Web Analytics
How Marty Baron and Jeff Bezos Remade The Washington Post | Press "Enter" to skip to content

How Marty Baron and Jeff Bezos Remade The Washington Post

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

On July 30, 2013, Martin Baron left The Washington Post building and crossed 15th Street for an extremely rare happy hour drink.

The publisher, Katharine Weymouth, had asked to meet him at a hotel bar. She needed to tell her executive editor that The Washington Post Company would be selling the newspaper her family had run for 80 years to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

“I’m sure I felt terrible,” said Ms. Weymouth in a recent interview. “He had just moved!” Mr. Baron had arrived in Washington, and at The Post, in January after 11 celebrated years as the top editor at The Boston Globe.

Mr. Baron was shocked. So were most people at The Post six days later, when the public announcement was made. Ms. Weymouth represented the fourth generation of her family to run the newspaper. Her grandmother, Katharine Graham, and her uncle, Donald E. Graham, had been viewed as indispensable not just to The Post but to its city. Now the paper would belong to Mr. Bezos, the multibillionaire online retail magnate, who noted in his introductory memo to the staff that he lived in “the other Washington.”

Karen Tumulty, a political correspondent who had arrived from Time three years earlier, emerged from the spa at a resort in California to the message that her husband had been trying to reach her. Her first call after hearing about the sale was to Mr. Baron, a friend of hers since 1980 and the best man at her wedding.

“He was just really calm about it,” she recalled. “Said this was going to be a good thing.”

In the days between hearing about the sale and the public announcement, Mr. Baron had realized that Mr. Bezos, who built Amazon by giving it years of “runway” to lose money in the name of long-term growth, had not bought The Post to continue shrinking it.

Mr. Bezos, who declined to be interviewed for this article, supplied resources as perhaps only one of the world’s wealthiest men operating a newly private company could. He appointed a new publisher and turned The Post’s business strategy — and, by extension, its journalistic one — upside down, stipulating that its outlook would change from local to national, even global. Since 2013, the newsroom head count has nearly doubled — it is expected to reach 1,010 this year — with 26 locations around the world, according to a spokeswoman.

Mr. Baron, who announced his retirement last month and whose last day is Sunday, had signed up to edit one newspaper and ended up for more than seven years at the helm of a very different one.

The first Post was among the country’s best daily papers, but hurting. Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Graham, the chief executive of The Post Company, “were going a little light on me” in his first year, according to Mr. Baron, and making him eliminate only a couple of dozen positions. “In the second year,” he added, “I would feel the full effects of the cuts that were deemed to be necessary.”

By contrast, the second Post — the one Mr. Baron ran for most of his tenure — had more resources and different priorities. While many desks have grown, Metro staffing has stayed constant. The Post is digital first to the point that its print circulation has been more than halved since 2013, according to numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media, with Sunday print circulation around 320,000 last fall.

Mr. Baron’s Post was not squeamish about what it meant to chase a big digital audience. Whoever succeeds Mr. Baron — the publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., is leading the search — will inherit roughly three million digital subscribers, said a spokeswoman, the most of any U.S. paper after The New York Times. The Post website has been topping 100 million monthly unique visitors of late and is neck and neck with The Times, according to Comscore.

The upshot has been a truly national paper, unmissable not just for inside-the-Beltway scoops but for understanding the country at large.

“Marty was just the right editor for The Washington Post for the last eight years — thank God,” said Mr. Graham. “Marty is old-fashioned in the way he approaches the news. He believes in truthfulness and completeness and accuracy and fairness.”

It is a happy ending for The Post, for Mr. Baron and for Mr. Bezos, who earlier this month announced that he was stepping down as chief executive of Amazon to spend more time with other pursuits, including The Post.

It is a less happy ending by implication for local newspapers elsewhere, which are increasingly owned not by benevolent billionaires but chains that answer to Wall Street and generally lack the name brand that made The Post’s quest for digital subscribers across the country plausible. As The Post’s fortunes have flourished, the fate it escaped has grown grimmer.

