A Rocket's Trajectory
(CJR, Sept./October 2010)
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For more than thirty years, Keith Richburg has been a classy and distinguished presence at The Washington Post. Richburg served as bureau chief in Manila, Nairobi, and Paris, and also spent more than two years as foreign editor in Washington. One assignment had eluded him at the Post: New York bureau chief, a job that he finally obtained in late 2007. He never finished out his term. Last November, two days before Thanksgiving, Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, walked into the New York bureau and shut it down. Brauchli was dressed in a tuxedo: his next stop that evening would be the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, for the annual fundraising dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Post reporter Karl Vick, who was in the bureau when Brauchli appeared, recalls: “Essentially Marcus said, ‘I’m dressed like an undertaker for a reason. I’m bearing bad news.’ ”
When I recently talked to Richburg, he was still somewhat surprised, but not bitter, about the demise of the New York bureau. (The Post, in the same week, also liquidated its bureaus in Chicago and Los Angeles.) “Nobody saw it coming,” said Richburg, who is now based in China for the Post. “I’m not sure Marcus saw it coming. We had just moved into new offices with Newsweek.” If the Post’s management wanted to close the trio of national bureaus, why couldn’t the bureau chiefs stay in those cities and work from home? “All of the bureau chiefs recommended the same thing,” said Richburg.
But Richburg had a chance to report from New York again, after all. He flew back to the city on May 1—the same day Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Richburg went to work immediately to assist the Post in coverage of that story. He is not unaware of the irony: “I was back to close down the bureau and clean out my apartment when a big story happened there.”
For years, the Post’s three national bureaus have produced vibrant and original journalism, and closing them was not something Brauchli was eager to do. Richburg recalls him saying: “I might regret that if something major happened there.” But it is Brauchli’s fate to be a newspaper editor in a time of diminished expectations and resources for journalism, and luck has not always been with him. He started in the basement of Dow Jones, and, twenty-three years later, clawed his way to the managing editor’s job at The Wall Street Journal—only to then find himself face to face with Rupert Murdoch.
He lasted eight months under Murdoch, who pushed him out in April 2008. Brauchli rebounded with impressive speed: three months later he was named executive editor of the Post—a job that, for forty years, had been held by only two men: Ben Bradlee and Leonard Downie Jr. But the newspaper that Brauchli joined is not the same Washington Post that James Fallows evoked in a 1976 Esquire profile of Bradlee—“the most exciting paper to work on, the most interesting one to read, and the one from which wrongdoers had most to fear.” Rather, it’s a news organization that has lost a staggering amount of money in recent years; that has endured four waves of buyouts; that was unnerved by a scandal unleashed by its forty-four-year-old publisher, Katharine Weymouth; and that, like many journalism outfits, is enduring an existential crisis about its future. The Post’s journalism can still be formidable—as evidenced by its “Top Secret America” investigation in July, and its impressive coverage of the BP oil spill—but it has diminished in reach and, some argue, quality. A former Post business reporter says: “Brauchli inherited something that was already adrift and in decline.”
Some longtime readers are worried. A year ago James Fallows returned to Washington after three years in China. The bundle on his doorstep left him dismayed: “I’ve thought of the Post as my hometown paper for years,” he wrote, “and feel as if I’ve come back to see a family member looking suddenly very ill.” “It’s not as good as it was,” says Charles Peters, the longtime editor of The Washington Monthly. “I attribute this to the loss of so many good reporters. There is much less original reporting than there was. There is less to read. It’s a faster read. You have to depend more on The New York Times than you did before.” Seymour Hersh says: “We all worry about the survival of the Post.”
Bradlee and Downie presided over a Post that, for the most part, was quite profitable. Brauchli is not so fortunate: he wasn’t hired to expand the Post, but to shrink it. He knows the odds he is up against: “I’m taking a lot of arrows in the back now, and it’s okay,” he told longtime Post political editor Maralee Schwartz in March 2009. “In a year this is going to be a better place.” His mandate is to remake one of our legendary newspapers for a radically different era. And he must do that under the shadow of two great editors and with far fewer resources than they had. He must commandeer a smaller, faster vessel while forestalling a mutiny among the crew. That crew is not on the verge of insurrection, but neither is it enamored of its skipper.
