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Is Marty Baron the Man to Fix The Washington Post? Is Marty Baron the Man to Fix The Washington Post? Is Marty Baron the Man to Fix The Washington Post? Is Marty Baron the Man to...

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Magazine

Is Marty Baron the Man to Fix The Washington Post?

The paper's new executive editor avoids new-media buzzwords, abhors self-promotion, and espouses traditional journalistic values. In a changing world where Web is swiftly displacing print, is that what The Post needs?

White knight: A Pulitzer Prize-winner in Boston, Baron inherits an iconic and influential franchise buffeted by declining revenue, falling circulation, and digital competition.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Chris Frates
May 23, 2013

Washington, meet Martin Baron, the new executive editor of The Washington Post, who arrived this year carrying seven Pulitzers and a sack full of accolades. He wants to find out all about you. But make no mistake, he is not so pleased for you to meet him.

Baron is almost a kind of D.C. antimatter. He does not talk about himself. He does not discuss much of himself, his personal life or, more important, how he runs The Post, still the most iconic media franchise in town, and one beset by all the plagues that have visited newspapers across the country. In a splintered industry where just about everyone works feverishly to develop his own brand, Marty Baron is stubbornly retro. A company man.

He’s the consummate newsman, a compliment that has long been reserved for industry lifers who care more about the makeup of Page 1 than the future of newspapers. But can The Post, whose flagging fortunes include tumbling revenue, circulation, and staff ranks, still afford that kind of luxury? If Baron has a vision for the paper’s future—and almost certainly he had to offer one to Publisher Katharine Weymouth to be handed the helm—he’s loath to discuss it. He’ll talk about his journalistic accomplishments, the mechanics of a good story. But as for fixing The Washington Post, he’s not about to admit that it’s even necessary.

 

Talking journalism or politics with Baron often feels like recounting a well-stocked résumé. The editor who has pulled back the curtain on some of America’s most important institutions won’t offer so much as a glimpse behind his own. Take the Boston Marathon bombings. When asked to send along stories he thought exemplified his approach, Baron responded quickly, offering example after example of the scoops and enterprise pieces he said set The Post apart from the competition on an intensely covered national story. The paper, for example, broke the news that the CIA pushed to have one of the bombers placed on a counterterrorism watch list more than a year before the attacks and was the first to report that the other suspect was unarmed when police opened fire on him.

“We were in front of everyone with major scoops. That’s job one: Be competitive, break news. And we did, frequently. Next, we need quick and superior enterprise on a story like the bombings. Here are three particularly excellent pieces of that sort,” Baron wrote in an e-mail, listing a tick-tock of the manhunt, a reconstruction of the investigation, and a portrait of the bombing suspects’ family.

“They demonstrate our ability to quickly marshal the full resources of the organization on stories that promise to be truly distinct,” he continued. “We looked for the best opportunities to stand out from the media crowd, and then we delivered repeatedly.”

Baron’s e-mails were reminiscent of descriptions that accompany contest entries, filled with swagger and pride. But a few days later, when Baron sat for coffee with National Journal to discuss the coverage, he was unwilling to talk about the action behind the scenes, the very thing he had pushed his reporters to uncover in their bombings’ reporting. The longtime Boston Globe editor, 58, provided no insight into how his experience with the region, no doubt an immeasurable asset in the frantic days that followed the attack, helped shape the effort.

“I’m not really drawn to telling those stories,” Baron said. “I view these newsrooms as a collaborative enterprise, and a lot of people make contributions, and not everything revolves around me.”

“What did you make happen?”

“See, that’s what I don’t want to talk about.”

“You can’t tell me anything about what you did?”

“That’s your challenge,” he replied.

In Marty’s world, journalism is still practiced more as a sacred ritual than as a Pez dispenser for the BuzzFeed-addled crowd. He’s human Ritalin. “The guy has the single best news judgment I have ever seen of any editor in my life. His news judgment is extraordinary, and I’m not just saying that because I used to work for the guy,” said Brian McGrory, who succeeded Baron as The Globe’s editor. “It’s almost like his brain is a news computer.”

Finding colleagues like McGrory to praise Baron is not hard. They routinely describe him as brilliant and as one of the best editors in the country. But The Post isn’t just another metro daily in need of a turnaround. It’s an institution that not long ago boasted of an unbreakable grip on the private, public, and political pulse of America’s capital. Whether due to diminished resources, increased competition, or an imprecise focus, it has lost that edge, longtime observers say. This view is especially strong among the Washington consulting class that makes a lucrative living helping clients leverage media exposure into maximum influence.

