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Post Apocalypse

Inside the messy collapse of a great newspaper.

On July 2 of last year, Politico broke a startling story: The Washington Post was planning to host off-the-record salons at which sponsors would pay to mingle with D.C. eminences and Post writers. The dinners—the first of which had been advertised in Post fliers as an “exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done”—were to take place at the home of Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s publisher.

Weymouth, granddaughter of legendary Post owner Katharine Graham, had only been on the job for a year and a half. Now she was at the center of a potentially major journalistic scandal. Even though she was on vacation in Aspen at the time, she was quick to react. “Absolutely, I’m disappointed,” she told Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. “This should never have happened. The fliers got out and weren’t vetted.” A few days later, Weymouth penned a letter apologizing to readers. But that wasn’t enough to make the matter go away. The paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, soon published an investigation concluding that Weymouth and other top Post employees had been intimately involved in planning the salons and knew about their off-the-record status. The episode, Alexander wrote, constituted “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

What Alexander didn’t say, and what Weymouth never quite admitted, was that the salons had, in fact, been her idea. Weymouth had wanted to get the Post into the conference business even before she was promoted to publisher, according to two senior executives close to her. “She had floated the [salon] idea several times,” says one of the executives. “There was no enthusiasm on the sales side to pursue it.” But Weymouth was determined to make the dinners happen, envisioning them as the first iteration of a series of ambitious conferences that would attract advertisers and readers.

Last spring, the Post recruited Charles Pelton, a fifty-two-year-old event planner whose firm had helped organize corporate-sponsored conferences for The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. Pelton was given an office in the Post executive suite. According to one source, Pelton was more interested in planning large conferences than salons, which didn’t need his level of expertise and were, moreover, financially irrelevant. (At most, the events would generate around half a million dollars, an amount that wouldn’t contribute any meaningful revenue to the Post’s bottom line.) But, given that it would be easier to plan the salons than the conferences, Pelton decided to start with the smaller events. He did, however, disagree with Weymouth about the venue: He believed her four-bedroom Chevy Chase house was too far outside the city center and not sophisticated enough for a high-level gathering. Instead, he suggested using a downtown restaurant, while another executive proposed the Georgetown residence of Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee. But Weymouth rebuffed both ideas: She wanted the salons held at her home.

After the news of the salons surfaced in July, the events were canceled and the paper scuttled plans to host a larger conference modeled on Davos. Two months later, Pelton resigned. But, by then, the damage from salongate, as it came to be known, was done. Publicly, the Post had been humiliated; privately, the scandal had left the newsroom questioning the judgment of both Weymouth and Marcus Brauchli, the paper’s new editor. Brauchli had been on the job for only a year, and it was soon revealed that he, too, had been involved in planning the dinners. “I’ve been very upset by all this stuff,” one senior Post staffer told me recently. “It’s like, oh God, who are these people?”

Why had Weymouth been so intent on holding the salons? One theory was that she was simply naïve. “This was inexperience on her part,” says former Post executive editor Len Downie. Another held that her ego was to blame. “I think Katharine wants to relive the glory days of her grandmother,” says one executive, alluding to Katharine Graham’s legendary dinner parties. (When I spoke to her recently, Weymouth declined to revisit the salon episode.) But, whatever the explanation, one thing seemed undeniable: The Washington Post was a desperate paper, and, in pushing the salons, Weymouth had essentially been casting about for anything, large or small, that might help to save it. Over the past year, the Post has folded its business section into the A-section, killed its book review, revamped its Sunday magazine, and redesigned the entire paper and website, while organizationally merging the print and online editions. Hundreds of staffers have left the Post since 2003, thanks to four rounds of buyouts. In 2008, the Post began losing money; in 2009, its advertising revenue dropped by $100 million. All of this while the paper was under siege from new competitors, national and local. “The common storyline is the Post is flailing,” a senior reporter says. “To me, it’s slightly different. It’s throwing everything up there to see what sticks.” “Everybody feels like we’re lurching,” says another reporter. “A company in chaos” is how a third Post staffer describes the state of the paper.

The Post, of course, is not alone; other large newspapers are suffering financially as well. And yet, the Post’s financial decline is only part of the story. Over the past few months, I have talked to about 50 current and former reporters, editors, Web staffers, and business employees. From these conversations, a picture has emerged of a paper suffering an identity crisis. Its peers seem to have coherent strategies for saving themselves: The New York Times is doubling down on journalism in the belief that it can persevere online as the global newspaper of record; The Wall Street Journal remains the country’s definitive chronicler of business; other large papers have tried to distinguish themselves by burrowing into local issues. But the Post seems to be paralyzed—and trapped. It can’t go completely local because the local news in Washington is, in many respects, national; and its status as the paper of record for national politics is under assault from numerous competitors—competitors it isn’t clear the Post can defeat. Meanwhile, the tense, even hostile, relationship between the print and online divisions hasn’t made the paper’s search for a coherent identity any easier. And so, in a new era for journalism, The Washington Post has yet to figure out what it wants to be. The result has been a lot of lurching—some of it (like salongate) embarrassing, much of it merely ineffective, but almost all of it suggesting a newspaper in disarray.

