City Paper is not for tourists
The Washington City Paper today retracts a story that it published last summer about a top manager at the Washington Post. Published in the paper’s July 18 edition, the story—“On the National Stage” by Editor Erik Wemple—-focused on the controversy surrounding Susan Glasser, the Post’s ranking editor on national affairs.
Glasser was cast as a visionary with the brains to remake a paper in great need of fresh energy and ideas. Though this miserable piece of journalism discussed Glasser’s sharp-elbowed ways, it essentially sided with the view of the Post leadership—namely, that such is the price of progress. The money quote belonged to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Glasser’s deputy, who said, “Do we need to be shaken up a bit? Yeah, we do. The old sort of fat, happy, complacent days are over. We’re losing subscribers.”
That sentiment compromised the longevity of the story, which was marred by misplaced emphasis. Yes, Glasser is a smart newswoman, but she’s really distinguishing herself with bad management. Washington City Paper should have listened more closely to the various sources who cast her as a train wreck.
Glasser’s detractors have recently found a more attentive ear. This winter, Tom Wilkinson, a veteran editor at the Post, conducted a series of interviews with national staffers under Glasser’s supervision. According to three staffers who provided input, Wilkinson plumbed at least three topics—Glasser’s management skills, her ability to communicate, and morale in the national section.
Wilkinson in late March circulated a written report that is allegedly critical of Glasser to a short list of Post managers. Wilkinson refused to comment on his findings. Glasser declined comment.
Though Wilkinson routinely investigates problems in the newsroom, the ambit of his national-section study has no apparent parallel at the Post in recent years. The whole effort marks the masthead’s recognition that staffers’ complaints about Glasser—whether whispered between pods or exchanged via non-company e-mail accounts—can no longer be dismissed as standard newsroom carping.
The gripes cluster around what staffers describe as Glasser’s top-down approach to newsgathering. With an assist from Chandrasekaran, Glasser has a vision for the stories that her people should be covering, and sometimes other views have trouble sneaking into the mix. Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell addressed this very point in a March 23 column detailing how the paper’s national desk—as well as Metro—turned down a staffer’s pitch to get a jump on the story about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright.
Late last year, national political writers proposed doing something splashy on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee weeks before his win in the Iowa caucuses made him a mainstream media fixation. They didn’t get far with their bosses.
Glasser is colliding with decades of newsroom tradition. Unlike the New York Times, where the bosses think nothing of dialing up story after story, the Post is a reporter’s paper, one where ideas make their way up from the bottom. Reversing the prevailing current was bound to kick up some static.
Cultural clashes, however, don’t figure as prominently in the Glasser indictment as do attitude and arrogance. When contacted for this story, two of her colleagues volunteered the same observation: In meetings, Glasser goes out of her way to make clear that she’s the top expert on the issue at hand, whatever the issue may be. Communication is another trouble spot—unless the story is about politics or involves one of Glasser’s star reporters, say staffers, she has trouble feigning interest in the conversation. “She looks right past you, right over your shoulder,” says a Post staffer.
Linked to the haughtiness is occasional scorn for the paper of yore. “The new regime is thinking they’re the new brilliant talents of the place,” says a Post veteran. “Part of that, yeah, is that they’re dismissive of anything that came before them.”
Plain bad judgment also weaves its way into the narrative. Last year, Glasser managed to question the productivity of Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank—at a time when Milbank was doing his weekly columns plus special commentaries for the paper’s profiles of presidential candidates. Milbank, never known as a whiner, raised some concerns, and the two have since reconciled. When contacted on this matter, Milbank refused to talk specifics but did say, “The concerns that I voiced last year have been addressed, and I like the direction Susan is taking us in.” Glasser declined comment.
It all wouldn’t be quite so bad for Glasser if she weren’t pissing off her equals as well as her charges. In January, she met with star sportswriter Eli Saslow and told him that she’d talked with other editors about hiring him to a key national reporting slot. One person she hadn’t consulted, however, was Saslow’s boss, top Sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, according to newsroom sources. The slight infuriated Garcia-Ruiz. Glasser declined comment.
To the Post subscriber, of course, none of this crap matters. The news product that Glasser has put on the Web and the street each day is solid. Sure— the coverage could use a fresh dose of old-fashioned scoopage, as the Wright and Huckabee incidents illustrate. But there’s good analysis, some probing narratives—especially of the multiple implosions within the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign—and plenty of volume, thanks to the resources that Glasser has managed to marshal in her section. The Trail, her online-and-print collection of campaign anecdotage, is a hit, and the section is reportedly preparing to launch a similar product in the area of national security coverage.
Big shots at the Post, though, worry about sustainable agriculture. If Glasser is pissing off people as central to the brand as Milbank, how far is the section from a brain drain that’ll hurt the product? Glasser declined comment. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., too, refused to comment on these matters, citing the manager’s personnel comment exemption.
Glasser took over the paper’s 75-strong national section in late 2006 after a celebrated run at Outlook, the Sunday opinion section. If ever there was a perfect posting for someone with her skill set: Plenty of opportunities to package and edit and conceptualize—and only a skeleton staff to manage!
Glasser’s efforts to upgrade national coverage have apparently left little time for introspection. In a phone conversation about her work, she received many opportunities to acknowledge the Wilkinson probe and perhaps concede that she’d screwed up a thing or two. She passed up each one. Glasser did open up about the challenges and successes of national under her leadership, an inventory that includes The Trail, Michael Dobbs’ Fact-Checker, and a “very strong emphasis on enterprise journalism throughout the staff.”