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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 03:12 PM ET, 02/29/2012

Vanity Fair on Washington Post: Old story, new copy


Donald Graham, left, with Bo Jones. (Bill O’Leary - The Washington Post)
Vanity Fair has completed its long-awaited big-time look at the toils of the Washington Post. Sorry, readers, no link: Vanity Fair sent the piece on the condition that the URL not be shared.

Written by Sarah Ellison, the piece is as much history as current events. It opens with a nostalgic trip back to the day in 1954 when the Post became the “dominant”* daily in the Washington region. Then it goes from there. Highlights and lowlights:

De rigueur comment about newsroom morale. It’s been a rule at least since 2006 — you cannot write about a shrinking newsroom without some pointed words about how everyone’s bummed out. Here’s Ellison’s take, complete with original language:

The desire to compete as a journalistic enterprise on a national or international level — to do so comprehensively and consistently — seems to have been beaten out of the Post. The disaffection on the newsroom floor is audible and undisguised.

Katharine Graham anecdote. No glossy-mag story on a storied newspaper can be published without a fresh and interesting historical vignette. Here, Ellison delivers with a story about Post stalwart Warren Buffett and the late Katharine Graham:

A native midwesterner, Buffett sometimes mocked her Washington­centric existence. “We were flying one time to Omaha on United Airlines, back when I used to fly commercial, and we got on the plane, and I said to her, ‘Kay, that pilot looks a little inexperienced.’ I said, ‘I’m not sure he’ll really be able to fly to Omaha.’ So I said, ‘Do me a favor. Would you mind drawing a map of the United States that we could help him with, showing where Omaha is?’ Well, she started drawing a map, and of course she got about as far as Chevy Chase, Maryland, and she didn’t have the faintest damn idea.” Buffett let out a high­pitched laugh. “So I grabbed this thing, and I was going to keep it, but she got it back from me before it was over. She practically ate the thing to keep it away from me.”

Politico! Even if Politico big shots John Harris and Jim VandeHei flamed out professionally at close of business today — highly unlikely, but bear with me — they could still have a glorious career as exhibits in longform takes on the problems of the Washington Post. Prior to the Vanity Fair piece, they’ve played this role in umpteen Post look-back stories. Now, make that umpteen plus one:

In 2007, for instance, two of [former editor Leonard Downie’s] political reporters, Jim VandeHei and John Harris, went to him with the idea for what would become the online political magazine Politico, hoping to create a must­-read site for political junkies. The company tried and failed to retain them, and VandeHei and Harris went off on their own. For some, Politico is now more of a must­read in the political sphere than the Post is.

That last part is a cop out. “For some” is always a crutch for opinions that a writer wants to express but hasn’t done the legwork to back it up. Make a call.

Kaplan woes. Again, an indispensable part of a Washington Post story. The Washington Post Co.’s education arm once buffered the paper from its financial troubles, but Kaplan’s own financial swoon portends more problems. Ellison strikes an interesting angle of analysis with this point:

Kaplan’s most damaging legacy may prove to have been its decades of robust good health. Thanks to Kaplan, the Post Company felt less pressure to make hard strategic choices — and less pressure to venture in new directions. The Post’s online presence is only the most glaring case in point.

Digital fumblitis. The must-have vignette about how the Post failed to prepare for an online world: Former Managing Editor Steve Coll in 2003 proposed turbocharging the paper’s Web site to reach a national and international audience. What happened to that?

In May 2003, at an off­site meeting of top editors at the Inn at Perry Cabin, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Coll and others discussed the findings of the project. Then Graham rose to address the room. “He very emphatically emphasized that the Washington Post franchise was local, and that our emphasis on this opportunity represented a threat to the franchise because it might pull the journalism and energy away from serving the local audience,” Coll told me. “He unintentionally delivered the speech in a way that felt like he had just shot me in the head.”

To-be-sure graph. Can’t do this story without conceding that the Washington Post hasn’t hasn’t yet Philadelphia Inquirered itself.

Clearly, excellent reporters remain on the staff. Dana Priest and Anne Hull’s 2008 exposé of abuses and mismanagement at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center won a Pulitzer for public service. In 2010, Priest and William M. Arkin wrote “Top Secret America,” outlining the vast and overlapping private entities now tasked with surveilling and defending the country — a superb piece of reporting.

Anonymous attack on editor. Ellison repeats previous knocks on Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, complete with an unattributed ad hominemism:

Brauchli may fight for the newsroom, but he is not beloved by it. One former editor told me, “He was an unknown in Washington when he arrived, and he’s a little shy. What makes that problematic at the Post is that the ghost of Bradlee, even 20 years later, is so huge.” He remains a cipher to many. In 2009, a year in which the Post lost $165 million, Brauchli declined a cash bonus. The fact that this is not widely known says something telling about Brauchli — but so does the fact that most reporters at the Post would be surprised to learn of the act. One Post veteran, who happened to be in the know, said to me, “People just don’t think he would do that.”

Hard to drum up a cheaper shot than that one.

Facebook. The story mentions Don Graham’s relationship with Mark Zuckerberg.

Thinky conclusion. The Graham brand is known for its caution and deliberation in all things business. Ellison finds a parting riff there:

Caution can be a virtue, but in revolutionary times it may be something else entirely.

Above snark notwithstanding, there’s plenty of fresh and interesting reporting in Ellison’s piece. As there was in Jeremy Peters’s New York Times story, as there was in Jeff Bercovici’s Forbes story. Yet the story of The Washington Post, like its bosses’ business strategy, is a pretty stable thing in and of itself. It has had a regional-national tug of war for decades. Its digital strategy has been a boardroom battleground for decades. And, like any newsroom, it has kicked up some interesting and Vanity Fair-worthy executive clashes for decades. As a very good editor friend of mine once said, “There are no new stories. Just new copy.”

The issue hit newsstands in New York and L.A. today and will be available nationally and on your electronic devices on March 6.

*Correction: Original said “monopoly” here, though that level of dominance didn’t didn’t come about until later.

By  |  03:12 PM ET, 02/29/2012

Tags:  vanity fair, washington post, sarah ellison, donald graham, facebook, mark zuckerberg, kaplan, politico

 
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