The Post's Top Editor to Step Down
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Leonard Downie Jr. said yesterday he is stepping down as The Washington Post's executive editor, ending a 17-year tenure in which the paper became a major online force and won a slew of prizes for high-profile investigations, including one that Downie published over President Bush's objections.
Downie, 66, said his last day will be Sept. 8. The paper's new publisher, Katharine Weymouth, said she plans to announce a successor soon.
"After 44 years, the notion of not working in the newsroom anymore brings a lot of emotions," Downie said in an interview. "I will really miss it. . . . At the same time I'm ready to do this, because so much further change now needs to take place at the newspaper and Web site, and someone else should be tackling that."
He summed up his management philosophy in a sentence: "You hire people smarter and more talented than you and enable them to do their best work."
Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser, Downie's first managing editor, called him "the straightest shooter I ever had to deal with. One of my anxieties about my friend is that his qualities won't be appreciated because they're so invisible. . . . It's never occurred to him to seek the spotlight or be flashy or sexy or any of the things that seem to be so valued now. He's a really large figure who's accomplished so much, but without any hint of charisma in the wider world."
Downie will become a Post Co. vice president at large, a title also held by his predecessor as editor, Ben Bradlee.
An Ohio native who spent his entire career at The Post, Downie has helped shape the paper for nearly a quarter-century, first when he became managing editor in 1984 and more forcefully after succeeding Bradlee in 1991. Unlike Bradlee, he has largely avoided television and the party circuit. Downie said he and Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham, who followed his mother, Katharine Graham, in the publisher's job, occasionally talked about how "we were both known as the colorless successors to colorful people."
Graham said in an interview that he chose Downie "because I knew his day-to-day news judgment was superb, that he had a ferocious sense of fairness, that he had great taste in news people, and because he worked incredibly hard. He was always honest with everyone on the paper and with the people we covered."
Addressing a packed newsroom yesterday, Downie said, "I love all of you -- and I love our newspaper." But he said his Post work "has often crowded my personal life" and that he wants to spend more time with his wife, Janice. Downie seemed moved by three sustained ovations.
Weymouth told the staff: "Len is incontrovertibly one of the great editors of our time. He has guided The Washington Post with a steady and unerring hand. We all -- those of us who work here as well as our readers -- have benefited enormously from having him here. Len never let himself be intimidated by the shadow of Ben's legacy. He brought his own style of leadership."
Downie led the newsroom to 25 Pulitzer Prizes, including three gold medals for public service, and The Post won six of the awards in April, one shy of the annual record. The list includes a 2005 prize for disclosing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe used to interrogate terror suspects, despite a White House meeting at which Bush asked that the story be killed.
Downie's mantra -- reflected in routine stories as well as such Pulitzer-winning efforts as the 2007 exposé of shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- was "accountability journalism."