On a sweltering Friday in early June, I sat down for two hours of conversation with Brauchli in his spacious office at the Post, which overlooks a sleek and newly rebuilt newsroom. On the day I visited, the newsroom was as hushed as an insurance office, and I was struck by how young the staff was; I saw few people who looked older than fifty. (Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti won’t say how many employees have taken buyouts in recent years. But in his new book Morning Miracle, a shaggy obituary for the old Post, Dave Kindred writes that nearly four hundred newsroom staff members have exited.) Brauchli is tall and lanky, with a receding hairline and a tight smile. He wore an ordinary blue suit and a cranberry-colored tie. I thought of Philip Marlowe’s description of his friend Bernie Ohls in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: “He looked like anybody you would pass on the street.”
Brauchli did not allow me to examine the postcards and personal items pinned above his desk. He also discouraged me from looking at the books on his shelf, although I did see a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which someone recently sent to him. He had scribbled some notes on a legal pad, and he began to explain to me why the Post is “in a good position to succeed.” He listed the reasons: a highly affluent, internationally-minded readership; high market penetration for the print edition; a large digital audience. He added: “The Post has a very smart and defensible strategy—both journalistically and economically—which is one that Katharine has really honed in the last year: to be the indispensable guide to Washington, really to be for and about Washington.”
But getting Brauchli to provide direct answers to my questions was a bit like pulling water from a dry well. When he did offer detailed responses, it was, by and large, in the style of a cagey public relations officer. How much money has he been forced to cut from the news budget? (“I don’t think we would want to discuss specifics on how much money we’ve cut from the news budget or the size of the news budget.”) Instead of abandoning New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, why didn’t the Post allow the bureau chiefs to work at home? (“Our feeling was that we can cover the news that matters most to our readers by sending reporters out from Washington, as we have always done for much of our national coverage, without needing people based in those cities.”) How does the newsroom culture of The Washington Post differ from the newsroom culture of The Wall Street Journal? (“Newsrooms have a lot of common DNA,” he said, before launching into a windy disquisition on how the two newspapers have very different readerships, which wasn’t my question.)
Brauchli was somewhat more relaxed and animated in the second hour of our chat, when we discussed his family background, his early years in journalism, his Nieman fellowship at Harvard, and his arrival at Dow Jones. Previously I had asked him for the dozen articles, written from abroad, of which he remains most proud. As we stood up, he gave me a stack of fifty-three articles.
Two weeks later, after I had written to Brauchli to inquire about scheduling additional time to talk about various matters—his clips, his rise at the Journal, his path to the managing editor job, and the trauma of the Murdoch takeover—he called to say that he did not wish to speak about his twenty-three years at Dow Jones. “It’s an era that has been amply described,” he said. He repeated what he’d said, this time with more emphasis, as if addressing a child: “It’s an era that has been amply described.”
Marcus Walker Brauchli was born in 1961 in Boulder, Colorado. His maternal grandfather owned the Huntington Herald Dispatch & Advertiser in Huntington, West Virginia; Marcus never had any contact with the paper. His paternal grandfather, a Swiss immigrant, was a geologist who worked for an oil company in Oklahoma. His father, Christopher, is a lawyer in Boulder who writes political commentaries that appear regularly on The Huffington Post and Counterpunch. His mother, Margot, is active in the Colorado arts scene. He is married to Maggie Farley, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and they have two young daughters.
Brauchli’s interest in journalism sprouted early. By the tenth grade he was already writing and taking pictures for a weekly newspaper in Boulder. At Columbia University, where he arrived in 1979, he gravitated toward the Columbia Spectator, and became a stringer and contributor to The New York Times while still an undergraduate. In 1982, he worked briefly as a copyboy at the Times. But the young Brauchli set his sights on The Wall Street Journal, and in 1984, he was hired as a Hong Kong correspondent for the AP-Dow Jones news service; his beat included Taiwan, China, and the Philippines. His bosses were immediately impressed: “He seemed like a really fine breed of hunting dog who was on the hunt,” says Rusty Todd, who edited Brauchli in Hong Kong. “I don’t want to blow too much smoke up his ass, but he seemed really eager to learn.” Brauchli became the Journal’s Tokyo correspondent in 1988, and landed the post of China bureau chief in 1995. Along with some friends, he launched a nightclub in Shanghai called Park 97 that, in his words, “became very trendy, especially so after I left China and stopped loitering around the back tables in the lounge.”