“From a strategy perspective of planning where we go, they’re not even in our top 10,” a Washington public-affairs consultant said of the paper. In fact, the consultant hadn’t even heard of Baron.

A journalist-turned-top-media-strategist put it this way: “Our clients are most interested in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal because, in their view, The Post has lost a step or two. The coverage is just not as in-depth and informative.”

The strategist continued, “It speaks to a much broader issue. Is The Washington Post still relevant in today’s world of journalism? And I think that question is still an open question.”

Baron naturally disagrees—and sees his newspaper background as a strength, one that has been adapted to the digital future.

“If I didn’t think I could do the job, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” he said. Baron pointed to The Globe’s online coverage of the marathon bombings. “They did a really terrific job. You will see that it was fully webby in every way,” he said, adding that most of the preparation for that response happened under his 11-year watch. He then ticked off the deliverables: a half-dozen Pulitzers, six Edward R. Murrow awards, and nine local Emmys.

“You tell me, is that an achievement or not? People can judge themselves. I don’t happen to think that coming out of a traditional newspaper background is a defect. I think you have to recognize how the business has changed,” he said. “I still believe that the heart of what we do has to be good journalism.”

And what about branding, Marty? What about driving clicks? What about, for want of a better word, buzz?

“I think it’s possible to create buzz with news,” he replied flatly.

THE DUDE COMES TO WORK

Just as the Boston Marathon bombings occurred as Baron was settling in at The Post, he was only a few months into his tenure as Globe editor when two airliners flew out of Logan International Airport on a Tuesday morning and crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Shortly after, he ordered up a narrative of how the lives of the people on Flight 11 and in the Trade Center’s north tower came together that day. It was a massive lift to pull together such a complicated story in only a few days, recalled Greg Moore, who worked as Baron’s managing editor at The Globe before jetting west to lead The Denver Post.

“I was like, ‘For Sunday?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, for Sunday.’ And we did it, and it was really, really good,” Moore said. “He dares people to be great.” It was a model he would follow again when hundreds were injured at the marathon site a dozen years later.

“Marty used to have a saying that you’re either breaking news or you’re breaking ground,” Moore said. “And breaking ground means that you’re helping people understand better what’s going on around them.”

Baron had come to Boston after a short stint as editor of The Miami Herald in his home state of Florida, following stops at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. It was a career that hadn’t, notably, involved any time in D.C. At The Herald, Baron oversaw the coverage of the Elián González controversy, which won a Pulitzer, and the 2000 Florida vote recount. The Herald was the first to organize an independent recount, which determined that, under most scenarios, George W. Bush would have still won Florida and, with it, the presidency.

At The Globe, it swiftly became clear that Baron lived for the job. As Moore put it, “The dude comes to work. He comes to work with his lunch bucket, and he’s not joking around.”

The flip side is an editor known as a relentless, single-minded, exacting, and demanding boss. A former Globe employee recalled one description of Baron’s regime that circulated the newsroom: “The joyless pursuit of journalistic excellence.” Former employees describe him as “aloof,” “brittle” and a “hard-ass”—and those are the people who like him. He was also determined to keep his private life separate from the newsroom, making him something of an outsider. Ann Scales, who worked as Baron’s right hand in Boston, put it this way: “Marty’s brand is his toughness and skill as an editor. That’s what the world sees, because that’s what he presents. The rest of it is nobody’s damn business.”

Two years after his arrival, The Globe won a Pulitzer for exposing the Roman Catholic Church’s history of protecting pedophile priests—a series that Baron is perhaps best known for. (He’ll be portrayed in a movie version of the story that’s in the works.) And in Massachusetts, Baron became familiar with a cutthroat political scene that produced a disproportionate number of national candidates. In 2003, The Globe produced what is remembered as the definitive profiles of home-state Sen. John Kerry. The series was must reading for every national reporter covering Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign.

“Here’s a guy who had been in office for many, many years. People, I think, in the Globe newsroom felt they knew everything there was to know about him, given his years in office,” Baron said. “But I felt that if he was going to be a presidential [candidate], I wanted to make sure that we as an organization were not embarrassed by someone else coming up with something about John Kerry that we ourselves had not discovered first,” he said. “We had to be the reference for everybody else. The way I put it is, I didn’t want any crumbs left on the table for anybody else to pick up.”

