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The Post's Top Editor to Step Down
Bob Woodward, the paper's best-known investigative reporter, said in an interview that he grew accustomed to Downie's "notorious pencil marks all over a draft story." He said Downie resisted pressure from several administrations on national security stories but also never hesitated to hold a story he found incomplete, deferring a decision until more information could be gathered.
"Never once did I find his caution frustrating," Woodward said. "He always had good questions."
Downie correctly guessed -- on the third try -- the identity of Woodward's secret Watergate source, Deep Throat, but Woodward did not confirm it for him until 2005, when former FBI official Mark Felt became ill.
Columnist Eugene Robinson said that when he ran the Style section, Downie always told him what he liked and disliked, "and if we pushed too far, he'd let me know. I would get a phone call late at night if I miscalibrated Len's tolerance for envelope-pushing." But he said he was allowed to pursue an idea that Downie found "crazy" -- tapping financial reporter David Segal as pop music critic -- and that Downie later admitted Robinson had been right.
Sandra Sugawara, the assistant managing editor for business news, said: "He was able to cut through a lot of the white noise and figure out what the heart of the story was. . . . He'd be able to tell you he disagreed with you and why, but in a very non-emotional way. I found it very easy to take."
Downie presided over a gradual expansion of The Post, especially in suburban coverage, including weekly sections tailored to Maryland and Virginia counties. But in the past five years he has managed three rounds of early-retirement buyouts, forced by declining circulation and revenue, that cut the newsroom from the equivalent of 900 full-time staffers to just under 700.
"Rather than whine about it, we roll up our sleeves and demonstrate we have really talented people in our newsroom to perform great journalism," he said. As for the Web, Downie said he "was slow to understand its importance" but came to realize it could broaden the reach of The Post's journalism. While the paper's circulation has declined from 813,000 to 673,000 since 2000, washingtonpost.com has grown to draw 9.4 million unique visitors each month.
A hands-on, consensus-building manager who spends part of each day on the newsroom floor, where his raucous laugh sometimes echoes above the din, Downie prides himself on assembling a meritocracy. He is sometimes criticized for micromanaging but has never been accused of fostering a star system.
Downie is almost never heard raising his voice, but as a reporter, he recalled, he had "a slow-building temper" and "allowed it to erupt against my superiors. I had to learn to tame that."
Female staffers say he was open to part-time and flexible arrangements before such practices were widely accepted, and he routinely named women to head major desks, including National, Style, Metro and Business.
The son of a businessman whose career included work as a Cleveland milkman, Downie started at The Post as a 1964 summer intern, recalling later that he felt "very provincial" because the other interns had famous or well-connected parents. The Ohio State University graduate soon became a Metro reporter specializing in investigations of urban problems. One series on flaws in the District's court system led to the creation of D.C. Superior Court; another, implicating savings and loan executives in real estate scams, prompted banks to pull $1 million in advertising from the paper. Downie recalled that Bradlee didn't want to hear about the details, saying: "Just get it right, kid."
After becoming a Metro desk editor against his wishes, Downie wound up supervising much of the paper's Watergate coverage by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and he became assistant managing editor for local news in 1974. Five years later he was named London bureau chief, and he returned to Washington as national editor in 1982.