(Click here to read The Washington Post chairman’s response to this article.)

Watergate turned the Post into one of the most famous newspapers in the world. But what brought the Post fame never brought in much money. National and international news weren’t lucrative for the paper. Instead, the Post’s financial performance was fueled by its domination of the local market. Currently, the paper—print and online combined—penetrates 63 percent of local households, which, according to the Post, is the highest percentage among the ten largest metropolitan newspapers.

Looming over this history was also a bit of good luck that may have ultimately backfired: In my conversations with Post staffers, they repeatedly cited Katharine Graham’s prescient purchase of Kaplan, the education and test-prep company, as a source of financial strength that bolstered the Post when the newspaper industry began struggling in recent years. But the success of Kaplan may have also provided a financial cushion that insulated the Post from making changes necessary to survive in a new climate.

While the Post’s most famous editor was Ben Bradlee, it was Len Downie’s seventeen-year tenure as editor that did far more to shape the institution’s culture. “The paper was sexy after Watergate, but it was erratic,” a former senior staffer says. “Len professionalized the newsroom.” Downie’s judgment and earnestness—he famously refused to vote so he wouldn’t have any appearance of political bias and loved stories about tornados and hurricanes—was a source of confidence for Post editors and reporters. “The reason salongate never would have happened with Len,” a former senior editor says, “is that Len would have heard the idea and he would have said, ‘It’s a stupid idea, don’t come to me with this shit. We’re doing journalism here.’”

But Downie and Don Graham—Katharine’s son, who succeeded her as publisher—were slow to adapt, even as the media world was fracturing around them. Much of their strategy was built around bulking up local coverage and expanding deeper into the D.C. suburbs. Graham also famously separated the print and Web departments—sending the online division to Arlington, Virginia.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a debate over the Post’s identity developed in the newsroom, as the Web made it possible to reach readers anywhere, at virtually no cost. On one side was Steve Coll, a brilliant foreign correspondent who had been promoted to managing editor. After New York Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger strong-armed the Grahams out of the Post’s 50 percent stake in the International Herald Tribune in 2002, Coll led a task force that proposed using up to $10 million from the proceeds of the IHT sale to build up the Post’s national and international coverage. Graham rejected the idea. “Don’s feeling at that time was it wasn’t about the dollars; at that point, the paper was minting money,” a former senior staffer says. “The fear was: If we invest in the national audience, the delicate balance will shift away from the local audience.”

By the early part of this decade, Downie had held onto power too long and stunted the ambitions of the editors coming up behind him. “Len wouldn’t do things they felt needed to be done,” says former Post political reporter Peter Baker, who left the paper for the Times in 2008. “A whole generation of younger editors were smothered by a leadership that was resistant to change.” In August 2005, Coll, who was a newsroom favorite and Downie’s logical successor, announced he was leaving to join The New Yorker as a staff writer. “If Len had decided to retire after 2002, Coll wouldn’t have left the paper,” says a former senior staffer. Explains another: “Particularly as financial pressures grew, editors were spending all their time on thankless budgets, cutting the budgets, going to meetings to try to figure out how to do more with less resources, and figuring out how to reorganize the place under the shadow of a guy who didn’t want these things to happen.” (“I may have been excessively hands-on, though you can never see it in yourself,” Downie told me. “I don’t know if I stifled anyone under me.”)

Like Coll, John Harris was in the ambitious generation of staffers in their forties who chafed under Downie. Harris had joined the Post as an intern in 1985 and risen to become the paper’s national politics editor. In directing the Post’s coverage of the 2006 midterm elections, he saw how radically the Web and cable news had changed journalism. And he knew that the Post was woefully unprepared for these new realities. The Web and print sides rarely collaborated, with print editors disdaining the Web culture.

In October 2006, Harris and White House correspondent Jim VandeHei secretly met with Robert Allbritton, who owns a string of TV stations, to discuss their plans to launch a politics-only Web venture. At the time, Allbritton was planning to start a Capitol Hill newspaper to take on Roll Call and The Hill. Harris and VandeHei convinced him to think bigger. They envisioned a Web-focused organization that would compete not just inside the Beltway for congressional scoops, but with the national political press corps—and the Post itself.

