Marcus Brauchli, one-term editor

By Jack Shafer
November 14, 2012

As the daily newspaper winds down after a century of dominating the news business, so does the job of editing one. Editorships of the top papers were once comparable to lifetime appointments to the federal bench, with all the perks and prestige that came with a judgeship. A.M Rosenthal led the New York Times for 17 years. Benjamin C. Bradlee served as executive editor of the Washington Post for 13 23* years, and after him came Leonard Downie Jr., who had the job for 17 years.

Today, the top editor can rely on no more longevity than your average NBA coach, who fully expects to be dribbled out the door (or take the initiative to make a fast break for it) after a few seasons. The latest editor given his walking papers is Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who after four years at the job has been given the new title Washington Post Company vice president and assigned to evaluating new-media opportunities. His replacement, announced today, is Martin Baron, currently the editor of the Boston Globe. By comparison with other newspapers, the Post is a safe harbor for editors: The Los Angeles Times has cycled five journalists through its top job since 2005. Prior to editing the Globe, the itinerant Baron held the top job at the Miami Herald from 1999 to 2001.

Baron arrives at a paper much diminished from its salad days under Bradlee and Downie, when the Post was the leading mass-advertising vehicle in Washington and corpulent with profit. Under Bradlee’s and much of Downie’s tenures, the paper’s biggest problem was finding something to spend all that money on. It established domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Miami. It expanded its business pages into a freestanding section in the early 1990s. * It created local bureaus to serve the suburbs that circle Washington, filled them with reporters and produced zoned editions. It experimented with new weekly sections covering consumer tech and lifestyle.

Today the domestic bureaus are gone, as are the suburban ones, and business coverage has been reduced to a couple of pages running in the A section. The tech and lifestyle weeklies are long gone. The $130 million College Park, Maryland, printing facility the Post built in 1999 was closed by 2009. It lost its free-standing book review. It killed comics, the chess and poker columns, and one crossword puzzle. In 2000 the paper had 800 print journalists and 100 in its digital newsroom. Last summer the total number of full-time journalists was down to about 600. (In hindsight, the journalistic innovation the Post should have pursued was the building out of a politics website, which Posties John Harris and Jim VandeHei proposed to the paper but ended up launching as Politico with a local TV station owner.) The Post has so wound down local coverage that ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton published a column last Sunday complaining about the paper’s skimpiness.

This orderly retreat from the hefty, free-spending, continent-spanning, insanely profitable paper the Washington Post was in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s to the lesser, money-losing vehicle the company now publishes came largely under Brauchli. It’s not his fault, of course, that the bottom was dropping out of the newspaper business just as he took over the Post. But right-sizing the Post to fit the new economic realities was part of the job description when Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth was shopping for an editor to replace Downie. It’s the Post‘s transition from fat to slim that will be Brauchli’s legacy, not the journalistic accomplishments during his watch that he briefly tallies in his statement to the Post staff.

Brauchli’s substantial cuts had not satisfied Weymouth, according to the New York Times and other purveyors of gossip. Brauchli had clashed with her, the Times reports today somewhat cryptically, over his “newsroom budget that incorporated the cuts she asked for” but that she rejected. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon quotes Weymouth as saying that it was Brauchli’s idea to leave the job. Presumably, Weymouth will have a more harmonious budgetary relationship with Baron, whom she praised today in the newsroom as someone who led the Globe with “fewer resources,” according to Beaujon.

His brief stay makes Brauchli a transitional editor in Post history, not a formative one. If Baron’s assignment is to stay the cost-cutting course navigated by Brauchli — and it’s safe to say that it is — these two experienced journalists will share a downsizing legacy the way Bradlee and Downie share an upsizing legacy. I don’t envy Baron his task, and won’t hold it against him if he, like Brauchli, ends up being a one-term editor. The era when editors outlasted emperors has passed.

* CORRECTIONS: This piece mistakenly stated the number of years Benjamin C. Bradlee served as top editor of the  Washington Post. It has been revised. Also, the original article stated that the paper had closed all of its local bureaus. It has closed only one of 9. Those erroneous passages are now marked with “strike-though.”

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PHOTO: A general view of the exterior of The Washington Post Company headquarters in Washington, March 30, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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