‘Wash Post’ Publisher’s Pick for Editor Will Define Tenure

By: Joe Strupp

Katharine Weymouth, the new publisher of The Washington Post, has some major deciding to do over the next few days. Picking the paper’s next executive editor, who will replace 17-year newsroom chief Leonard Downie Jr. when he retires in September, may be the biggest decision Weymouth makes at the paper.

If you believe the rumors coming out of the Post’s fifth-floor newsroom, that decision may well have been made with former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli at the top of guessing-game lists. Managing Editor Phil Bennett appears a close second.

Of course, speculation and rumors mean nothing until the choice is announced, which some believe will be next week. When that decision is made, and how it is received, will say a lot about how Weymouth succeeds going forward. And a lot about how she views the paper’s future.

The Post has gone through an almost surreal few months, winning its most Pulitzer Prizes ever in April – with six – while seeing the loss of more than 100 newsroom staffers, many real “stars,” in a devastating buyout.

As if that were not enough, Downie’s announcement last month of his long-expected retirement made clear the paper would never be the same again. The loss of top writers and a few Pulitzer winners also sparked concern among those who remain about whether the Post could keep its top-echelon coverage going with fewer people and a new editor.

Many at the paper have pointed to Weymouth as the perfect Post publisher for the changing times. In her early 40s, she is clearly young enough to understand the need for expansion on the Web, but experienced enough to see the demand for continued excellence and an investigative, comprehensive, lively paper, staffers say.

When asked about the paper’s top business executive, people at the Post continually used the words “smart” and “savvy” to describe her. She also has that Graham Family pedigree, as niece of former publisher and current Washington Post chairman Donald Graham and granddaughter of two former legendary publishers, Philip and Katharine Graham.

“The good news is there is a Graham in charge,” one top editor said when news of the Downie retirement broke and speculation began about his replacement.

Still, choosing a new top editor will not be easy and will receive as much scrutiny as anything Weymouth does. The paper’s history shows the Grahams like — and the paper needs — longevity in its executive editors. Only two men, Downie and Ben Bradlee, have held that post since 1965.

That’s 43 years of editor continuity when you consider Downie was Bradlee’s managing editor. Quite a feat when the Los Angeles Times is on its fourth editor since 2005 and The New York Times its third since 2000.

Weymouth’s Uncle Don, who chose Downie, and Grandma Kate, who tapped Bradlee, showed there may be something in the family gene that helps with such decisions. Both men did well and maintain legacies likely to endure.

If the speculation over Weymouth’s two alleged finalists is right, it appears she has a good grasp of what is needed. Brauchli brings an outsider’s approach combined with business and foreign coverage experience, as well as at least a year at the top of a major daily.

Brauchli also has an eye toward the multimedia future, telling E&P last year after he was named Journal managing editor: “People are very focused on newspapers, but not as entities of information. We are news organizations, we deliver news and information to our readers through myriad channels. In an information age, it is particularly clear that people who provide valuable information and content should flourish.”

Bennett, meanwhile, has solid Post credentials and respect from the newsroom, along with a former foreign editor’s eye. He would also likely be willing to stay on as a Brauchli M.E. if asked.

“Phil has been doing all of the heavy lifting,” adds a top Post editor who requested anonymity and referred to Bennett’s part in guiding the paper through much of the recent reorganization and cutbacks, not to mention several of the Pulitzer-winning projects. “He has been doing it for months.”

It is unclear, however, how much Weymouth will put future multimedia and Web expansion into the choice. She could well choose a veteran newspaper editor like Brauchli or Bennett and create some new position for the Web, or boost the profile of washingtonpost.com master James Brady in the newsroom leadership.

Either way, Weymouth has shown an ability to smoothly put her directives in place. It is unknown how much Downie wanted to stay in the job and how much, if at all, he had to be pushed out. If an ouster was part of the move, Weymouth orchestrated the move well, giving Downie a prominent vice president-at-large position, and even Bradlee’s former office on the seventh floor.

Bradlee, who has held such an at-large position himself since 1991, moves up to the chairman’s floor on nine, where he will continue in his emeritus role.

Back in the newsroom, meanwhile, whoever does take over the Post will have a challenge neither Downie nor Bradlee faced — keeping the highly-respected paper going with less staff; more demand via print, Web and whatever multimedia future awaits; and growing competition.

It is somewhat appropriate that Weymouth finalizes her choice over the July 4th weekend, given that it will be a way for her to show her independence both from the paper’s past and toward its uncertain future. Hopefully, when the fireworks follow her announcement, she won?t get burned.

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