City Paper is not for tourists
It’s been a fun week for watchers of the Washington Post. First comes Gabriel Sherman‘s story titled “Post Apocalypse” in The New Republic, a wonderful read powered by some of the best quotes I’ve ever seen in a story about that paper.
Next comes Post Co. Chairman Don Graham, bashing Sherman’s piece for being “lazy.” An excerpt from the Graham’s slam:
Having read these stories for 40 years, I found Gabriel Sherman’s piece (“Post Apocalypse,” February 4) particularly lazy. Not much new here. His endless lead rehashes an episode now seven months old in which a screamingly obvious decision to enter the conference business was betrayed by poor execution. Respected news organizations sponsor dozens of conferences.
Graham had very compelling reasons for writing that letter, newsroom morale being first on the list. The whole “salons” disaster had a big impact on the operation, as did a monthslong renovation that left the newsroom scattered about the region. If The New Republic was going to deliver a broadside at the Washington Post, Don Graham was going to have something to say about it!
“Lazy,” though, is not how I’d characterize Sherman’s piece. It was a deeply reported narrative that informed and delighted at a nice rhythm. Sure, we knew about the salons, but Sherman’s reporting chewed even deeper into a scandal whose history merits several drafts.
And we knew a something about former Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.‘s departure from the Post. But had anyone snared the following quote?
“I was expecting to stay longer.”—-Downie to Sherman.
Another great Downie quote came in response to Sherman’s inquiries about whether the top editor’s management style had stifled the people below him: “I may have been excessively hands-on, though you can never see it in yourself. I don’t know if I stifled anyone under me.”—-Downie to Sherman.
Nothing, however, competes with how Sherman was able to get star New York Times reporter Peter Baker to dump on his former colleagues, Downie chief among them. Baker is the husband of former Post top national editor Susan Glasser. Glasser was fired for various management mishaps, and Baker left shortly thereafter, and the hubby lets it rip in the pages of TNR:
“I left because of what happened to my wife,” he told me. Baker, who grew up in suburban Fairfax County and idolized the Post, is still raw over his wife’s experience. “I never wanted to go to The New York Times,” he says. “I wanted to work at The Washington Post for the rest of my life. … Having said that, looking at the way things are today, there’s part of me—I’m glad I’m not there. It would be very depressing.”
And with respect to Downie, Baker told Sherman, “A whole generation of younger editors were smothered by a leadership that was resistant to change.”
And so it goes throughout “Post Apocalypse”——yes, we knew about these things, but how much did we know about them? Sherman, via some long conversations with 50 current and former Posties—- showed us: Perhaps not as much as we thought.
And though Graham likes to say that the story features nothing new, what about the Spider Incident?
On at least one front, though, Graham has a case: Though the TNR story promises to depict a paper in apocalyptic mode, it doesn’t come through on that front. It merely describes a series of management failures and general dysfunction that can be found at just about any large organization. Yes, the paper is struggling to find a biz model that’ll sustain its newsgathering operations, and that process has indeed involved some flailing. Here’s the key passage from Sherman:
[A] picture has emerged of a paper suffering an identity crisis. Its peers seem to have coherent strategies for saving themselves: The New York Times is doubling down on journalism in the belief that it can persevere online as the global newspaper of record; The Wall Street Journal remains the country’s definitive chronicler of business; other large papers have tried to distinguish themselves by burrowing into local issues. But the Post seems to be paralyzed—and trapped.
Let’s take a look here. Point taken about the Times. But saying that the Wall Street Journal “remains” the top biz publication in the country says nothing. What do you expect it to do—-challenge ESPN?
Also: Please ID the “other large papers have tried to distinguish themselves by burrowing into local issues.”! If I were to make a list of such papers, what paper would I put at the top of the list? Probably the Washington Post. Look at the thing: Following Publisher Katharine Weymouth‘s famous “Road Forward” memo—-“Being for, and about Washington, means addressing our local readers’ core needs.”—-the Post has done a lot of hunkering down. Across all kinds of sections—-from Style, through the aptly named “Local Living” through Sports, and so on—-there’s no shortage of local content.