I asked Paul Steiger, the Journal’s longtime managing editor who now oversees ProPublica, where Brauchli ranked in the pantheon of Journal foreign correspondents. Steiger replied that he was not in the highest class—a class that included Tony Horwitz, Geraldine Brooks, Andrew Higgins, and Ian Johnson. “I wouldn’t put Marcus at that level,” Steiger said. Rather, he was in “the top ten percent.” Steiger is full of praise for Brauchli, recalling that, in 1991, when Marcus was on his way to Harvard to begin his Nieman fellowship, he asked him to go to Pakistan to do some reporting on a huge banking scandal involving the Bank of Credit & Commerce International, or BCCI. “In a very short space of time, he did three or four just terrific stories, both on his own and in collaboration with other people.” Adds Steiger: “He was a charismatic star reporter who could do everything from politics to heavy finance. And cultural stuff, too.”
His finest reportage chronicled patronage and instability in Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan, illegal logging in the Philippine rain forests, and the World Bank’s cozy relationship with the Indonesian dictator Suharto. But at least one of his clips makes for uncomfortable reading in hindsight. On April 27, 1995, Brauchli wrote a page-one story for the Journal that chronicled Enron’s plan to establish power plants in India. The article, datelined Guhagar, India, began: “High on a remote volcanic bluff overlooking the Arabian Sea here, a U.S. group is carving out a more modern future for India. Not everybody is ready for it.” In Brauchli’s upbeat narrative, Enron executives were depicted as bright-eyed, well-intentioned entrepreneurs, while Indian politicians and activists who asked pointed questions about Enron, which would be exposed as a criminal syndicate in 2001, come off as stuffy bureaucrats and backward-looking nationalists. (Oddly, Brauchli included the Enron piece in the pile he gave to me.)
Many people interviewed for this profile noted Brauchli’s considerable intelligence—and his colossal ambition. Byron Calame, who spent thirty-nine years at the Journal, where he held a range of positions that included deputy managing editor before becoming the second public editor of The New York Times, calls him “a very sophisticated journalist. A very sophisticated global thinker.” Those qualities, combined with his swift rise through the ranks, earned him a nickname at the Journal—“the Rocket.” In her fine new book, War at The Wall Street Journal, which informs the paragraphs that follow concerning Brauchli and the Journal, Sarah Ellison calls Brauchli “a master manipulator of newsroom politics” at Dow Jones. His sharp elbows and acerbic tongue facilitated his rise. “Marcus was go, go, go, go,” says Calame. “Marcus was feisty. Marcus could be way too political and competitive, and had a tendency to single out his competitors and make it personal.” Calame remarked to a colleague in the late 1990s, when Brauchli was getting ready to take up the post of national editor: “I’m tired of Marcus coming into my office and running people down.”
But Brauchli was climbing a tree whose roots were weakening and whose branches were beginning to decay: Dow Jones’s profits plunged in the years after 2001. On April 17, 2007, he received two momentous pieces of information: his colleague Nikhil Deogun, who was taking over the Journal’s Money & Investing section, informed him that Murdoch had just made his bid for Dow Jones. (Brauchli and Deogun did not break the story; CNBC reported it first.) The same afternoon, Brauchli learned from Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz that he would succeed Paul Steiger as managing editor.
It was strange luck. For two decades Brauchli had painstakingly constructed an ordered universe in his professional life, but Murdoch’s arrival at Dow Jones plunged him into months of stress and uncertainty. Brauchli’s core predicament was that in Murdoch’s eyes he embodied the values of the old Wall Street Journal. Murdoch had contempt for some of those values—starting with the paper’s emphasis on finely crafted feature writing and long-form narrative journalism built on thorough, time-consuming reporting. Sarah Ellison writes that shortly after News Corp.’s bid for Dow Jones became public information, Brauchli lamented to a friend: “I work my whole career to get this job and now I’m working for Murdoch?”
Did Brauchli ever consider resigning when Murdoch took over? His friends say no. Instead, he committed himself to working with Murdoch in the hope that he could achieve a convergence between his interests and Murdoch’s—that is to say, a Journal that was faster and more news-oriented, but still imbued with the old values. We’ll never know how far Brauchli might have gone to satisfy Murdoch’s ordinances at the Journal. Ellison writes: He “spent hours with Murdoch, attempting to charm him.” A seasoned media reporter who observed Murdoch’s conquest of the Journal takes a less charitable view: “Brauchli stuck his nose up Murdoch’s ass.”
Brauchli knew that the Australian press lord brandished the scalps of editors and publishers whom he vanquished: Dorothy Schiff, Harold Evans, Clay Felker, and many others. But his friends unanimously agree that Brauchli, who has always been an indefatigable networker and social animal, thought he would be the exception to the rule; he believed he could seduce Murdoch. People close to Brauchli also speculate that Murdoch’s confidant, Robert Thomson—with whom Brauchli had an edgy, competitive friendship, the contours of which are nicely captured by Ellison—led Marcus to believe he had a realistic chance of survival under the News Corp. regime.