Downie counter-offered and told Harris and VandeHei they could manage a staff of eight to ten if they developed their project in-house. But Harris and VandeHei had plans to staff a newsroom of 100 reporters and editors. In November, they left the paper. Many of the people I spoke with agreed that the decision to let them walk out the door ended up being a disaster for the Post. “What a mistake,” says Baker. “The most obvious indictment is the failure to foresee what opportunities were out there that John Harris and Jim had created.”

In the wake of Harris and VandeHei’s departure, managing editor Phil Bennett installed Susan Glasser to run the paper’s national desk. As a foreign correspondent, and then the well-regarded editor of the Post’s Outlook section, Glasser (who is married to Baker) had established herself as a rising star. And she was one of the few print staffers to embrace the Web. But, as a manager, Glasser’s frequent clashes with her staff roiled the newsroom and spilled into unflattering articles in the Washington City Paper and Washingtonian. Morale plummeted. Her aggressive push for political coverage put the Post in competition for scoops with Politico during the 2008 race, but also angered some staffers who disagreed with her news judgment. “The coverage of Washington became much more inside-baseball coverage,” one former staffer told me. At a newsroom meeting in February 2008, shortly after Hillary Clinton fired her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, reporter Carol Leonnig asked Downie why the Post had run three political stories off the front page—including one on Solis Doyle’s departure and another mentioning it—on the same day. “You might have thought Patti would have been shot,” Leonnig said, according to three people present. “This is what The Washington Post does,” Downie retorted.

Despite defending Glasser to the newsroom, Downie and senior Post management began to recognize a growing problem. In April, Glasser’s eighteen-month tenure on the national desk ended after a panel overseen by human-resources editor Tom Wilkinson investigated her management practices. Days later, Baker quit the Post to join the Times. “I left because of what happened to my wife,” he told me. Baker, who grew up in suburban Fairfax* County and idolized the Post, is still raw over his wife’s experience. “I never wanted to go to The New York Times,” he says. “I wanted to work at The Washington Post for the rest of my life. ... Having said that, looking at the way things are today, there’s part of me—I’m glad I’m not there. It would be very depressing.”

The Glasser episode was among the first management decisions for Weymouth, who had been named publisher two months earlier. A lawyer by training, Weymouth was the daughter of Lally Weymouth, one of Katharine Graham’s four children. Despite hailing from Washington royalty, she grew up outside the Beltway bubble on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She studied ballet and went to Harvard and then Stanford Law School. In contrast to her grandmother, Weymouth was relatively unknown on the D.C. social circuit. “Katharine lives in a modest house and drives her kids around in a van,” a senior Post executive says. “And yet, I think she wants the stature that comes with being publisher. I’m not sure how you reconcile all of that.”

Unlike her uncle Don, who spent a year in the newsroom as a metro reporter, Weymouth had come up exclusively through the business side of the paper. At most major papers, the business and news departments view each other suspiciously, and the Post was no exception. The business staff felt that the news side condescended to local readers. While the paper raked in money covering local issues, the ethos of the Post newsroom was defined by its national and foreign reporting. “She drank down some of the High Church newsroom criticism,” a former senior staffer says. “The business side thought, ‘They’ve lost touch with their readers; they don’t care about firemen.’” “She missed the year that Don had [in the newsroom] where he got to know editors, but, more than that, he got to know the ethic,” says veteran reporter Walter Pincus. “Literally, she only knew five or six of us.” Downie told me he had wanted Weymouth to join the newsroom and discussed the idea with her on several occasions in the late 1990s and early 2000s—but the timing never worked, given her increasing role on the business side.

A few months into her tenure, Weymouth took a group of senior Post employees to Harvard Business School for a weeklong corporate boot camp. That retreat kicked off a series of high-level strategy meetings at the Post that continued through much of 2008, as Weymouth tried to figure out a way forward for the paper. The financial picture was downright awful. Advertising, already weak, had taken a secondary dive in the wake of the economic crisis. Once again, the question of the Post’s identity was at the heart of the discussions. Should the Post go hyper-local, as was in vogue in newspaper circles? Should it redouble its political coverage to counter the Politico threat? Would the Web or print dominate?

