Post Newsroom Leader to Retire
Wednesday, June 25, 2008; 11:00 AM
Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. was online Wednesday, June 25, 11 a.m. ET to discuss his decision to retire and become vice president at large for the company, his 44 years with The Post, and the future of the paper and washingtonpost.com.
The Post's Top Editor to Step Down (Post, June 24)
The transcript follows.
Washington: What do you consider your favorite memory of your time at The Post?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Hello, everyone. This is a good time for me to reflect on 44 years in The Washington Post newsroom, and I appreciate your questions. I have so many great memories, from working with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on Watergate to the great send-off the newsroom gave me on Monday. And I particularly enjoy the national political conventions, which are like summer camp for politicians and journalists, so I'm looking forward to my last hurrah directing our coverage in Denver and St. Paul at the end of August and beginning of September.
Montgomery Village, Md.: Do you feel the next editor will have it easier or harder than you did?
Leonard Downie Jr.: There is no doubt that the next editor faces much, much bigger challenges than I do, as the entire news media industry is being turned upside down by the Internet and a rapidly changing economic climate. I and our readers should be reassured that our dynamic new publisher, Katharine Weymouth -- the fifth member of the family of Eugene Meyer, Philip Graham, Katharine Graham and Donald Graham to run the newspaper -- is ready for the challenge, determined to preserve our mission and values, and will select an outstanding new editor.
Alexandria, Va.: A question I usually ask in an exit interview is: "What are you most proud of in your career and what do you think was your biggest disappointment?" How would you answer that for yourself?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I am most proud of the journalism I helped produce as a reporter and editor that held the powerful accountable to others in our society -- the kind of journalism that has won us many prizes and, most importantly, brought about the righting of wrongs and constructive change. My biggest disappointment is those times, such as in the run-up to the Iraqi war, when we were not succeeding as much as I would have liked in featuring such accountability journalism.
Arlington, Va.: You had to deal with style and content as varied as Shirley Povich and Tony Kornheiser. Was there a guiding principle that helped you with the quality decisions you made contributing to a great product?
Leonard Downie Jr.: As I've said before, my approach was to hire people smarter and more talented than I am and then enable them to do their best work. That's my biggest achievement.
West Lafayette, Ind.: Why write a novel? Are you perpetuating the "every journalist has a manuscript hidden in a desk drawer" myth? Not that it's a bad thing.
Leonard Downie Jr.: It was, in fact, hidden in my desk drawer for a while until I had spare time over several years to work on it as a hobby, instead of, say, playing golf, which I'm terrible at. I wrote it because I enjoyed it and believe readers will enjoy the story of a young women investigative reporter who goes after corruption in Washington and finds something bigger and worse that changes everything. It's titled "The Rules of the Game," and will be published by Knopf next January. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to mention it.
Washington: I'm a proud member of the small minority that still reads the paper version of the Post every morning (during my commute on metro). I still read the sports page first, and I have noticed a change in the writing style -- it's a bit more edgy and more opinionated. Not so much a play-by-play, but more about the why. I assume that this change is partly because people don't get scores and standings from the paper the day after anymore, now that they can get all the info immediately from the Internet or 24-hour sports channels. But is the changing writing style because of a change in Post policy, or just in how journalism schools are teaching this generation of journalists?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Actually, our most loyal Sports section readers do still get their scores and game news there, according to our surveys. And sports writing (think Grantland Rice or Shirley Povich) always has been more stylish and voiced than other news writing. But we also have the responsibility these days to provide the same kind of accountability reporting about sports that we do about everything else, because of all the money and other issues involved in sports now.
Sarasota, Fla.: Hello - With all this talk about our newspapers losing income for various reasons, is it possible that some will shut down? If so which ones are the most likely to shut down? Also, what do you see for the future of online newspapers? Will the Internet replace newspapers as the source for news available to the reading public?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Some metropolitan newspapers may disappear. A few newspapers are already available only on their Web sites. Others, including The Washington Post, will find ways to succeed at publishing both ink-on-paper and on the Web, perhaps with a wider variety of news products than in the past, just as cable has changed broadcast and network television news.
