Don Graham’s Tribute to Downie: ‘The Best’

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By: E&P Staff

Donald Graham, the longtime CEO of The Washington Post Co. and former publisher of the newspaper, hailed departing editor Leonard Downie, Jr. in a “farewell speech’ in the newsroom yesterday. It has now been posted at the Romenesko site at www.poynter.org.

Here it is.
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Len’s qualities as an editor are those that reporters and editors care most about. He is completely honest ? with us and with the story. He has great day-in and day-out judgment of the news. He is ferocious about fairness on the biggest stories we cover, and on every story.

Then there is his work ethic. Len worked nights, weekends, weekend nights, holidays, holiday weekend nights and any time a good story was breaking. Len came rushing in to the paper for anything beyond a good weather story — ok, maybe including a good weather story.

When we tell colleagues elsewhere how Downie has edited the Post, they say “impossible”. But from the day he became M.E., he took his seat on the news desk and damn well edited The Washington Post.

Some of you may feel he moved your second graf to the fourth graf a little too often, or you may feel he inspired dozens of other editors here to clutch any important story in the section and juggle the paragraphs. That may have made you mad, but you knew that Len cared about every story you wrote. He is cool under pressure and has a sense of proportion. He said to me after a year as editor “I have learned that I can tolerate an unlimited amount of conflict”. He heard each of you out. And he made thousands of good decisions quickly.

I knew Len before I met him — from his direct-hit series on the District of Columbia court system which caused the whole system to be changed (I saw some of those changes in my police days).

In 1971 I joined a city staff with a pretty good desk — for those with long memories — Barry Sussman, Don Baker, Doug Feaver, Tim Robinson, Mike Hill and Len. With that all-star team, the reporters told me “We all take our stories to Len”.

How great an editor is he? I will leave that judgment to others and say what I believe I can say for this whole staff. The very large monuments — the Pulitzers; the Public Service Awards; the great investigations — were as great as you all know.

You can also look at the quality of the staff he assembled. But the right way to judge an editor — to put this in an old-fashioned way — is by the day-by-day quality of the paper, because every paper matters, and every story.

In the second half of the twentieth century, I believe I speak for all of us in saying: we worked with the best in the business.

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