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Post Magazine Killed 'Depressing' Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On one point, there is no dispute: Katharine Weymouth did not like the subject of a Washington Post Magazine story that was headed toward publication and the piece wound up being killed.

Weymouth, publisher of The Post, told the story's author, freelance journalist Matt Mendelsohn, at a brunch earlier this year that advertisers "wanted happier stories, not 'depressing' ones," Mendelsohn wrote in an online posting. His story was about a 26-year-old woman whose arms and legs had been amputated.

Weymouth said Monday night that any impact she had was "completely inadvertent, because I would never interfere in an editorial decision and I had no intention of interfering." She said that she had not even read Mendelsohn's story, but that she had "used it as an example" with editors "of the kind of fare we should be moving away from."

"Katharine didn't kill my piece," Mendelsohn said in an interview Monday. "But unfortunately, an offhand comment by Katharine might have set the stage for the piece to get killed. . . . Something she said perhaps created a climate for somebody down the chain to think that's what Katharine wanted to happen."

Post editors agree that Weymouth did not spike the story last spring.

Marcus Brauchli, The Post's executive editor, called the sequence of events "an unfortunate coincidence" but said that the publisher, who runs the business side of the newspaper, did not interfere with what is clearly a newsroom decision.

"Whatever Katharine may have felt about the piece was immaterial to the editorial process," Brauchli said. "We are not driven by what one of our business-side colleagues, or even our publisher, thinks about a piece. We follow a journalistic compass."

Brauchli said the story was caught in a "big shift" at the Sunday magazine after its previous editor took early retirement this year and during a change in editorial emphasis. "While the piece was beautifully photographed and nicely constructed, it was also similar to other pieces we had run in the magazine recently," said Brauchli, who was not involved directly in the decision.

Sydney Trent, the magazine's acting editor at the time, said she declined to run the story "because it was clear the newspaper wanted to move in a different direction. That handwriting was very clearly on the wall." Trent noted that other stories were rejected during this period for similar reasons. Trent said she never had a conversation with Weymouth about the Mendelsohn story.

Mendelsohn is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in The Post Magazine, as well as the New York Times. "Matt is a friend of mine," Weymouth said. "I adore him."

Mendelsohn spent more than a year documenting the saga of Lindsay Ess, a Richmond resident who had been close to death and was receiving her prosthetics last year after the quadruple amputation. Mendelsohn said in an interview on http://Sportsshooter.com that he was taken by "her sense of humor and her spunk and her strength."

A Post Magazine editor encouraged Mendelsohn to pursue the story after reviewing his photos of Ess. But the atmosphere apparently soured after Weymouth told Mendelsohn at a birthday brunch in her honor that this was not the sort of piece that she favored for the magazine. Weymouth has been telling editors that there have been too many stories similar to the one last November about a 13-year-old dwarf undergoing surgery to lengthen her legs.

In the sports photography blog interview, Mendelsohn said, without naming Weymouth or The Post : "To label Lindsay's life 'depressing,' especially as if she needs to make some advertiser comfortable, is, well, depressing in its own right."

"I ultimately had to explain to Lindsay why The Post didn't want it," Mendelsohn said Monday. He said his assigning editor told him that "it wasn't the right climate for this kind of piece. . . . If there is any lingering hurt feeling or bitterness on my part, when the piece got killed, nobody ever read it."

Brauchli said that after becoming executive editor last year, he consulted with Weymouth, Post business executives and readers on what they wanted in the magazine. Based on those conversations, he concluded there were too many overly long, overly narrow stories. He called the suggestion that he was trying to please advertisers "nonsense."

Said Weymouth: "We started the magazine to drive readership, to draw people into the Sunday paper. I left it to Marcus to figure out what it should be."

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