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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 06:10 PM ET, 11/13/2012

Five lessons from Brauchli’s WaPo tenure


What does Brauchli’s time at The Washington Post tell us? So much. (BILL O'LEARY - THE WASHINGTON POST)

The culmination of a much-forecast event took place today in the newsroom of The Washington Post, as Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli announced to a supportive staff that he would step down from the post at year’s end. Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham also attended the announcement and offered praise for Brauchli and his successor, Marty Baron of the Boston Globe. Five truths emerged:

1) Brauchli’s no Downie or Bradlee. In his remarks, Graham compared Brauchli favorably to his predecessors, the legendary Ben Bradlee and the legendary Leonard Downie Jr.

It was a generous gesture, albeit one that had trouble standing on its own two feet. Bradlee guided the Post from 1968 through 1991, Downie from 1991 through 2008. Brauchli was a single-term president, turning in four years at the helm — a measly tenure when compared to those of his predecessors.

No sane analyst should venture comparisons between Brauchli and these gentlemen. That’s because managerial levers available to Bradlee and Downie were never available to their successor: “When Ben and Len ran the newsroom, the solution to every problem was to hire around it. The newsroom got bigger every year,” says David Von Drehle, a former Post reporter and editor who now works for Time magazine. In fairness, Downie did preside over newsroom-shrinking buyouts toward the end of his tenure.

2) “For and about Washington” is useless. Not long into Brauchli’s tenure, The Post brain trust announced strategic guidance indicating that the newspaper was “for and about Washington.” The platform’s purpose was to define the paper’s mission and clarify where it needed to focus its energies. It has done no such thing.

“For and about Washington” is a malleable muddle that can justify beefing up or slicing all kinds of newsroom functions — whatever you want to do, the “for and about Washington” doctrine in all likelihood contains a loophole for you.

In many ways, Brauchli is a victim of the worthlessness of this document. Here is its key paragraph:

Being for, and about Washington, means addressing our local readers’ core needs. Strong news coverage, enterprise and investigative reporting, expert analysis and informed commentary will continue to be important tools in making sense for local readers of the world around them. On washingtonpost.com, we will need to up our efforts to cover breaking news, and to use video in that coverage, if video is how our viewers wish to follow the story.

3) The Washington Post is the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Denver Post, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. By virtue of its portfolio covering the Beltway, The Post has often invited comparisons over the years with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They chase the same stories, after all.

Yet never forget that, by virtue of its business model, the Post is a regional newspaper, with all the grim implications for newsroom resources. Sources and rumors are saying that Brauchli clashed with management over budgetary questions. And this blog has already explained how seriously people should take Post rumors.

4) Brauchli’s Post had a low scandal quotient. As assessments of Brauchli stack up in the coming weeks, people will look to his impact on the paper’s coverage of politics — what happened to that franchise? — the Washington region — has The Post lost its preeminence? — and arts and entertainment — has Style really lost it, as all the naysayers contend?

Analyze away, critics.

But the Brauchli assessment needs to acknowledge a minimal level of scandal on the printed page. Yes, there was a plagiarism incident with veteran reporter Sari Horwitz; a snafu over an interview/non-interview with the Chinese president and other issues, such as a blogger who got into trouble and a retracted article about embattled opinionator Fareed Zakaria. Given the millions upon millions of words of journalism that The Post published during Brauchli’s term, however, those examples amount to an endorsement of his record on risk-management.

On the journalistic credibility front, Brauchli’s low point came in July 2009, as the paper planned off-the-record “salons” at which influence-peddlers would pay high prices to hang out and chat with Post reporters and federal big shots. Brauchli’s role in the disaster was captured well by Vanity Fair: “Brauchli’s handling of Salongate — saying that he hadn’t been aware of the details even though he had been included in much of the planning and had agreed to lead the salon discussions himself — left many feeling he had been less than candid.” The salons never happened, and the only mitigating consideration in the entire affair is that they never had the chance to infect Post journalism, which they surely would have.

5) He fought the good fight in integrating Web and print. Brauchli gets deserved credit for bridging the warring print and online factions that resulted from physically separating the print newsroom and the paper’s digital operations for more than a decade. He promoted web brands like The Fix and Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog and found prominent perches for their stuff in the newspaper.

The convergence is far from perfect, in that the paper still has a deficit of platform-agnosticism. That is, some folks are driven primarily to contribute to the print product and others — hi, there! — do mostly Web stuff. But hey, it’s a large, old newspaper. How much integration can you really expect?

By  |  06:10 PM ET, 11/13/2012

 
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