Oviedo, Fla.: Have you recruited and mentored enough women and minority candidates so that there are some in the pipeline for this job, and to replace those who are promoted or leave along with you? I am worried that the "list" is a bunch of men. I know you don't pick, but your picks for decades stacked the deck from which the name will be drawn.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm pleased that our newsroom has hired many women and journalists of color during my tenure, and has placed them in important positions as editors and reporters. Nearly half of the staff and its editors are women, and about one-fifth of the staff and its editors are journalists of color.
Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Downie, thank you so much for your great service to this area through the years. I am sad to hear that you will be leaving The Post, though I wish you all the best. Do you have any plans for what you will do with your time?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thank so much for those sentiments. I'll be a vice president at large here at The Post, along with Ben Bradlee, and I will write more books and find ways -- probably through academia -- to assist in shaping the future of journalism during this time of great change.
Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Downie, thanks for your fine work at The Post. I am a long-time reader of both The Post and The New York Times, but a few years ago I canceled my print subscriptions because I found I was reading the online versions and hauling unread papers out to the recycling bin -- a chore I do not miss. First-rate journalism is essential to our society, and I felt bad about canceling my subscription (but not bad about saving a few trees). I suspect that I am not alone in my habits, and younger readers are even more reliant on online vs. paper resources. What do you see as the economic model for survival of first-rate journalism? I am 47 and expect it not unlikely that newsprint essentially will disappear in my lifetime. Thanks.
Leonard Downie Jr.: As I said earlier, I think the future of daily journalism will be a mix of newsprint and Web sites, plus ways of presenting the news in technologies not yet is use. We'll have to find our way to the economic models that will make that work. By the way, we used a lot of recycled paper in our newsprint.
Arlington, Va.: You are known for being so objective that you don't vote. Now that you are retiring, will register and vote?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I'll have to think about that, because I didn't just stop voting -- I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues, so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage. It may be hard to change.
Washington: Decades ago, before you edited (and before I regularly read) The Post, several courageous Post writers and editors took on a brutal, corrupt presidential administration and toppled what was then becoming a dictatorship. Under your leadership, would similar work have been embraced, if it had been proposed?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Not agreeing with all the language you used, I would say yes, of course. After all, I was indeed one of the editors on the Watergate coverage, if that's your reference (I'm probably much older than you are). Many of the prizes we have won more recently have been for similarly influential investigative journalism, even though it didn't lead to the resignation of a president.
State of Dyspepsia: Mr. Downie, I'd like to thank you for your decision to give soccer -- both locally and internationally -- the coverage that The Washington Post gives it. Your reporter, Steve Goff, is the best in the business, and a credit to this and any newspaper. There are few, if any, newspapers of any substance providing information on The World's Game. Now for a question: Will you be joining the crowd for D.C. United vs. Beckham this Sunday? Thanks.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm proud of our soccer coverage (I followed European football when I was our London correspondent). I want to get to some games when I can.
McLean, Va.: How do you respond to the widespread criticism that during your tenure you presided over a marked rightward drift in The Post's news coverage?
Leonard Downie Jr.: There is a strict separation here between our news coverage, which I have supervised and kept completely nonpartisan and nonideological -- and our editorial page, supervised by Fred Hiatt, editor of the editorial page. Because I don't read the editorials (to preserve the open mind I referred to above) I can't assess its ideology, and it has not affected my decision-making.
Washington: Although not accusing The Post, do you feel the news media (certainly some arenas like cable news) focus too much on process stories and not enough on the substantive policies our leaders are pushing? Or is it a case of the media reporting on what the public actually wants to read and watch?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We need to do both, because process profoundly affects policy in this town. In the election campaign, we have put many stories on policy issues on the front page -- as we did this morning with an article on McCain and Obama's environmental policies.
Silver Spring, Md.: Len, congrats on your "retirement" -- I hope it gives you an opportunity to be a sidekick on Tony Kornheiser's radio show more often. My question revolves around the future of the newspaper business. I am 37 and frankly can't imagine getting my news (primarily) from somewhere other than my morning newspaper. I know there are those who see the business heading irrevocably online, but I just wonder if people really will take the time to absorb in-depth coverage from a computer or on a hand-held device. It's one thing to grab headlines from the 'Net, quite another to read and digest something the length and depth of, say, the Walter Reed story on your Blackberry. Where do you see the business heading? Can it reconcile this?