Everywhere Kerry campaigned in 2004, a Globe reporter was by his side. In 2007, the paper did a similar seven-part series on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during his unsuccessful bid to win the Republican presidential nomination. And in 2012, two Globe reporters published a biography of Romney that became a reference guide for political reporters everywhere.

Baron also brought his exhaustive approach to statewide races. In the 2002 governor’s race, which Romney would go on to win, Baron told his reporters, “We have to devote at least as many column inches profiling the candidates as we did on the guys who might buy the Red Sox,” said Rick Klein, a former Globe reporter who now works as ABC News’ political director.

Although Baron understood the need for comprehensive political coverage, he showed little interest in moving in the same circles as the consultants and candidates the paper covered. “I honestly don’t think he was big on the social scene in Boston, which is probably atypical for someone in that job. Politics is a blood sport and social sport in Massachusetts, and I don’t think he did that during his tenure,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Instead, Baron stayed at arm’s length. His relationships with Bay State pols consisted of lunches and phone calls, not weekends on the Cape. He was more Len Downie than Ben Bradlee. Globe editor McGrory likened it to Baron’s lack of interest in professional sports. When Baron landed in sports-crazy Boston, “Marty didn’t know a football from a basketball. He looked at our love of the Red Sox like we were living on another planet, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t catch on to why we love the Red Sox,” McGrory said, noting that Baron would catch an occasional game at Fenway and spend nine innings buried in his smartphone.

“He’s not a political animal in any sense of the word, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate what politics are. It just means he’s not going to immerse himself in that world,” McGrory said. “I think it produces extraordinary journalism, because in many ways Marty can exist above the fray.” (And indeed in person, Baron is no glad-handing showman. He doesn’t flatter. He speaks in a restrained monotone that, while never impolite, seems to disguise an annoyance with having to answer questions about his leadership.)

He saw no need to genuflect before the local establishment. Early in Baron’s tenure, then-Rep. Barney Frank forwarded a letter to Baron that he received from a constituent complaining that The Globe only covered the Massachusetts Democrat when it pertained to gay issues, ignoring his views on other important national debates. So Baron went through the paper’s archives and found examples of stories that covered Frank’s work in financial services, housing, and other areas, printed them, and sent them to Frank with a note urging the lawmaker to catch up on his reading.

The always witty and cantankerous Frank wrote back, “If there was a Pulitzer Prize for defensiveness, you would win hands down.” In Frank’s telling, Baron sent back two stories over two years that didn’t deal with gay issues. “It was very sketchy,” he said in an interview. 

Frank, now retired, said he doesn’t know much about Baron personally, having had lunch with him just once over the years. He said he found The Globe’s coverage of himself inadequate and overly negative. “I did find him excessively defensive ... to criticism and unwilling to acknowledge anything that they might not have done well. I would say that opinion was generally shared by other members of the congressional delegation,” Frank said. “He reacted to any disagreement with the paper as if he were Peter Zenger.”

NUMBERS DON’T LIE

Peter Zenger’s medium held dominion for centuries, but print now finds itself on the endangered list, and ailing newspapers are in various stages of triage. The Post’s challenge to hold onto the next generation of readers is considerable. For decades, it ruled supreme as a prominent source of political coverage, but its online space has been crowded by Politico, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, The Daily Caller, and RealClearPolitics—not to mention “old media” such as The New York Times. The Post, some argue, owns less mind share in Washington now than at any time since before its Watergate glory days. The paper, it seems, has lost its home-field advantage.

Peter Baker, a former Postie turned New York Times reporter, said recently of his alma mater, “There’s a perception it’s not the paper it was.” New York Times media critic David Carr wrote that The Post “has allowed its franchise on political coverage to disperse to other news outlets, many online.”

It’s a view that also holds inside the newsroom. “The notion that the ascension, especially of Politico but also of others, hasn’t challenged The Post’s foothold is impossible to argue. It’s against gravity,” said Post media reporter Erik Wemple, noting that all legacy media outlets have watched the Web challenge their preeminence.

Baron, apparently, doesn’t subscribe to Newton’s theory. “I disagree with the premise,” he said. “I think we do have a political advantage.”

He continued, “Because of the Web, we have more competition than ever before, and that’s fine. We don’t have a problem with competition; it keeps us sharp. But that doesn’t mean that it’s eaten away at our coverage. It hasn’t eaten away at our coverage. Our coverage still remains strong, and I would say much stronger than those competitors.”

Baron rejected Carr’s criticism as a competitor’s “glib remark.”