That was an illusion. Brauchli resigned under pressure in April 2008. That Murdoch would expel the editor was precisely what certain members of the Bancroft family had feared. That is why, as a condition of the sale, they had insisted that the media baron accept a five-person “Special Committee,” whose members were given, through a legal document filed with the SEC, “rights of approval” over the hiring or removal of the Journal’s managing editor. (Brauchli himself played a major role in drafting the editorial independence agreement that established the special committee.) But as Dean Starkman wrote on The Audit, CJR’s online business desk: “The agreement . . . was flawed in that it anticipated, if not actually required that the Journal’s managing editor would want to protect his or her autonomy, at least enough to file a complaint.” Brauchli chose not to file a complaint. The committee first received the news of Brauchli’s ouster from Murdoch himself. In a phone call to one committee member, Murdoch purred that Brauchli is “a very nice fellow. It’s all been done in a very civilized way. Thanks so much. Not at all. Bye.” Brauchli left Dow Jones with $6.4 million, a package negotiated by Bill Clinton’s lawyer, Robert Barnett.
Why didn’t Brauchli file a complaint with the committee? Brauchli has said that he interpreted the purpose of the committee as protecting the integrity of the paper, and as he told The Washington Post (July 8, 2008): “I never saw any evidence that the owners had tried to impose ideological and commercial agendas on the news coverage.” He went on to say: “What was important was the Journal, not me—that the editorial integrity be preserved, not that my job be preserved. Fighting for my job would have been mostly selfish and undermined the fight to maintain quality journalism.”
Not all of his colleagues shared that view. A veteran Journal reporter says: “When Marcus finally did resign, and left with his wheelbarrow of money, it was not a resignation like Jay Harris’s in San Jose. [In 2001, Harris resigned from the San Jose Mercury News, rather than implement draconian cuts ordered by Knight Ridder.] A lot of people at the Journal noticed that. There was no statement of principle from Marcus. There was disquiet in some sectors of the newsroom.”
After he was forced out as managing editor, Brauchli worked for three months as a consultant to News Corp. He says: “I was helping to think through how they might do business media in Asia.” Notes Keith Richburg: “I remember Marcus saying during that period: ‘the great thing about working for Murdoch is you walk into these places in India and China and people see you in a way they don’t want to see you when you are going out as a correspondent.’ ” Concludes Richburg: “If the Post job hadn’t come along, he’d probably be some top assistant to Murdoch on Asia.” Brauchli’s old friend Stuart Karle urged him to embrace the private sector: “I told Marcus he should go work for Goldman Sachs in China. He’d make himself a pile of money. The guy knows everyone in China. He loves journalism enough to stay in it.”
The Washington, D.C., area, Don Graham told me with satisfaction in 2002, is “a hell of an area to publish a newspaper in.” (See “Stability: Don Graham’s Washington Post,” CJR, September/October 2002). But the good times didn’t last: the Post Company’s annual report for 2007 highlighted a significant drop in classified advertising, and noted: “the newspaper business is slipping.” The newspaper division posted an operating loss of $193 million in 2008, and $164 million in 2009. Daily circulation of the print edition is now about 556,000, down from 830,000 in 1994. Today, the Post employs fifteen full-time foreign correspondents, down from twenty-four in 2001. These days, Graham lives with the words of his grandfather, Eugene Meyer, which are inscribed in the lobby of the Post: “In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good.”
The Post’s financial distress cast a shadow over the race to succeed executive editor Leonard Downie, who was installed by Don Graham in 1991. When Katharine Weymouth became publisher of the Post in 2008, she decreed that Downie’s time was up. Today, many people at the Post contend that Downie “bungled the succession”—as if Downie was not an employee of a public company, but an African dictator who could name his successor. Walter Pincus, a longtime Post reporter and a consultant to The Washington Post Company, speaks for a number of his colleagues when he says: “Downie had made sure there was no successor, because he didn’t want to leave.”
The leading internal candidate for the executive editor’s job was managing editor Philip Bennett, who embodied many of the paper’s best values and who maintained an ambitious conception of journalism’s possibilities. Bennett’s detractors faulted him for lackluster communication skills, and accused him of playing favorites in the newsroom. Pincus says: “I think Katharine felt she gave Phil a chance, but he was not a leader.” Several Post veterans told me that Bennett would have pushed back aggressively against some of Weymouth’s edicts. In the end, Weymouth chose a man with no institutional history at the paper, and with no work experience in Washington.
