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A new era — and editor — for The Post

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There has been no harder time to lead a major national or metropolitan newspaper than these past four years. The 2008 financial collapse began the period. That calamity, combined with rapidly changing technology, begat outdated media business models, constant cost-cutting and reductions in personnel.

Marcus Brauchli had the misfortune of being The Post’s executive editor during that difficult period. Depending on whom you spoke to, he resigned or was forced out on Tuesday. Brauchli will continue as editor through Dec. 31, then move to The Post’s business side to work on new-media projects.

Martin Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe, will take over as The Post’s top editor Jan. 2.

What did Brauchli accomplish, and where does his departure leave the newsroom, which will now go through more turmoil and perhaps more cuts? And what will the change mean for readers and for The Post, a publication important to the functioning of American democracy?

Brauchli’s most important legacy, spoken of from all corners of the newsroom, is that he and his team brought The Post fully into the digital era, combining the Web and print staffs into one newsroom and hiring teams to engage readers in new ways — through a redesigned Web site and online-comments system, social media, video, photo galleries and news applications for mobile devices. Some of these are still works in progress, but Brauchli embraced this innovation and moved it along smartly, with as little pain as he could arrange. He began to mutate the newsroom’s print DNA into something new.

Web traffic is up, but not enough to make up for revenue lost by The Post’s declining print circulation.

Brauchli has an understated style of leadership that many liked. But I’ve also heard from reporters and editors who wanted, well, more engagement. They wanted a leader who could drive the newsroom, pushing the staff to perform on big news stories, a harder-hitting journalist — not in an overbearing sense but in a determined, fire-in-the-belly, newshound kind of way.

The Post’s Local staff felt neglected until around the last year of Brauchli’s tenure. People felt that, as someone whose career was primarily spent covering financial news and foreign capitals at the Wall Street Journal, Brauchli didn’t know what it was like to cover a fire, a murder or an important county council meeting.

Many in the newsroom also felt that the award-winning Style section was allowed to lose its focus and distinctive voice. And many longtime Post veterans said that Brauchli never really connected or reached out to them, nor tapped their institutional knowledge.

Now the newsroom is worried about more upheaval, just when many reporters and editors felt things were settling down. They worry about their jobs and whether Baron, who downsized the Globe’s newsroom, is being brought in to do more of the same here.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth, in announcing the change of editors Tuesday, deflected a direct question from a Post reporter who asked, “Why are you doing this?” That didn’t endear her to the newsroom, nor did the rumors flying for months that Brauchli was going to be replaced. People felt that was unfair to him.

In a conversation with me, Weymouth said that Baron was being brought in because he is a “journalist with serious journalistic chops who can run a big newsroom.” She said that she intends no “change in mission and no draconian cuts.”

As to whether Brauchli resigned voluntarily or was pushed out,the situation is like any close relationship that ultimately goes bad: Both sides see that it can’t go forward. Yes, Weymouth and Brauchli disagreed over The Post’s 2013 newsroom budget. But I don’t think that was the whole of it.

“There’s always a natural tension between publisher and editor,” Weymouth told me, saying that her relationship with Brauchli was “open and respectful” but added that there were times “when we didn’t see eye to eye.”

The key point for The Post, for newcomer Baron and for the newsroom to remember at this difficult time is that the mission of this paper, even amid all the technological and financial challenges, is larger than any individual. That mission must be preserved.

The Post’s brand, identity and purpose is to keep governments — national and local — honest and to point out when they’re not, to chronicle our age and the people in the capital region who define it, to tell a good sports story and to have some fun doing all of the above. Get to it.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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