By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Philip Bennett, The Washington Post's managing editor, said yesterday that he will step down this week after four years as the paper's second-ranking news executive.
Bennett, 49, said that he had "a feeling that I'd been running for a long time as fast as I could go," and that the appointment of Marcus W. Brauchli as the paper's executive editor last summer "made me think this was a good time to do something new."
Bennett was a candidate to be executive editor after Leonard Downie Jr. announced that he was leaving last spring after 17 years in the job. But in July, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth chose Brauchli, less than three months after Rupert Murdoch had forced him out as editor of the Wall Street Journal. Weymouth and Brauchli had asked Bennett to stay on as managing editor.
Bennett said he will work on a project about the future of journalism with Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham for a period of months and is undecided about staying with the company beyond that.
"I really thought it would not be appropriate for me to be managing editor of the paper and be looking for a new job," he said. "This is such an all-consuming job, I felt I couldn't plot my next step until I let go of this."
Brauchli said Bennett chose to step down on his own. "Phil has been an absolutely terrific colleague and enormously helpful to me in understanding The Post and making decisions," he said. Although the decision is understandable, Brauchli said, "I'm sorry he's leaving the newsroom."
The move was not entirely unexpected. "Usually, a new executive editor selects his own managing editor," said Downie, now a Post Co. vice president, "and I think Phil wanted to give Marcus the opportunity to do that."
Brauchli said he hopes to name a managing editor soon, as well as a successor to Jim Brady, who recently announced his resignation as executive editor of washingtonpost.com. "I'm obviously looking as quickly as possible at how we should replace both of those guys," he said.
Asked whether one person could fill both jobs in light of his plan to merge the downtown newsroom with the Arlington-based Web operation, Brauchli said: "Clearly, the online edition needs to have someone who is focused on the online edition, which has a very different audience from the print audience."
Brauchli signaled that he probably will choose someone with experience at the paper as managing editor, saying that he has talked to some possible candidates and that it is "very important that the person knows The Post."
In Bennett's time as managing editor, The Post won 10 Pulitzer Prizes -- six of them last year. During the same period, the paper began the difficult task of downsizing its staff, and he helped oversee early-retirement buyouts.
"Our resources have been put under tremendous pressure," Bennett said. "The newsroom has lost hundreds of people as the demands on us have become much greater and more complex. Last year, we won a record number of Pulitzer Prizes and lost a record number of colleagues to buyouts."
Bennett spent 13 years at the Boston Globe, eventually becoming the paper's Latin America correspondent and foreign editor. He joined The Post in 1997 as a deputy national editor in charge of national security coverage and later became assistant managing editor for foreign news, directing the paper's coverage of the Iraq war.
Downie said he picked Bennett as managing editor in part because of his foreign policy expertise and because he is a "strategic thinker." He said Bennett played a central role in such Pulitzer-winning efforts as the paper's exposé of shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "Some of the best, most talented writers and editors in the room wanted to work with him and looked up to him," Downie said.
Dana Priest, who co-wrote the Walter Reed series, called Bennett's decision to step down "disappointing," saying he always backed her on projects "that were risky because they might be controversial or because you weren't sure whether you were going to get it or not." Anne Hull, the other reporter on the series, said Bennett "allows us to chase our obsessions fully, always knowing that the obsession and the chase are what make The Washington Post so great."
Bennett called his decision a "sad moment for me," quickly adding that he has "had an unbelievably great time at this paper."