In a recent interview, Weymouth explained why she chose Brauchli: “He had all the qualities I was looking for. He has serious journalistic chops. He was already at a great newspaper. He was running an integrated (print and online) newsroom. He has a great news sense as well as a business sense. He has a good dose of charisma as well.”
Brauchli was hired in July 2008. The previous month, Weymouth had given an interview to Advertising Age, in which she affirmed that she needed a cost-cutter: “To the extent that we need to effect change either in our structure or our head count, I think you need people who can do that effectively, without overly demoralizing the staff or hurting the product that we put out in print or online.” In December 2008, Weymouth sent a memo to the staff that outlined a “principal pillar” of the Post’s strategy in a time of “scarce resources”: “Being about Washington, for Washingtonians, and those affected by it.” Post staffers are still debating Weymouth’s memo, and some are confused by what “being about Washington” actually means. “Why on earth is the Washington Post covering everything from a Beltway perspective?” asks one experienced Post reporter. Others assert that the Post was always for and about Washington, and that Weymouth’s credo is simply a rhetorical device to justify a smaller cost structure. Says Weymouth: “We had to have a strategy. We had to have a sense of what makes us unique, and without that I don’t think you have anything.”
If Brauchli’s financial resources were equal to Bradlee’s and Downie’s, his Post might well resemble theirs. But it was his misfortune to join the Post a week before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Says former Post foreign editor David Hoffman: “The recession blew a big hole in the newspaper’s revenues, which led to pressure to reduce fixed costs, especially personnel.” He faced other challenges as well. Notes Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times: “Moving into the top job as an outsider is a daunting challenge in any institution, especially one with a culture as intense and complicated and political as that of a big-city newsroom.”
Brauchli had a mandate to integrate the paper’s print and digital operations; the latter was located in Arlington, Virginia. The merger was long overdue. Managing editor Raju Narisetti, who joined the Post eighteen months ago after launching Mint, a first-rate business newspaper in India, explains: “We were five years too late in combining both news organizations. And that was a mistake.” He adds: “The Washington Post site was a phenomenal site ten years ago. I think we were somewhat complacent. It lost ground in terms of design, technology, innovation, ease of use.”
As part of the integration process, Narisetti is overseeing the installation of a new computer system that can seamlessly merge print and online content. Brauchli also created a universal news desk, the goal of which is to move content to multiple platforms as rapidly as possible. Indeed, modernizing the Post’s technical infrastructure has been a crucial aspect of Brauchli’s tenure (though Post staffers still complain about second-rate computer equipment). Brauchli takes credit for “integrating two newsrooms in a way that has both eliminated redundancy and improved our agility, ensuring that Washingtonpost.com and its digital cousins on mobile devices are as competitive as any news site out there on breaking news.”
I asked Narisetti to delineate the principal objective of the current regime. He says: “To take a print-centric newsroom of eight hundred people, give or take, and transform it into a smaller, but much more multimedia-centric, newsroom.” (“About six hundred” is how Brauchli describes the current size of the newsroom.) Narisetti believes that he and Brauchli have come close to accomplishing their mission. But a price has been paid: as part of the integration process, some of the most talented people associated with the Web site, starting with Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, moved on; Brady felt there was no place for him in Brauchli’s integrated newsroom. (Brady now works for the Allbritton-owned tbd.com, which competes against the Post on local news). Moreover, Brauchli had the newsroom redesigned, which resulted in months of hassles and headaches for Post staffers, who were forced to flee their normal workspaces. Newsroom morale plunged, though the mood is said to have improved since the construction ended.
It will take time for the dust to settle on the print-Web integration. “It still feels like two media organizations,” says Freddy Kunkle, a veteran reporter on the local staff. “It’s almost as if there is a blogging culture, an online culture, an online media organization that has been inserted into the host of the old print organization, and it’s kind of transferring its DNA, little by little, like a virus. A lot of folks who were on the print side are just not exactly sure where this is all going to go.” Kunkle adds: “Even among some of the younger writers, there is unease about the new standards, or lack thereof, for writing Web stories, and the superficiality of what passes for an updated blog post, and the quest for eyeballs.”