Near the end of 2008, Post president Stephen Hills met with Weymouth and the top brass to deliver his final recommendations. The conclusion was that print was just too valuable to deemphasize. To illustrate the point, according to one participant in the meeting, Hills put up a chart showing that a daily print subscriber represents $500 in revenue for the paper, while a website reader brings in only $6. “In Steve’s presentation, he was completely focused on the print paper,” the participant recalls. “If you sat in these meetings, the biggest problem was the person who runs the business side doesn’t care about the Web. You bring up mobile and he gets uncomfortable. He’d rather talk about if we should deliver to Charlottesville or not.” (Hills did not respond to phone calls. For her part, Weymouth defends the Post’s balance between Web and print. “Print is still the revenue driver now,” she says. “We are conscious that the Web is a critical part of the future. We are navigating our way through this transition.”)

Even as Weymouth was rethinking the paper’s business model, she had also decided that she needed a new executive editor. Some senior staffers I spoke with pointed out that Weymouth and Downie were not particularly close. Her grandmother had named Ben Bradlee; now Weymouth wanted her own pick. At his sixty-sixth birthday celebration in May 2008, Downie told the newsroom staff that he intended to stay until he was 70. He was stung when Weymouth told him shortly thereafter that she was going to seek his replacement. “I was expecting to stay longer,” Downie told me.

Phil Bennett was the most prominent internal candidate; others in the running included then–New York Times deputy managing editor Jon Landman, former Post Style editor David Von Drehle, and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. Sources told me that Ben Bradlee pushed for foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius to get the job. “She was looking for a magic solution, for a person to cut the budget, shrink the mission of the paper, and make people happy,” recalls one candidate Weymouth interviewed. “They wanted to shrink the paper, close sections. All kinds of ugly stuff. It was a hairy, hairy combination. And it’s kind of an impossible job.”

In the end, Weymouth settled on Brauchli, the then-forty-seven-year-old former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. At the Journal, Brauchli had burnished his image as a winsome foreign correspondent—investing in a nightclub in Shanghai and regaling Journal reporters back in New York with his exploits from the field—before ascending to the paper’s top job. But he lasted less than a year, quitting in the wake of Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Journal and reportedly getting millions in severance pay in the process. Soon enough, however, he was a candidate to lead the Post. Part of Brauchli’s appeal was likely that he had begun the process of merging the Journal’s print and online operations—something that Weymouth wanted the Post to do. “I think it was an inspired choice,” Paul Steiger, who preceded Brauchli as managing editor of the Journal, told me. “This is a guy who is a great journalist, who has a great feel for the Web, and he brings to The Washington Post a great feel for finance and economics—things which the Post had, but it needs more of them in the environment of the present or the future.”

Still, his appointment took many by surprise. He was the first outsider to run the paper, and he had virtually no experience in domestic politics or metro coverage, the Post’s core franchises. A few months after Brauchli arrived, some staffers took to calling him “Count Brauchula” and circulated an e-mail containing a photo of Brauchli with red eyes and fangs. In addition, a story spread among Post staff about how he had impressed Weymouth: After Brauchli interviewed with the publisher over breakfast near her home, she offered to give him a ride to the newsroom in her convertible BMW. On the drive downtown, Weymouth supposedly freaked out when a spider jumped into the car. Brauchli calmly removed the bug. As one former senior Post staffer says, “It was the you’re-my-hero moment.” Well, not exactly, Weymouth explains. “It was not relevant on my radar screen,” she told me. “But since you ask, it is true there was a spider.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Brauchli was how to merge the Post’s online and print operations. For more than a decade, the Post’s website had been based across the Potomac in Arlington, while its newsroom was in Washington. Weymouth and Brauchli decided to bring the two divisions together and commissioned a dramatic renovation of the Post’s downtown headquarters. The move did not go smoothly for either side. The newsroom was gutted, and, during the construction this past summer, staffers worked either from their homes or out of makeshift quarters on the third floor and a windowless room on the ground level dubbed “The Gulag”—”a friggin’ sweatshop,” as one senior editor on the print side described it. Meanwhile, from the Web staff came complaints about the print side’s decision to do away with perks like serving online staffers free bagels on Mondays.

But beyond the trivial grumblings were real philosophical divides. Print staffers grouse about the quality of the website. “Why does our homepage look so crappy and cheesy?” one reporter says. “Why is it not as nice as the Times’s page?” Others complain that Web producers don’t appreciate the Post’s august traditions. Some in the newsroom felt the frenzied coverage of the White House party-crasher scandal was driven in part by the millions of hits the story generated. A week after the story broke, Style editor Ned Martel convened a meeting attended by 25 reporters and editors to coordinate coverage of the scandal. “If I were to call a similar meeting on Al Qaeda’s recruitment in the U.S., you know what I would get? I might get two people there,” says a senior print staffer. “You’d have trouble getting support on the Web to mobilize.”

