be surprised if Karen and David were in those same jobs a year from now. [Downie] picked someone whose feet haven’t really hit the pavement here, a guy who has had a really smooth ride of it, over people like Karen and David, who have been here week after week, staying here ’til Friday at midnight to clean up some mess of a story that was scheduled for the Sunday,” says one.

Still, the people who have worked with Coll sound as if they would go through walls for him, including Sunday mag staff writer and former managing editor Liza Mundy.

“He has a rare ability to motivate people without terrorizing them. He combines tough-mindedness with a great deal of enthusiasm about the work,” Mundy says.

In addition to editing the magazine, Coll became publisher a year ago—a move that endeared him to Donald Graham and allowed him to demonstrate a concern for the bottom line. Downie says Coll helped the magazine return to profitability. (It’s worth recalling that another unconventional managing editor hire who came out of nowhere, Ben Bradlee, slid into the driver’s seat after just two years.)

If Downie is lucky, Coll will skip the sort of on-the-job training that accompanied his makeover of the Sunday mag. E.J. Dionne’s unfortunate column on language wasted space and a very big talent. It has since been reduced to a single column a month and replaced with a snazzy Sunday version of Al Kamen’s “In the Loop” column. For a time, many of the columns and features chosen by Coll sprang directly from the space between the writers’ ovaries, with lots of identity writing about being a woman, mom, wife, office warrior—a jumble of journalistic pandering to the Post’s increasingly suburban readership. The magazine’s brochure on the opening of the MCI arena was execrable boosterism; a ponderous, goofy package about the semiotics of the white shirt was another low point.

“He hadn’t been an editor before, so I think he did what writers do, which was to try a different angle until something works. I think he felt that he had room to be experimental and fail a lot, and have some fun in the meantime. I think he eventually figured it out,” says a Postie.

And he has the stories to prove it. Coll was behind the quick turnaround on the news-breaking feature about Madeleine Albright’s conflicted relationship with her heritage, a memorable portrait of a star warrior general turned peacenik, Mundy’s oddly compelling take on the iconography of Janet Reno, and Tamara Jones’ smashing autopsy of how the wheels came off boy wonder Henry Cisneros. Last week’s excerpt of Howard Kurtz’s Spin Cycle was backed up by Jefferson Morley’s riveting portrait of now-deceased singer Eva Cassidy’s unlikely musical coupling with go-go king Chuck Brown. It was the kind of piece that an editor with a tin ear for contemporary culture wouldn’t even consider.

Coll eschews the role of generational mascot, preferring to emphasize his writer’s soul. (How his storyteller’s marrow will react to the endless stream of meetings that goes with the managing editor chair is a worthy question.) In his own work, he has paid fealty to the power of the narrative over the endless loop of facts that drives many of the stories in the Post. His portrait 10 years ago of a broker at the end of the day on Black Monday is a classic exemplar of how one person’s story—told with literary finesse on a hard, fast deadline—can capture the mood of an entire country. Datelined Oct. 19, 1987, on Wall Street, the story opened thus:

“At the end, when the market capitulated into free fall, Mark Mehl, the 35-year-old director of institutional stock trading at the large Wall Street firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., lapsed into an eerie and private silence.

“Chaos raged around him—hoarse voices shouted orders, shirt-sleeved traders juggled telephones, news flashed across the big electronic screens in Drexel’s open stock trading room—but Mehl just sat there, staring at his computer screen. All day he had been trying to provide some leadership: standing and clapping at his traders like a football coach, barking encouragement into a microphone, and sometimes banging on a cookie tin to make himself heard above the din.”

As the Post continues to burgeon into a regional behemoth, Coll wants to make sure that there is room for stories like that and the people who write them.

“I think what is most important in the next five to 10 years is that this is a mature, confident, unbeatable news organization that has a glorious tradition of being a writer’s newspaper, and we need to find a way to be true to that mission,” Coll says.

Less is More People at both ends of the Post’s distribution chain are finding out it’s a small world after all. Most readers in the suburbs are unfolding a newspaper that has had a haircut—an inch off the margins, to be exact. The downsizing is accompanied by a new design that hasn’t kicked up much beyond the usual kvetching. It seems fine to me, sort of like a Los Angeles Times without the color. But while Downie and others had promised that the trim in size wouldn’t result in a less nutritious Post, both the front and the Metro sections have taken a hit in story and word count. A Post staffer says that engineers have made a fudge in the computer system so that a 10-inch story will still seem like a 10-inch story to the journalist writing it. Downie says that any loss in space has been negligible. “Overall, statistically, we have added pages and added to the news hole. There is a light squeeze on the A section and Metro, a tiny fraction less space, but that’s it.”

When the new presses that begat the design come online, the paper of record in the District will be printed everywhere but. Older presses in Southeast and downtown will stop running, leaving all of the printing—and printing jobs—in the suburbs. “I think it’s scandalous that this paper will no longer be printed in D.C. It reflects this paper’s overwhelming fascination with the suburbs,” says one Post employee. Downie says the march of progress has not left the District behind: “The heart of the operation is still here. The reporters, editors, and business functions of the newspaper are still in the city, and that’s the important part of it.” —David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.