Leonard Downie Jr.: You can see my other thoughts on this above, but I want to add that the Internet has proven to be a place where in-depth journalism is read and can flourish and can be augmented with video, interactive graphics and other Webby things that increase its reach and impact. Our Walter Reed coverage drew more than 5 million page views from around the world -- and many tips for more stories -- which I believe played a role the rapidity of the corrective action that was taken.
Baltimore: Mr. Downie: What advice did Ben Bradlee give you when you succeeded him? Thanks.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Hire good people and get out of their way. Ben also generously allowed my to work my way into the job during my seven years as his managing editor.
Arlington, Va.: I thought I read you guessed the identity of Deep Throat on your third try. Who were your first two guesses? Thanks for your many years of great service and putting out one of the truly great papers every day!
Leonard Downie Jr.: Elliott Richardson and L. Patrick Gray.
Fairfax, Va.: Did you attend the recent media reform conference? If not, why not? Why didn't The Post report on the conference and Bill Moyers's speech?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I didn't know about that particular conference, but I have attended many that have wrestled with how quality news coverage and accountability journalism can thrive in a rapidly changing media environment.
Arlington, Va.: What was the hardest decision you had to make during your tenure? Which decision do you regret the most? Which decision are you most proud of?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The hardest decisions were usually those involving national security. We had to evaluate government claims that a particular story or details in a story could harm national security and then decide what to publish. Dana Priest's stories about the CIA's secret interrogation sites abroad were an example of that. In the end, we decided to publish the stories but leave out some of the locations for what we decided were legitimate national security risks. What I most regret was letting Tony Kornheiser go on television and radio; he hasn't written a column for us since.
Sarasota, Fla.: I didn't know you had a novel in the works. I like the premise, and was curious if the female journalist is based on a real person, and who that might be? I would guess that you would rather not name names, but I'm curious.
Leonard Downie Jr.: None of the characters are based closely on a real person, except a certain editor who may resemble a certain editor who preceded me here.
Re: Gene Weingarten: Do you interact with him often? Do you have any involvement in his articles? He seems like something like a loose cannon in the respectable halls of The Washington Post. Would The Post ever hire another writer in the "Weingarten" mold?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I don't think there is another Weingarten out there, but I'm sure glad we have the original. His unpredictability and his enormous intellectual and journalistic range are what make him such a treasure, even when he's difficult (impossible?) to manage. His Pulitzer Prize-winning magazine piece on violinist Joshua Bell was an incomparable tour de force.
Edina, Minn.: Congratulations on a brilliant career. One thing that some observers have noted is that you avoided the kinds of highly publicized ethical disasters that, for example, the New York Times experienced in the past few years. Is there a higher level of internal scrutiny at The Post, or do you attribute this to something else?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Knock on wood, the collegiality in our newsroom during my years in this job usually has meant that we discover and deal with most problems before they appear in print.
Mrs. Graham: One of my personal heroes is Katharine Graham. Would you mind sharing a memory or two between the two of you? Thank you.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Even when I was a young investigative reporter and then a mid-level editor, Mrs. Graham took an interest in me and others around me. When I was running our Metro staff on Saturdays, Mrs. Graham -- who also came in every Saturday -- would come down to the newsroom and take us across the street to lunch. After asking how one of us was doing, she usually would turn to her favorite subject: "What's Ben been up to this week? Tell me all about it."
Chicago: Hey Len, What is your opinion of Katherine Graham's quote: "The press these days should be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist."
Leonard Downie Jr.: It's timeless wisdom. She said that many years ago, and it was true then and it's true now. We keep that responsibility in mind every day.
Melbourne, Australia: Len, having worked with and then for you for 32 years (you'll guess my identity now, I reckon) I want to wish you great happiness after leaving the fifth floor of 1150 15th Street. You played a huge role in making The Post a great newspaper, and, as executive-editor, in maintaining the values of newspapering excellence fashioned by Ben before you. I'm proud to have been there for it. Good luck in your new incarnation.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks very much, Bill. Do you think the Aussies would let me in?
North Bethesda, Md.: After you depart, how quickly will there be a new structure for how Washington Post news is produced? Will the paper and the Web site officially merge? What are your predictions?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Our newspaper and Web operations are and will continue to be increasingly integrated. In exactly what way will be up to Katharine Weymouth and my successor.
Arlington, Va.: Do you know what the plans are for the Federal Diary, now that Steven Barr has retired?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The Federal Diary will continue with a new proprietor, whom we will select soon.
