Martin Baron's Plan to Save The Washington Post

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Martin Baron, the incoming executive editor of The Washington Post, is bespectacled and scruffily bearded, a nice Jewish boy from Tampa and an itinerant survivor of America’s imploding newspaper industry. For the past eleven and a half years, he has edited the Boston Globe. Before that, he was editor of the Miami Herald. He also was editor of the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, as well as that paper’s business editor. He did a stint as night editor of The New York Times, but has never had a posting outside the U.S.

The Post figures to be his stiffest challenge yet. “There’s a perception it’s not the paper it was,” notes Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times, who grew up in the Washington area and worked at the Post for twenty years. “But Marty Baron has the chance to change that.”

As things stand, the Post, suffused with nostalgia for the Ben Bradlee-Len Downie glamour years, has insufficient means to accomplish vaguely-focused ends. The Post Co.’s newspaper division, dominated by its flagship paper, lost $56.3 million in the first nine months of 2012, double the loss for the same period in 2011. A steadily shrinking Post newsroom is apt to shrink more.

“It’s probable that that will happen,” Baron conceded to me in a recent conversation at the Globe (he starts at the Post on Jan. 2).

Still, even a downsized Post is apt to remain the single biggest journalistic presence in the Washington area. Baron’s past successes suggest a specific rescue plan. In our conversation, Baron was for the most part unforthcoming as to his vision for the newspaper, with one telling exceptionMetro coverage. Baron believes passionately in hard-hitting coverage of local communities, as exemplified by the Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning expose of the Catholic Church’s cover up of sexual abuse by Boston-area priests. At the budget-crunched Globe, he shuttered all foreign bureaus to devote greater focus and energy to the “central” mission of covering Greater Boston. This past April, Baron wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Timeswhich was “a little weird,” he now concedes, because the Times Company owns the Globeto take Times media reporter David Carr to task for a column suggesting that metro-oriented newspapers were irrelevant.

Baron is still pissed off at Carr for that column: “Frankly, I found what he said offensive,” Baron told me. “I don’t think for a minute that local journalism is a lesser form of journalism than coverage of national affairs or world affairs.” And that goes, he made clear, for the Washington areawith an appetite for coverage of local issues as strong as it is in the rest of America, even though the region is, uniquely, the seat of the nation’s capital.

“Does the Post have a mission for covering those kind of stories? Absolutely. I think it does. Can more be done? I hope so.”

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The Boston Globe-ization of The Washington Post? Why not. Baron’s arrival is, or least ought to be, an opportunity for the Post to revalue its regional franchise for what it is: the paper’s principal source of strength in a ferociously competitive national and global media environment.

Greater Washington is more textured and more journalistically inviting, than ever. Over the last several decades, the restaurant scene has exploded; intellectual life has become more vibrant; the “suburbs” have stretched into Virginia horse country; a bio-tech cluster has cropped up around the National Institutes of Health in Maryland; the black middle class has put down deep roots in Prince George's County; and Northern Virginia, a kind of metropolis of its own, has become one of the nation’s “swing” political districts. Washington D.C. and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs now rank as the nation’s most affluent metropolis, ahead of the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area, with a median household income of nearly $87,000. Fortunes have been madeand squanderedin go-go areas like real estate. The area offers “great turf for investigative journalism,” Baron told me. “Look what’s happening in D.C. government”with federal prosecutors now investigating the financing of the 2010 campaign of current Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

Sports coverage at the PostGo Nats!is pretty good. Otherwise, the paper fails to convey the breadth, depth and flavor of Greater Washingtonand is outclassed by papers like the Globe in tough-minded enterprise reporting. Consider, for example, Capital Business, the Post’s main effort for covering the region’s business sector. Capital Business is both a weekly, subscription-based printed edition, as well as a website, linked to washingtonpost.com, of supposedly updated and breaking stories. Except that stories on the website tend to sit around for days on end. A “Follow our reporters” guide on the Capital Business site is dated May 11, 2011. The Post even got scooped on the recent home news that a paywall, to make readers pay for the digital edition, now free of charge, was likely coming next yearan item first reported by The Wall Street Journal. (Baron helped install a paywall at the Globe but a paywall is “not a magic bullet for anyone,” including the Post, he told me, since the main reason for plummeting revenues at newspapers is the decline in print advertising. Bostonglobe.com, in about a year of operation, has signed up about 26,000 digital-only subscribers, paying some $200 annually for the subscription.)

While it is tempting to blame this middling state of affairs on Baron’s predecessor, Marcus Brauchlia former Wall Street Journal editor and foreign correspondent thought by Post newsroom staff to care more about Hong Kong than Loudon Countythe Post never has done a particularly good job of sorting out its Metro mission. Yes, Watergate began as a Metro desk police story, but in the Bradlee era, Metro was perceived as it is now, as a stepping stone to something bigger and betteras a “lesser form of journalism,” in Baron’s terms.

Broadly conceived, the “local and regional” mission of the Post also can be said to include all of the places unique to the nation’s capital, like Capitol Hill and the White House, Democratic and Republican Party headquarters, and the K Street lobbying firms. Those are areas in which to strengthen coverage that is, for the most part, undistinguished. Because institutions like Congress are in the Post's backyard, they deserve more sustained coverage than they're now getting, and the Post has the resources to cover all aspects of the federal government and national policy and politics and the influence-peddling business better than any other news organization. The Post has a few ascending stars, such as Ezra Klein, creator of the popular Wonkblog, and Chris Cillizza, founder of the politics-obsessed The Fix. But coverage of the Hill, the White House, the Federal Reserve, is done better by competitors.

Foreign coverage is a harder call. “World affairs” clearly matter to the region’s media consumersGreater Washington, after all, is also about the Pentagon, the State Department, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Agency for International Development, the think tanks with a global eye. But foreign coverage is very expensive and the Post has no particular comparative advantage in delivering foreign news over competitors like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The marginal editorial dollar is arguably better spent on, say, DNA testing of fish served by local restaurants to make sure diners are getting what they orderedan investigative project undertaken in the Boston region by Baron’s Globe, to avid reader interest. (Mislabeling, such as “red snapper” really being tilapia, was rampant.) 

Metro coverage sounds fusty and unsophisticatedsuggestive of reports on traffic snarls and zoning commission hearingsbut doesn’t have to be. Baron is certainly no rube. He upheld the Globe’s longstanding tradition of fanatical sports coverage while at the same time devoting more attention to the local arts and culture scene. (He’s an avid art collector.) People in the Washington area, as everywhere, care about their neighborhoods, public safety, their representation in local and regional government, their schools and the cultural environment, he told me. He makes no claim to knowing well the D.C. area but rightly insists that “Washington doesn’t live in some other universe”no matter what folks outside the Beltway think.

Ex-Washingtonian Paul Starobin is author of  “After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.

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