“We haven’t allowed anything to disperse to anybody else. This organization maintains an incredibly strong political team. It’s going to remain strong, and, frankly, David Carr is not the authority on the subject. Who’s the authority on the subject? The readers are the authority.”

But the numbers don’t add up in Baron’s favor. Of the top 25 daily papers in the country, The Post saw some of the biggest circulation declines, registering a drop of 6.5 percent in average print and digital circulation over the last year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media’s most recent report. In 2012, revenue from The Post’s newspaper operations was down 7 percent year over year, and it fell 4 percent in the first quarter of 2013 from the same time last year.

The Post is not alone, of course. Newspapers across the country have suffered circulation and revenue decline as readers have moved online. But The Post is unique in that it is a local paper that has had outsized influence as the arbiter of what happened in official Washington—the paper’s backyard. And losing ownership of the inside-the-Beltway story is “more of a mortal threat” to The Post than it would be for most other news outlets because Washington is the paper’s home turf, one current Post employee said.

In an extended interview from his glass-walled office on the 5th floor of The Post’s Northwest Washington headquarters, Baron offered no transformative plans to stave off the competition. Rather, he talked of finding opportunities to do investigative, accountability reporting with a focus on money and politics that sets The Post apart from the competition. Any editor at a top-flight newspaper might have offered the same thoughts 10 or 20 years ago.

“I’m keenly interested in politics,” he said. “I’m particularly interested in accountability journalism, investigative work. I’m keenly interested in being very competitive on the day to day. I’m interested in our doing more in-depth stories that look behind the scenes, that look ahead, that look at the players in terms of profiles. Stories that offer some perspective and depth.”

In hiring Baron, Weymouth did not give him any instructions about where she wanted the political coverage to go. In an e-mail to National Journal, she called Baron “one of the best editors in the world,” with a “well-established track record of producing outstanding journalism.”

“I asked Marty to come to The Post to lead our newsroom. He will, as he should, decide how our coverage should be directed. I am incredibly proud of the work we have done and continue to do,” she wrote, “and I brought Marty in to build on that for the future.”

That future may inevitably involve further winnowing of the editorial staff, which has dropped from its peak of 1,000 or so people to about 600. At The Globe, Baron cut 40 percent of the traditional newsroom staff. Still, some argue that he tried to make the cuts as efficiently and painlessly as possible. An M.B.A., he’s known for keeping his newsroom’s budget top of mind, knowing which positions remain unfilled and taking advantage of that when pressed for reductions.

Baron’s low profile, his inscrutable manner, and The Post’s star-crossed finances have some of the rank and file on 15th Street anxious. “People can find him hard to read. He keeps his cards close to his chest, so that can, particularly in these early days, result in some guessing games about what he’s thinking,” one Post editor said. “He’s not a person who thinks out loud or telegraphs his every move.”

Asked if the staff will continue to shrink, Baron was blunt. “It seems not out of the question, given what’s happening in the industry. But, as I said, even as we’re shrinking certain things, we’re adding other things. So, I don’t think with the investment we’re making in video and some of the other investments we’re making, I don’t think the overall staff in the newsroom is going to be any smaller this year than it was at the end of last year.”

But for now, Baron wants to focus on the journalism. He points to coverage digging into whether Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell accepted an unreported cash gift as examples of the kind of in-depth work the paper should be doing. He also singled out the story about Sen. Robert Menendez, who raised concerns with federal officials over their findings that a close friend, a major campaign donor, had overbilled Medicare.

The Menendez story came after The Times broke the news that the New Jersey Democrat had helped the same donor in a port-security deal. So, as the Post editors discussed how to go at the story, Baron recommended more, not less. The paper would have never gotten the scoop, a Post reporter said, “if not for Marty saying we’re going to put more resources on it. He has a news sense that’s sometimes mistakenly called old-fashioned.”

That sense may also have led The Post to refrain from the blunders that were committed by Fox News Channel, the Associated Press, CNN, and even The Globe during the breakneck Boston bombing coverage. And Baron is mindful that those standards come at a cost. “You have to be willing to sacrifice traffic in favor of accuracy. So, yeah, it’s tough,” he said. “Readers think these days that all information is available instantaneously, and the truth is that not all information is available instantaneously. You actually need some time to check things out. They expect that you’re going to have it right away, but they’ll hold you accountable if you get it wrong.”

Some might call those principles old-fashioned as well. And if Marty Baron’s plan to keep The Post upright simply comes down to sticking close to an analog ethos in a digital age, he has to hope that his readers share those values. In these tough and uncertain times for journalism, integrity can feel like just another experimental business model.

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