It’s Brauchli’s job to respond to that unease. But my reporting, which is based on more than fifty interviews with current and former Post employees, suggests that he has yet to articulate his vision clearly or win the full loyalty of his staff. Some sources used unflattering terms to describe him—“bureaucrat,” “cipher,” “organization man,” “undertaker”; some people find him aloof and secretive, though his allies say in his defense that his Swiss origins explain his contained personality. Before an audience he is said to be a tongue-tied disaster; he is apparently better in one-on-one meetings. Brauchli admits he has work to do: “I’m probably not in the newsroom as much as I should be,” he says. “My biggest weakness is that I don’t get to spend enough time with reporters.” Brauchli may have been a charismatic reporter, but he is not a charismatic editor. A distinguished reporter says: “He’s a failed communicator. He’s made very little effort to transmit his vision to the staff. He has no presence in the room in a larger sense. He doesn’t seem interested in news or the Washington area. Most people don’t understand why he’s here.”
How does the Post look two years after Brauchli’s arrival? First, it must be acknowledged that his task is enormous: to put out a first-rate product with fewer resources in a punishing recession and a time of rapid technological change. A comprehensive report card on Brauchli’s Post would require a separate article, but impressions can be formed. “The Post is still a good, serious, competitive newspaper,” says Bill Keller. In an e-mail to me on July 21, Brauchli outlined some of his achievements:
We’ve kept up a strong cadence of investigative work—into subjects like the misallocation of AIDS money in the District, the hazards of the helicopter medevac business, the Redskins’s ticket office; the lapses that led up to the Fort Hood shootings, and most recently the world we described in our Top Secret America series. We also have put in place terrific teams covering national security and politics, reporters who have pretty much defined the Afghanistan policy debate over the last year and brought our readers real understanding of the party schisms that are driving politics this year.
But a former Post foreign correspondent with a sharp eye says: “There are just large subjects that they just don’t seem to deal with. They still have reporting power and talent that surfaces regularly in the A section and that makes itself indispensable. But it’s around selected subjects or it’s an ad-hoc surprise. The daily range of the paper’s confidence is noticeably reduced. And on international coverage they’re just not trying to cover the world every day anymore.”
The departure of Anthony Shadid, who joined The New York Times in January, left a hole in the Post’s foreign coverage. Shadid, forty-one, is the premier American foreign correspondent of his generation; his reporting for the Post from Iraq garnered two Pulitzer Prizes. “Anthony loved the Post more than anyone I know,” says Karl Vick, who now works for Time. “For him to leave it was such a staggering blow” to the institution.
Colleagues say that Shadid was deeply dismayed by the way his mentors—Philip Bennett and David Hoffman—were pushed out by Brauchli. (Hoffman, it turns out, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize nine months after he left the Post for his book The Dead Hand; Bennett teaches at Duke.) Moreover, Shadid came to feel that his technique—which entails prodigious reporting, lyrical writing, and deep skepticism of official sources—did not conform to Brauchli’s Washington-based vision. “The Post is a great paper,” Shadid said in July when I phoned him in Baghdad. “I think it will probably figure out what it has to do to survive. But the paper I joined in 2003 is not the paper I left in 2009. I say that as a foreign correspondent. It’s a paper that was about Washington in the end.” Shadid declined to discuss specifics. (The Post continues to lose gifted foreign correspondents: Steve Fainaru, a Pulitzer Prize winner, left in March, and Philip Pan, the Moscow bureau chief, recently announced his departure.)
Of the Post’s foreign coverage, Karl Vick says: “You still see good enterprise reporting from the war zones. You don’t see much of the rest of the world in there anymore.” Bill Keller says, “Bless them for continuing to take foreign coverage seriously, but it hews more closely than before to stories that fit a Washington agenda, which sometimes has the odd effect of making the Post’s world feel like an appendage of the State Department.” The emphasis on Washington means there is less room for quirky and human-interest features from abroad. “You’re seeing a lot more stories about policy,” says Keith Richburg. When the Post was edited by Downie and Steve Coll, the paper’s former managing editor, long, finely crafted stories were common. “Stories are coming in now at twenty-five or thirty inches,” says Richburg, “that used to routinely come in at forty or forty-five or fifty.”
When Post staffers are asked to describe the Brauchli era, they often use words like “chaos,” “reorganization,” or “time of transition.” Karl Vick offers a vivid example of chaotic political coverage. In January, Vick happened to be visiting the main newsroom in Washington, on break from his post in Los Angeles, when Scott Brown’s campaign began to surge in Massachusetts. An editor informed Vick they needed someone to cover the campaign; he agreed to do so. Vick recalls: “There was nobody on the ground. There was nobody who wanted to do it! This is supposed to be the nation’s premier political newsroom! And the L.A. reporter happens to have a weekend free. They sent him up! I was just amazed. To me, it spoke to no bench.”
