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On Feb. 7, the Washington Post Co. announced the appointment of Katharine Weymouth as the new publisher of the Washington Post. Ever since, the Post newsroom has been smothering itself in rumor: He’s going to leave before the election. He’s going to leave after the election. He’s going to take a buyout and get out.
The subject of all this speculation, of course, is Leonard Downie Jr., the Post‘s guiding editorial force since 1991.
When asked about all the gossip, the 65-year-old Downie merely confirmed that it existed: “The newsroom’s full of all kinds of rumors,” he said. When pressed on whether he wanted to knock down those rumors, Downie showed a degree of message discipline often found in his paper’s own pages: “The newsroom’s full of all kinds of rumors,” he repeated.
He continued, “Katharine and I are working together very hard on the future of the newspaper and its relationship with the Web site.”
Nor did the paper’s executive editor bite on the matter of whether he’d address the rumors directly with his (clearly distracted) staffers: “I’m getting with the newsroom on lots of other stuff right now, and I’m going to focus my attention on that,” he said.
Good move. Downie’s Post is struggling with all the same dynamics that are steamrolling newsrooms across the country—declining advertising, declining subscription bases, and an inability to adequately monetize Web traffic. His people are in the midst of the Post‘s third early-retirement offer since 2003, a package that could knock out as much as a tenth of the nearly 800-strong newsroom workforce.
Despite the pain, Downie’s standing as a newsman has rarely appeared stronger. Last year was among the most astounding in terms of the Post‘s impact. The investigation of Vice President Dick Cheney, a series on neglected soldiers at Walter Reed, and aggressive daily coverage of the massacre at Virginia Tech are all strong candidates for Pulitzer prizes. The paper’s Web site, too, is among the industry’s best. And the paper is mobilized right now under Downie’s leadership to provide wall-to-wall coverage of election-year politics—an inopportune time for a change at the top.
Another consideration favoring the status quo at the Post is its tradition of thinking things through. Weymouth took over just weeks ago; she is the granddaughter of famed publisher Katharine Graham and the niece of Post Co. Chairman and CEO Donald Graham. Such lineage isn’t large on snap decisions.
The newsroom chatter feeds off of Weymouth’s get-to-know-you tour. She’s been meeting with large numbers of reporters and editors from the various newsroom pods. Staffers spanning the generations say that the publisher has exhibited smarts, attentiveness, and understanding of news—not to mention a sense of style and buff arms. Weymouth has also enjoyed private discussions with some of the paper’s more ambitious folks, a crowd that refuses to comment on the record about their interactions with the new power that be.
Weymouth, who is on a family vacation, says via e-mail about the Downie stuff: “I don’t have any comment on rumors. There are lots of rumors out there.”
On the topic of Downie’s fitness for the job, Weymouth is by no means silent. She said the following, among other things, when she was introduced as the new publisher: “With Len Downie and his unerring instincts as Executive Editor, we have invested heavily in covering everything from Iraq to our local schools. And we have published world-class, award-winning journalism. Every day, we publish an incredible newspaper with the highest penetration in our local market of any major metropolitan newspaper company. While it may not be trendy these days to praise print, there is still, in my mind, nothing like it…”
Bob Kaiser, who formerly served as managing editor under Downie, dismisses the newsroom talk. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” he says.