The online side counters that the print staff doesn’t understand the Web. “At the Post, the Neanderthals won,” one former senior Web staffer told me recently. “The overall mentality on the print side is dismissive and dictatorial.” Since Weymouth took over, both the website’s publisher and top editor have quit—and, in a brash challenge to the Post’s dominance in local reporting, the online editor, Jim Brady, is now planning to launch a metro website with backing from the same media empire that owns Politico.

And, when the two sides have collaborated, the results haven’t always been pretty. This summer, political reporters Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza filmed a series of a dozen or so Web videos called “Mouthpiece Theater.” In one episode spoofing Obama’s beer summit with Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge policeman who arrested him, Milbank joked that Hillary Clinton should drink “mad bitch” beer. The scripts for “Mouthpiece Theater” were e-mailed to Brauchli and other senior editors for approval a few hours before each episode. But, while Brauchli signed off on the “mad bitch” script before the episode was cut, he says he didn’t see the graphics that would be paired with the dialogue. It was a reasonable excuse, since Hillary Clinton’s name never appeared in the script; her face simply flashed across the screen as Milbank said the words “mad bitch.” Still, the bigger problem is why anyone thought the video—as a whole, decidedly unfunny—was fit to be aired, with or without the reference to Clinton. The entire controversy—which ended with Brauchli canceling the series—left the impression that the Post was aimlessly producing Web content in the hope that something, anything, would catch on.

The biggest change prompted by the Web-print merger has been a shift in the way the Post edits. Modeling his new system in part on the Journal’s, Brauchli divided editors into two classes: one that would assign stories and manage teams of reporters; and another, known as the Universal News Desk, that would edit stories continuously. The idea was to help the Post update its website throughout the day. But the system engendered ill will on both sides of the new divide. When Brauchli announced the change at a town hall meeting last spring, many editors slated to be assigned to the Universal News Desk felt that he characterized their new jobs as glorified copy-editing positions. Since then, editors running teams of reporters have often clashed with Universal News Desk editors whom they see as meddling with their assignments. “You’re always in these shitty little arguments about, ‘Why are you talking to my reporters?’” one assigning editor says. Brauchli acknowledges the complaints but says the system will result in a more efficient publishing process. “Change of this magnitude,” he says, “requires time to settle in.”

Brauchli may have rankled some of his employees, but he still has the support of the most famous person in the Post newsroom. Bob Woodward told me that, until this past September, he did not know Brauchli particularly well. Then, on the evening of Friday, September 18, Woodward received a copy of General Stanley McChrystal’s confidential report to the White House, warning that the Afghanistan mission could end in “failure” if more troops weren’t deployed. Woodward e-mailed Brauchli, who immediately wrote back that the two should meet in the morning at the Post. After a series of talks with Pentagon and administration officials, Woodward’s bombshell made it into the paper on Monday morning. “To an old-timer, and I fall in the old-fart category,” Woodward told me, “when you have something new that’s classified, that’s at the center of government debate and business and they don’t want you to publish it—all the machinery the government can muster—and one editor, and that’s Marcus, says, ‘We’re doing this’? It’s more than encouraging.”

The article was also a reminder of the Post’s enduring ability to break important stories—which the paper still does with impressive regularity. (Brauchli pointed out that, shortly before we spoke in early January, the Post had broken several major political stories—the decisions of Senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan, as well as Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, not to seek reelection—on the same day.) Meanwhile, the easing of the financial crisis of 2008 has stabilized the paper’s finances. According to multiple sources, the Post returned to profitability in the final three months of 2009. And Brauchli is trying to reestablish support among staffers. He has taken groups of reporters out to dinner, while making himself more of a presence in the newsroom.

But none of these developments, however promising, changes the fact that the Post remains a newspaper in distress—in late October, Brauchli had to physically intervene when an editor punched a writer in the newsroom—and, most importantly, one without a strong identity. And so, the paper’s institutional lurches continue. On November 24, the Post announced that it was shuttering its remaining domestic bureaus to focus its resources in Washington—a sign that, once again, local journalism had won out. Then, in December, the Post printed a news piece on the national debt in partnership with a publication called The Fiscal Times—without disclosing that the organization is backed by financier Pete Peterson, a well-known deficit hawk. Again, the Post found itself at the center of an ethics scandal. And another attempt at experimenting seemed to have backfired.

Weymouth says the changes of the past year—however chaotic—were necessary to save the paper. Her job, she told me, is “to make sure the Post is here for generations to come.” But that Post will look very different from the one her grandmother ran. “It clearly is a smaller paper,” says Walter Pincus. “It’s not going to go back to where it was.”

“Post Apocalypse” (February 4) originally stated that journalist Peter Baker grew up in Montgomery County. He grew up in Fairfax County. We regret the error.