Absent Mr. Bezos, “it’s highly likely that our future would have looked a lot like the present of a lot of regional publications,” Mr. Baron said in a phone interview last weekend as he cleared out his office at The Post. “There’s no reason to believe it would have been substantially different.”

Mr. Baron, 66, was already bound for journalism Cooperstown when he joined The Post at the beginning of 2013. As The Miami Herald’s executive editor, he presided over coverage of the 2000 election recount and Elián González’s repatriation. Then, at The Boston Globe, he oversaw a landmark investigation into sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, later made into the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight.” Liev Schreiber played Mr. Baron as scruffy, which he is in real life, and gruff, which he swears he is not.

To edit the newspaper of Woodward and Bernstein was too enticing to pass up (although when Ms. Weymouth approached Mr. Baron during her previous search for an executive editor, in 2008, he was not interested). But he expected his job would involve some managed decline.

At the beginning of 2013, The Post was modestly profitable but no longer the money-minting machine it was in the 1980s and ’90s, when it reached more households in its geographic area than any other daily. The Post Company’s financial shape was worsening, however, as Kaplan, its test-preparation and for-profit college business, was squeezed by new federal rules.

There were multiple rounds of buyouts between 2008 and 2013; a generous pension plan hastened veterans’ exits. Newsroom head count fell to 580 from 900. To this day, Posties speak in gallows-humor tones of all the cake they ate at Friday afternoon office send-offs.

As publisher, Mr. Graham invested tens of millions of dollars in digital initiatives as far back as the 1990s. The digital and traditional newsrooms were combined under Mr. Baron’s predecessor as executive editor, Marcus Brauchli. The Post installed a metered paywall in June 2013.

The Post had not embraced a corollary to its digital friendliness: an aggressive strategy to recruit readers and subscribers from beyond its geographic base.

“The Post was distinctive in that it had a global reputation but a local business model,” said Steve Coll, a former Post reporter and managing editor who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker.

After The Post decided to sell its 50 percent stake of The International Herald Tribune to its partner, The New York Times, in late 2002, Mr. Coll organized a task force including editorial and business executives to plot The Post’s place in the national and international news ecosystem. They concluded that The Post should invest in expanding its digital reach beyond the Beltway.

But on a retreat at an Eastern Shore resort in early 2003, Mr. Graham, then the publisher, rejected the recommendations in part because they de-emphasized covering the region. The Post’s local mission was a matter of both business and identity for Mr. Graham, whose grandfather had bought The Post out of bankruptcy in 1933.

“We are not a national newspaper,” Mr. Graham told The New Yorker for a 2000 profile. “We are a local newspaper for a place that happens to be the capital of the United States.”

Ms. Weymouth, who succeeded her uncle as publisher in 2008, determined that to combat declining print profitability, The Post would double down on being “about Washington, for Washingtonians,” she wrote in a staff memo in 2008.

“We continued to function at an extremely high level, but our ambition had been forcefully diminished,” said Peter Perl, a former assistant managing editor and longtime Postie (he is the author of Mr. Graham’s prewritten obituary for the paper).

“There’s a big fire or a big plane crash, it used to be, the philosophy was, ‘Why wouldn’t we cover that?’” he added. “Then it became, ‘Well, why would we?’”

Still, Mr. Graham and Ms. Weymouth felt that the long-term outlook was not brilliant. In 2010, they sold Newsweek for $1 plus assumption of liabilities, and Ms. Weymouth did not want The Post to get to the same point. During Mr. Baron’s first spring, in 2013, The Post Company sought to sell its eponymous product.

The sale to Mr. Bezos was conditioned on a commitment to invest in the newspaper, said Nancy Peretsman, an investment banker at Allen & Company who advised The Post Company on the move.

“This was the basis of the handshake: I’m entrusting you with my family legacy — what Kay would have wanted,” said Ms. Peretsman, referring to Katharine Graham, the former Post publisher and Mr. Graham’s mother.

Almost immediately after Mr. Bezos’s purchase of the newspaper in August 2013, he dictated that The Post would use its location and reputation to go national, even global.

