City Paper is not for tourists
Yesterday, I interviewed Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli for a story I was writing on the Washington Post Magazine. I was working on allegations that Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth may have played a part in killing a magazine story written by a freelancer who happened to be a friend of hers.
And as I found out in this morning’s edition of the Washington Post, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz was working on those same allegations. Kurtz’s story detailed how Matthew Mendelsohn had worked for months on a long narrative about Lindsay Ess, a woman who had had all four limbs amputated. When Mendelsohn mentioned the piece to Weymouth at a social event, she just about gagged, exclaiming that this was just another in a too-long lineage of depressing Washington Post Magazine stories. Of course, the publisher hadn’t yet read the piece, but from the sound of it, BLECH! Depressing!
As Kurtz laid out in his thoroughly reported, perfectly timed piece that blew all my efforts out of the water, Weymouth didn’t keep her thoughts to herself. Rather, she mentioned it to top editors, and the piece ended up on the spike.
And thus the question posed so timelily by the Kurtz piece: Did the publisher of the Post kill a story?
When I put this question to Brauchli, I got a definitive answer. The publisher, he said, played no role in killing the piece, which died via a “normal editorial decision.” “Whatever Katharine may have felt about the piece was immaterial to the editorial process,” said Brauchli in his chat with me.
That was a strong statement, I told Brauchli, but I told him I still needed to speak with the editor of the piece to verify the normality of this decision. I mentioned that I’d tried to reach the editor—-Sydney Trent—-but hadn’t gotten a call back. Trent has since declared that she’ll have no comment.
The top guy couldn’t have been less sympathetic to my sourcing problem. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us to lay out all of the processes in the newspaper to make decisions,” he snapped. “Newspapers spend way too much time explaining themselves.” He went on: “Too many people call our newsroom. There are endless queries on our journalism these days. I think it’s better for us to focus on producing journalism than on our process.”
When I opened the paper next morning to see the timely Kurtz piece (have I linked to that thing yet?), I discovered that the magazine editor had indeed explained her decision to kill the Mendelsohn piece. Here’s the quote, which comes from a well-reported, timely piece that indirectly prompted a bout of screaming and swearing at a certain D.C. residence this morning: “Sydney Trent, the magazine’s acting editor at the time, said she declined to run the story ‘because it was clear the newspaper wanted to move in a different direction. That handwriting was very clearly on the wall.'”
Hmmm—-is that what you’d call a “normal editorial decision”? On the face of things, it sounds like an editor frustrated with management, not business as usual.
So I put the question today to Brauchli—-just how “normal” was this decision? His response:
I’d made clear to the magazine’s editors that we were shifting direction, away from overlong, occasionally overwrought articles and towards livelier, more engaging journalism. Story lengths in the magazine were often too long, subjects were sometimes remote, and tenor wasn’t always consistent with what other editors and I believe our readers want in a Sunday magazine. When Mr. Mendelsohn’s piece landed, we were in the early stages of making the changes that the magazine editors knew were coming, and they acted in a perfectly sensible way to begin implementing those changes.
I should add that I have read Mr. Mendelsohn’s piece, and it is a fine article, illustrated with some beautiful photography. Our decision not to publish it was not predicated on the quality of his work, but on the changes we were making to the magazine.
We interrupt this overlong blog item to consider that last sentence. So the magazine made a decision about a story that wasn’t based on the quality of the story? Now there’s an editorial principle for ya.
Actually, Brauchli’s statement about the story quality not affecting the decision may be dead on. Mendelsohn says that he got the bad news about the piece from a junior editor at the magazine. Quite naturally, Mendelsohn wanted to know what the mag’s boss—-Trent—-had to say about the piece. “I asked my editor what she—-meaning, the acting editor of the magazine—-thought of it, and there was a moment of silence and she said, ‘She didn’t read it.'” (Update: Trent just e-mailed to say that she did indeed read the story.)
Normal editorial decision?
Executive editor’s protestations notwithstanding, a publisher’s opinion about a pending story is a terribly hard thing to bottle up, especially in a newsroom filled with Twittering, texting, e-mailing, mouth-talking gossips. “I probably should have kept my mouth shut,” says Weymouth. “I fully expected them to publish it.” As evidence that she didn’t imagine she’d influence the editorial process, Weymouth noted that she’d been pushing for “four and a half years” for a wedding column—-a feature that appeared only recently in the pages of the Post.
Update: Check out the piece by Slate’s Jack Shafer on why the boss needs to be careful about critical ketchup-and-mustard decisions.
Stay tuned for City Desk’s Next Piece on the Washington Post Magazine: What Do L&B Mean to You?