Arlington, Va.: It seems so tough today to make money on original reporting and hard news. Meanwhile, commentary has exploded. Isn't our democracy and the success of our citizens and institutions at risk as news consumers become more interested in subjective, fluffy, opinion-driven news?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Establishing the right balance between original reporting and commentary -- both of which have strong audiences -- is a key challenge for newsrooms in print and on the Web. I think we've succeeded in striking it so far, but that means resisting the blurring of the two that we sometimes have seen both on TV and online.
Chicago: Mr. Downie, can you address the state of mainstream journalism today? I'm a trade press editor and find that mainstream journalists (in general) do less and less enterprise reporting. I used to work at in Washington at a trade publication, and routinely saw stories that we did on Friday appear in The Post on Monday (to be sure, the same thing happens now that I'm in Chicago).
Also, the Internet seems to force reporters to do less research for fear of not being first with a story. I know papers like The Post, the New York Times, etc., have some excellent reporters who do their homework and actually research their stories. I'm asking you to comment more broadly on the state of journalism and why we seem to be dumbing-down the news. Thanks.
Leonard Downie Jr.: The news media today is myriad of kinds of journalism. I only can speak for the journalism that I've been a steward of. We have only so many journalists, so in addition to the considerable original reporting we do, we sometimes follow up on good reporting done by others, including outstanding trade publications. That's good for our readers, because it increases our flow of news to them.
Arlington, Va.: McLean's question referred to a rightward drift in news coverage, not editorials. Please respond to the original question. Thank you.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have not changed or established any "drift" to our news coverage, right or left. Sometimes it's the readers who perceive something like that because the coverage does not reflect their point of view. Critics on both the left and right accuse The Post of bias in the other direction. We have no ideology in this newsroom -- our only bias is for a good story and accountability journalism. The only political activity our journalists are allowed to engage in is voting (and even that I don't do). No personal or financial support for candidates or issues. No demonstrating. No petition-signing.
Los Angeles: It sounds like everyone is jumping ship -- Caroline Little and you -- what is going on? Who else has left or is leaving? It sounds like all the people who knew what they were doing and built the print and online business up are now leaving. I hate to think what the "new guard" will be without the wisdom and experience of the "old guard."
Leonard Downie Jr.: There is plenty of wisdom and experience among our successors and plenty of commitment to our mission from the Graham family to ensure a good future for our journalism.
Washington: Following the Federal Diary/Stephen Barr question, are you looking to reinstate the Bob Levey/John Kelly column?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Mr. Kelly will return soon from his sojourn (boondoggle?) abroad.
Washington Post: As a long-time daily reader of the print edition of The Washington Post (as well as, now, washingtonpost.com), how to you view reporters of all stripes (political, sports, etc.) being on radio/television as much as they are? I recognize the financial rewards and realize that Grantland Rice had his own radio show years ago.
How do you feel about the "comments" section that frequently accompanies washingtonpost.com stories; I find they're often (such as those following Mr. Kurtz's story of your retirement) overly and unnecessarily harsh or inane about The Washington Post and its writers/editors/etc. (My view is that if you don't like it that much, don't read it). Last, you said, Mr. Bradlee "allowed me to work my way into the job during my seven years as Ben's managing editor." Do you have regrets that you're not doing that?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Taking the last bit first, the candidates to succeed me all have had the kind of experience I had under Ben. Regarding TV and radio appearances (or writing books for that matter), it can be a very good experience for our journalists so long as they don't violate our ethical rules.
Arlington, Va.: First and foremost, I hope you enjoy your retirement, and thank you for all of the hard work at The Post. My question has to do with the Internet and the future or newspapers. Can you give us your view of when .com became important to the newspaper industry and why? Plus, how important will it be for the future of the paper and what changes will that cause?
As reader, I have loved the change. I like being able to log onto the paper in the afternoon and read the breaking stories. The Q&A interactive discussions also have been a great resource, both to question the writers of published stories, as well as to get other useful information I otherwise would not, such as the Security Fix discussion. Who championed such a revolution at The Post?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Don Graham and my former managing editor, Bob Kaiser, had the vision that led to our success on the Internet.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks everyone. The bell summoning everyone to our noon story conference has just rung, so my time is up. I'll be happy to do it again before I leave this office in September.
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