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Declining Kingdom, Waning Power

The Washington Post changes editors, world yawns.

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Last week was an eventful one in Washington, but one piece of news came and went with surprising swiftness. The executive editor of the Washington Post, Marcus Brauchli, was fired by the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth—and hardly anyone paused to notice.

Washington Post HQ

If something of this media magnitude had occurred when Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, was in charge, it would have brought the chin-stroking set to a full stop: Days and weeks of analysis, perhaps a Newsweek cover story, two Charlie Rose installments, talk of a movie, certainly a Ken Auletta essay in the New Yorker. I say this not to praise the late Mrs. Graham, who was lucky to be at the helm when it mattered, but to emphasize the old biblical admonition: How the mighty have fallen!

The rise and fall of Washington Post editors is of lesser consequence today because, in this brave new world, media institutions like the Washington Post are of lesser consequence. You need only pick up a copy of the Brauchli-era Post (its weight will reveal the secret) to see how much news space, how much advertising, how many writers and editors have been lost, probably never to be replenished.

Whether this is a Good Thing or Bad Thing—and we should be thankful for the journalism of cyberspace and cable television—I leave to others to judge. But it certainly opens an instructive window on the modern media culture.

First, there was Katharine Weymouth’s carefully worded letter to staffers, which said everything—“Marcus Brauchli will . . . assume a new role as Vice President . . . working closely with Don Graham to review and evalu- ate new media opportunities”—and nothing: “Today, [the Post’s] digital operations, including, mobile platforms and an expanded digital-video unit, are consistently recognized as among the most innovative mainstream news sites.” Can anyone imagine, say, the late Turner Catledge of the New York Times claiming something like “mobile platforms and an expanded digital video unit” as his legacy?

Then there was reporter Paul Farhi’s very carefully worded story in (where else?) the Style section—“Facing growing business pressures, the Washington Post shook up its newsroom on Tuesday . . . ”—which made the fascinating statistical claim that Brauchli’s successor, Martin Baron of the Boston Globe, is “only the fourth journalist appointed to the job in the past 44 years.” Interesting, yes—so long as you discount the fact that the job was held by two journalists (Benjamin Bradlee, Leon- ard Downie) for 40 of those 44 years. The Post editor’s chair—like the leadership of any number of once-mighty metropolitan dailies—has entered its revolving phase.

In that regard, the appointment of Marty Baron makes eminent sense. Baron can boast the usual number of Pulitzer Prizes and admiring profiles and Editor of the Year awards in his 11-year tenure at the Globe. But like all his contemporaries in the executive-editing game, Baron has primarily been managing the Globe’s steady deterioration in quality, size, and financial value during the last decade.

(The New York Times Company purchased the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993 and stopped trying to sell it last year when it couldn’t get offers as low as $35 million.)

 Indeed, Baron, who is a perfectly capable man, has been on an upward path, regardless of outcome, since his days at the Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. That is because he has long since joined the kind of golden circle among senior media types, who swap well-compensated sinecures the way celebrities churn through spouses. If this Post vacancy had occurred two decades ago, it would’ve been filled by such usual suspects as Gene Roberts, Geneva Overholser, or the late Michael Gartner. 

 Like the 51-year-old Marcus Brauchli, who earned lifetime tenure (and his Post job) in 2008 by being elbowed aside at the Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch, Baron, 58, is probably good for one more editorship after this—succeeding Jill Abramson at the New York Times?—before graduating to ombudsman status, or better yet, the Newseum board of directors, or an endowed chair at a journalism school in a nice location.

Still, there is a tension and uncertainty here that reflects the ambiguous future of daily newspapers. On the day his demotion was announced, Marcus Brauchli’s wife took to her Facebook page to pay tribute to her husband in the usual terms—“the courage to stand up for his ideals . . . dedication to superior journalism as an essential part of our democracy,” etc., etc. —but then added this petulant note: “Has the Washington Post of Watergate fame become the place where you can’t speak truth to power?”

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