I asked Thomas B. Edsall, who spent a quarter century covering politics for the Post, to assess the paper’s political coverage under Brauchli. “It’s not good to be dependent on Stanley Kaplan,” Edsall replied, referring to the testing and education firm that delivers substantial profits to The Washington Post Company. “If a newspaper is not making money, it loses self-confidence. Cowardice begins to set in. People are afraid of taking strong steps. As revenues began to decline, the aggressiveness of the Post also began to decline.”
In recent months, however, Edsall has noticed improvement: “They’re doing a pretty good job,” he says. “They’re getting stronger.” (He praises the reporting of Philip Rucker, Paul Kane, and Shailagh Murray.) John B. Judis, senior editor of The New Republic, agrees. In June 2009 Judis wrote a blog entry for TNR entitled “Who Killed The Washington Post?” He has since changed his mind. “I am amazed at how good it has become,” Judis wrote in a recent note to Post writers Ezra Klein and Alec MacGillis, referring to the Post’s domestic coverage. “I think Brauchli or whoever is pulling the strings there has figured out how to steer a path between the Web scoops (Politico) and the kind of New Republic-type pieces that Time and Newsweek have been trying to run.”
Like almost every section of the Post, Style has seen the departure of some of its most gifted writers. There are still admirable pieces in Style, and you can still read Pulitzer Prize-winning critics Sarah Kaufman and Michael Dirda. But the section is a shadow of what it was in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. Thirty-nine-year Style veteran Henry Allen told Dave Kindred: “Style as a place where readers can find writing, evocation, wit, and even some literary art is gone.” On June 3, Manuel Roig-Franzia achieved a near-impossible feat: a sleep-inducing profile of Christopher Hitchens. On June 9, the lead feature in the section was a story about D.C. nightlife by DeNeen Brown. It was as thin as a crepe. When I asked Brauchli for his vision of Style, his answer was so vague as to be useless.
It’s in the context of the Post’s business coverage that one tends to hear the most enthusiasm for Brauchli. Referring to the economic crisis that began in 2008, Keith Richburg says, “He really was engaged in the financial story in a way that I don’t think any of our editors ever could have been. Some friends of mine on the financial staff were just amazed that the new editor was coming in and rolling up his sleeves and sitting there at the news desk helping write the leads to stories.” Paul Steiger notes that Brauchli always possessed an acute knowledge of finance, and adds: “The Post’s coverage of the economic crisis was terrific, way better than it would have been in the past, because Marcus knows that stuff.”
But the Post is printing much less business news than it did in the past. The paper killed its stand-alone business section in 2009 and, in the print edition, business news is scant. (There is richer fare on the Post’s Web site, thanks to a new collaboration with Bloomberg.) Some of the Post’s most impressive business talent has departed in recent years, and Post sources say that Brauchli was dismayed by the recent loss of thirty-two-year-old reporter Binyamin Appelbaum, who, like many Post reporters in recent years—including Peter Baker, Mark Leibovich, Peter S. Goodman, Michael Barbaro, and David Segal—decamped to The New York Times.
No aspect of the Brauchli era has been as controversial as the “salon” scandal that erupted on July 2, 2009, after Politico reported that Katharine Weymouth had forged a scheme to bring together Post reporters, corporate lobbyists, and politicians for an exclusive series of salons at her own home; access would cost up to $250,000. Politico obtained a flier that said: “Underwriting Opportunity: An Evening with the right people can alter the debate.” (Weymouth and Brauchli would, according to the flier, serve as “Hosts and Discussion Leaders.”) When the story broke, Weymouth immediately put the blame on Post marketing employee Charles Pelton—a specialist in conferences who had recently joined the company, and who had approved the flier.
In a phone interview, Brauchli declined to discuss the salon affair. Questions about his role linger. A few hours after the scandal broke, Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote: “Brauchli said he never saw the flier and would not have approved it.” Alexander then quoted Brauchli directly: “I had no idea.” On July 3, Brauchli told Howard Kurtz that he was “appalled” by the plan: “It suggests that access to Washington Post journalists was available for purchase.” Under intense pressure from other news organizations, and from three Post staffers (Alexander, Kurtz, and Paul Farhi) tracking the story from within the newsroom, Brauchli tripped over his own shoelaces. Farhi wrote in the Post on July 5: “Brauchli has said he had planned to attend the dinners but was unaware that a flier was describing them as a ‘collegial’ and non-confrontational opportunity for a paying sponsor to gain exclusive access to Post journalists. If he had known, he said, he would have refused to participate. . . . ” On July 12, ombudsman Alexander published an autopsy of the affair—calling it an “ethical lapse of monumental proportions” and noting that two hundred Post managers, including the investigations editor, learned of the plan in an internal meeting on June 24.