“The first substantive point that he made to us,” said Mr. Baron, “was that the strategy that we had of being focused on our region — of being, as they put it, for and about Washington — that may have worked in the past, but it wasn’t going to work any longer.”

This meant new investment. Instead of having to let people go in his second year, Mr. Baron was hiring by the end of his first.

“Marty’s sense was they wanted to see the best paper they could produce,” said Alberto Ibargüen, who was the Miami Herald publisher when Mr. Baron was executive editor. “That’s when Marty began to hire additional people for the newsroom at a time when other newsrooms were letting people go.”

Mr. Baron and Mr. Bezos are not friends (leaving aside the office birthday party when Mr. Bezos presented his editor with a new bicycle). Mr. Baron generally attends Mr. Bezos’ biweekly meeting with Mr. Ryan, the publisher. Still, a certain rapport was evident during an onstage interview in 2016 at a Post-sponsored conference in Washington, Mr. Baron dry and grumbly (“in journalism, interviewing the owner of the company is considered to be high-risk behavior”) and Mr. Bezos cheerfully evangelistic.

The internet demolished media’s traditional business models, Mr. Bezos explained in the interview, “but it does bring one huge gift, and you have to maximize your usage of that new gift, which is that it provides almost free global distribution.”

In this way, he added, The Post would go from relying on relatively few subscribers paying lots of money — those seven-day print subscriptions delivered to Bethesda, to Arlington, to Albemarle Street — to persuading many more subscribers to buy cheaper digital-only subscriptions.

Much of what Mr. Baron’s Post did in executing this strategy is entirely in keeping with a man who stepped into a professional newsroom in the mid-1970s and did not leave before Sunday. The Post has been indispensable to the general understanding of right-wing populism, tech platforms and of course the Trump administration and the man at its center; the “Access Hollywood” tape of 2016 and the one this year featuring Georgia’s secretary of state were both Post exclusives. The Post this past week dominated the George Polk Awards, one of journalism’s most prestigious prizes, for stories and series from around the country and barely a mention of Donald J. Trump, even as, like many media organizations, how it will adjust to a less-caffeinated political news environment is unknown.

But plenty was innovative, such as an online section devoted to breaking news continuously, a team focused on how best to deliver Post journalism to readers and a section covering video games and e-sports. (“A lot of it got replicated by The New York Times,” Mr. Baron said archly.) Last year, The Post was among many newsrooms nationwide that at a time of widespread protests over systemic racism confronted its own culture. Mr. Baron created new positions for editors and writers to cover race and appointed The Post’s first managing editor for diversity and inclusion, a longtime reporter and editor named Krissah Thompson.

“Marty made clear in the beginning that this was a role in senior leadership on par with the other managing editors,” Ms. Thompson said.

The focus on diversity in coverage is not unrelated to the business’s focus on diversity in readership. For instance, Ms. Thompson is interested in exploring what distinguishes articles that do not perform well with subscribers but are excellent at converting casual readers into subscribers. “Are we profiling people who may not be part of the current Washington conversation,” she said, “but are figures the Black community or Hispanic community might be interested in?”

In January 2014, The Post inaugurated Morning Mix, a section staffed by reporters and editors who worked overnight to surface viral stories. It evolved from aggregation to “the second-day story today,” as its first editor, Fred Barbash, put it. The Columbia Journalism Review last year called Morning Mix and other like-minded initiatives a “fearsome clickbait machine,” and meant it as a compliment.

“You had to overhaul some hoary newspaper assumptions,” said Mr. Barbash.

Mr. Baron, who denies charges of Luddism, concluded that any downside to less traditional newspaper stories was more than compensated by the ability to keep having newspapers.

“At one point, I was mourning the passing of journalism as it had once been,” he said, “but I got over that and decided that we just have to figure out how to make the best of it.”

He considers himself lucky, he said: “I’ve been able to avoid the worst aspects of what this industry has faced over the last 30 years.”

He added, “I’d be quite a grump if I were to complain.”


  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *