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Last Friday, two Washington Post journalists got into a fistfight about their work. Longtime writer and editor Henry Allen dissed a piece by staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia, whereupon Roig-Franzia referred to Allen as a “cocksucker.” Allen responded with blows.
On Tuesday, Gene Weingarten, perhaps the leading brain at the paper, applauded the anger: “The first thing I want to say is, hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story.”
As Post staff writer Hank Stuever wrote in his personal blog, the incident “embroiders [Allen’s] legend.” One commenter on this blog put it this way: “As someone who recently canceled his subscription to the Post after more than 30 years, I wish all the best to Henry Allen. I only wish he had slugged more of those nitwits on his way out.”
All this Allen talk is headed in a pretty predictable direction, fitting neatly into a narrative best labeled as demise-of-the-Post nostalgia. The contours are familiar to anyone who’s ever had a beer with a beneficiary of one of the paper’s newsroom buyouts: Back in the old days, the Post was a real newspaper, a place where real stories were written and real journalists like Allen were free to do their thing. But now the Post is crumbling, its standards falling, a process punctuated by Allen’s burst of violent anger.
There’s some evidence to support the interpretation. By all indications, Allen isn’t pleased with the direction of the Post. He was pissed when the regime of Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli pretty much ended the Style tradition of writing “Appreciations” following the deaths of major cultural figures. He’s reportedly not too happy about the new look of the paper, about the smaller number of stories that are featured on the front of the Style section. He can’t stand the memos about the new Multi-Platform Editing Desk.
So, yeah, there was a 68-year-old legend patrolling the Style assignment desk nursing some ambient anger about his workplace. That anger, of late, had become a much-commented-upon topic among Style staffers, at least one of whom wondered when the veteran would snap.
He’d yell a lot from his desk, inveighing against this management decree or that debasement of the news product. The words would carry over into the Style landscape and beyond. Recent months have been serendipitous for Allen’s open-air broadsides at management: Ever since the main newsroom on the fifth floor of the Post building cleared out for renovations, Brauchli and his fellow honchos have been camping out with the Style people. Administrative assistants for Brauchli and other ranking editors got particularly unfiltered blasts. This multiplatform shit!
Onto this hot, rancorous griddle flopped Roig-Franzia. As I wrote in a previous post, Allen and Roig-Franzia had earlier exchanged words over a piece that the latter was writing about a woman who’d undergone multiple abortions—-actually, 15 in 15 years.
Allen wasn’t buying it. He asked what sort of proof the writer had that this woman, Irene Vilar, was telling the truth. A prominent law firm had corroborated the story, came the response. Whatever Allen’s concerns, the Post reportedly vetted the story extensively.
The tension over the Vilar piece carried over into the “charticle” that Style co-boss Ned Martel had dialed up for the Saturday edition, written by Monica Hesse and Roig-Franzia. It was to be an historical tour through episodes in which sensitive information was unwittingly leaked—-a riff off the hot news of the day, which was the wide-ranging congressional ethics investigation that had recently slithered into the public domain.
Allen hated the draft that he’d reviewed, calling it the “second-worst” piece that’d landed on his desk over 43 years. After Roig-Franzia heard that spiel, he called Allen a “cocksucker.” Allen responded by popping him.
Freeze the frame right there. Henry Allen punches Manuel Roig-Franzia: Is this moment really laden with symbolism about the demise of the Post, about the decay of long-form narrative journalism, about sticking up for a bygone era?
Who knows what symbolism Allen may have intended to convey here. (He declined an interview about his take on the contemporary Post.) Yet the fight works poorly in the nostalgic slot where many have placed it and slides more neatly into what one staffer called the Woody Hayes mold of a graying icon going out in a fit of rage.
Here’s why the old guard v. new guard interpretation falls flat:
*Roig-Franzia makes for an illogical symbol/punching bag for the “new” Washington Post. This guy predates the Brauchli ascension by many years. Nor is he the buzzword-spouting tool that Allen so despises. No, he’s a practitioner of long-form journalism, just like anyone who aspires to write for the Style section. And a point about “cocksucker”: Use of profanity in Style is the rule, thanks in part to the serial foul mouth of Allen himself. Yet more: The charticle wasn’t Roig-Franzia’s idea; it was the idea of Martel, who brought a magaziney sensibility to the section.
*There’s nothing contemptible about a charticle. Style has long experimented with the breaking of formats and templates and molds—-whatever you call them. Executing a charticle often takes way more work than upchucking some lame essay off the news. You gotta get the writers with the art people and the layout people, come up with all kinds of catchy headlines and subheads, and then put it all together. With all that effort, out the window goes the notion that the charticle is some pimpled incarnation of a new, cowardly, corporate Washington Post. Style editors going back many years have always been proud of their charticles. And I happened to have enjoyed this charticle quite a bit.
*Long-form narrative lives on in Style! If you’ve been monitoring your Style section this week, you may have noticed a two-part series on the youth-heroin ring in Centreville. I’m not saying this is a great model of reportage: After all, it tries to tell the story of kids abusing heroin through interviews with adults. But it is impeccably structured and long—-just north of 6,000 words. Roig-Franzia’s abortion piece, meanwhile, clocked in at a healthy 2,715 words.
Speaking of compelling narratives, what about Stuever’s comparison of the Wawa and Sheetz convenience-store chains? At 2,453 words, the story married killer concept with smooth, highly reported execution. It was printed in late August, nearly a year into the Brauchli tenure. And I guarantee this: Had it been published five or ten years ago, it would have been cited by nostalgists as an exemplar of how great the Post used to be.
*Style is on the upswing. Brauchli has sustained a goodly amount of justified criticism for various instances of silliness and hypocrisy, with the Brauchli Doctrine serving as a premier example of the latter. Yet this executive editor cannot be slimed with neglecting the Style section. On the contrary, he has invested in it, transferring talent from the shuttered Sunday Source and other spots in the newsroom, not to mention bringing in Martel. Dividends have come in the form of improved long-form stuff, attractive layouts, and fewer self-indulgent essays (at least by my count). In recent months, I’ve found myself squirreling away the section at home in the hope that another individual won’t dump it in the recycling bin before I can read all the way through it.
And to continue sucking the cock of the Washington Post, let’s not fall into facile banter about its descent into corporate, soulless behavior, as have many Internet commenters. Throughout this decade, the Post‘s newspaper division has seen nothing short of a revenue crisis. Like other newspapers, it has responded in part by cutting staff. Unlike other newspapers, it has cut staff with a visible reluctance and agony, choosing to leverage its huge pension fund to offer voluntary buyouts to elder Posties. Hundreds of buyoutees have left the paper with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash plus other goodies that no “corporate” newspaper would ever extend.
The Post newsroom has dropped from around 900 employees to around 600-700 employees. It may not be what it was. But what remains is far bigger than what’s gone.