The employee who approved the flier, Charles Pelton, hired a shrewd, energetic lawyer, George Frost, who attempted to reverse what he viewed as the systematic destruction of his client’s reputation. Frost demanded that Brauchli clarify the record with regard to Pelton, an effort that bore fruit. The Web site that broke the salon story also put closure on it: in October, Politico obtained a letter from Brauchli to Pelton; it was dated September 25, 2009, and it was written on Post letterhead. Brauchli wrote:
Dear Charles. . . . I knew that the salon dinners were being promoted as ‘off the record.’ That fact was never hidden from me by you or anyone else. For instance, the dinners were described as ‘off the record’ in two slide presentations that I attended. You and I also discussed the off-the-record nature of the dinners . . . please feel free to share this letter with anyone who questions whether you kept me informed about the way the dinners were being promoted. Sincerely, Marcus Brauchli.
In the days after the scandal exploded, Brauchli had much explaining to do. “He sat there in that conference room,” says Maralee Schwartz, “and took it, from reporter after reporter. That won him some personal loyalty.” Others remain troubled. One Post reporter says: “This wouldn’t have happened under Len.”
A notable feature of Dave Kindred’s Morning Miracle is his scathing treatment of Katharine Weymouth, whom he portrays as a journalistic featherweight. People who know Weymouth say that she never devoured the Post with Don Graham’s intense interest, and unlike him, she never worked in the Post newsroom. Thus far the salon scandal is the ugliest blemish on her tenure, but there are other reasons for concern: in 2009 she took issue with a story planned for the Post’s Sunday magazine about a young fashion-school graduate who endured the amputation of four limbs. The piece was killed by editors after Weymouth told its author, Matt Mendelsohn, that advertisers wanted “happier stories, not ‘depressing’ ones.” (She also criticized Gene Weingarten’s powerful 2009 article about young children who perished after being left in parked cars. That piece, which appeared in the Post’s magazine, won a Pulitzer.) Last year, Weymouth accepted a bonus of nearly $500,000, a decision that drew a stinging letter from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents many employees at the Post. (Don Graham, the Guild noted, had declined to take a similar bonus.)
Before my June interview with Brauchli, I had breakfast with Walter Pincus, who, owing to knee trouble, hobbled into the restaurant with a cane. Pincus, seventy-seven, is a direct link to the Bradlee era, and a man acquainted with the Post’s dark corners. He admires Brauchli: “Marcus impressed Katharine as somebody who is more than a newsroom editor. And he is. He’s interested in the whole business.” Pincus is a strong proponent of a cutting-edge Web site for the Post, and he occasionally e-mails Raju Narisetti with suggestions about new digital products the Post should roll out. But he also cautions Post management not to neglect the print edition, which still provides most of the revenue for the Post.
One doesn’t envy the burden that rests on the shoulders of Weymouth and Brauchli. They have a newspaper that is rapidly losing circulation and a Web site whose profits cannot yet sustain a well-staffed newsroom. Brauchli is obviously energized by the challenges presented by the Web. When he talked to me about Washingtonpost.com, there was a sparkle in his eye. He seemed more detached and somber about the print edition.
Let Brauchli and Weymouth roll out a universe of interactive widgets, online chats, blogs, and news alerts, if that is what it will take for the institution to survive in the Wild West of cyberspace. Let’s hope that, along the way, they find a way to improve the overall readability of Washingtonpost.com, which is harder to navigate than other major newspaper Web sites. And let’s also hope they clarify the relationship between fact, opinion, and free speech for writers; the David Weigel affair, in which a Post reporter-blogger was forced out for his pointed comments on a list-serv, revealed that the Post has no coherent guidelines on that score.
Brauchli knows how to read a spreadsheet and how to serve the needs of some online readers. But the Post also needs a leader who is articulate, imaginative, and inspirational, and some of his troops are restless. A reporter with a sterling reputation wonders: “How much longer is Don going to stand for this? When will he say: ‘this is not working—we need a different person?’ ” For now, the Post’s talented staff must insist that Brauchli and Weymouth do not neglect the core journalistic mission of the Post, a mission that, in the Watergate era, inspired bumper stickers that declared: THANK GOD FOR THE WASHINGTON POST. Unless Brauchli and Weymouth want to be remembered as cost-cutters and bureaucrats, they had better find a way to recapture some of the flair and magic of the old Post as they build a new one.