By: Joe Strupp
As the reality sinks in among staffers at The Washington Post that Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. is retiring after 17 years at the helm, the popular boss’s departure is leaving many with concerns about the future and praise for his work.
“He is such a bedrock of what the paper’s identity has been,” said Dana Priest, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and 22-year Post veteran. “Despite everyone else leaving, you had that bedrock that the paper would remain The Washington Post. It creates more uncertainty over what the Post will be.”
Investigative reporter James Grimaldi agreed, saying, “yesterday was a very sad day at The Washington Post – it is a time of radical change in the industry and we are no exception.”
Such comments followed Downie’s announcement Monday that he would leave on Sept. 8, taking the post of vice president at large. His departure follows both a record Pulitzer sweep for the paper, which won six prizes in April, as well as the recent buyouts of more than 100 newsroom staffers.
“I think we are going to have a new editor who will oversee a radically different news organization,” Grimaldi added. “Both in the newsroom and the Web site.”
Those who spoke about Downie commented on his ability to keep a calm management style, while employing a demand for excellence and investigative and breaking news accountability.
“He has had a direct role in the projects we have done that have won those Pulitzers,” recalls Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations who has been at the Post since 1997. “Because he is such a low-key guy, he has kind of snuck up on people. I wouldn’t uniformly praise any of my other bosses.”
Eugene Robinson, who held several newsroom positions during his 28 years at the paper and currently writes a column, said “when we look back, and even now, we will say ‘who is a better editor for his time?’ Twenty-five Pulitzers and essentially no screw-ups? That is an incredible record.”
Robinson said what many will miss most is Downie’s fair hand and direct approach: “You always knew where you stood with Len. Good or bad.”
Chris Cillizza, a Post blogger who writes “The Fix” blog, stated: “I had the privilege of working closely with Len during almost every election night of the extended primary season. What came through each and every time was that he was a man who loved both journalism and politics.”
But while most staffers said the paper would lose a talented manager and newsman, they also had faith that rookie publisher Katharine Weymouth would choose a competent successor. Weymouth, who is the niece of Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham and granddaughter of legendary former publisher Katharine Graham, is seen by most as the right person to find his replacement.
Graham has said she would choose a new executive editor in the coming weeks. Speculation in the newsroom has centered on two likely finalists, former Wall Street Journal managing editor Marcus Brauchli and current Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett.
“There is a lot of confidence in the new publisher,” Bob McCartney, assistant managing editor, metro, said about Weymouth and the prospects for the next top editor. “She’s very smart, approachable, and easy to talk to. People are very impressed with her.”
Robert Kaiser, associate editor and a former Downie managing editor, agreed: “We have a splendid new publisher who is smart and alert and determined to save this enterprise.” Leen echoed that view, saying of Weymouth, “everyone respects Katharine. The good news is that there is a Graham in charge, we trust her instincts.”