Leonard Downie Jr.
Author and Vice President at Large, The Washington Post Company
Monday, January 12, 2009 1:00 PM
Journalist Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, was online Monday, January 12 to discuss The Rules of the Game, his first novel, which was reviewed in Book World. The novel, a thriller, takes place in settings Downie knows well -- including a Washington newsroom and the backrooms where deals are made on Capitol Hill. Says reviewer Stephen Amidon, "The Rules of the Game is an engrossing read whose main value is its cunning take on the twisted gamesmanship that underlies Washington politics."
A transcript follows.
Downie stepped down as executive editor of The Washington Post in September of last year, after serving 17 years in that position. He started his career at The Post over four decades ago as an intern. He is currently a vice president at large for the Post Company and a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. He is the author of four nonfiction books, including The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, co-authored with The Post's Robert Kaiser.
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Arlington, Va.: I imagine you must have started writing this novel well before you stepped down as exec editor -- how long did it take you to write it? And how long had you been considering venturing into fiction? And did your colleagues know you were working on a novel? And do you want to write more novels? Hope you can answer all my questions, thanks.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Hello everyone. Thanks for chatting with me about my novel, The Rules of the Game, which is being published later this week by Knopf. It's my first work of fiction after decades of work as a journalist and four non-fiction books. I actually had some ideas about this novel in 2000 and started working on it in 2003. I found writing fiction to be great fun, but I had a lot to learn as I wrote and I'm grateful to my editor, Jonathan Segal at Knopf, for teaching me as I went through four drafts of the book. I drew a lot on my experiences as a journalist and my knowledge about Washington and how it really works. My colleagues did know I was writing the novel because I talked about it so much. I already have the concept for my next novel and have started the research.
Canisteo, New York: Mr. Downie,
How difficult was the transition from assuring the correct details of traditional news stories to the creative side of writing?
I'm looking forward to reading your book.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks. I benefitted from traditional journalism by carefully researching all the underlying details of my story and all its locales here in Washington, including inside the White House and the CIA. Even though the story itself is fiction, it is very realistic.
Munich, Germany: You mentioned in an interview that the novel form allowed you to add elements of intrigue, suspense and danger, and to consider what hasn't yet happened but might happen in the future.
I once read that Doris Lessing wrote "The Sweetest Dream" as a novel instead of an autobiography to allow herself more freedom of expression and to defuse any potential conflicts with people who might have been insulted with their description in an autobiography. Did you have similar considerations when you started writing your novel?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Yes, there is much from my own experience in the novel, as well as insight about what I think about what goes on in Washington and the power relationships among politicians, lobbyists, journalists, defense contractors and denizens of the shadowy world of intelligence and national security. Fiction is indeed a way to deal with one's experiences, memories and feelings more freely than in autobiography or a memoir.
Takoma Park: Hey Mr. Downie, How did you adjust to writing fiction? Did you feel like you were changing your writing style from being a reporter and editor for so many years?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Since I never really developed a writing style or voice as a reporter and editor -- or even as the author of non-fiction books -- it's been fun letting myself go and express the inner me in a way in this novel.
Long Beach, California: Are your experiences in Washington D.C. crucial to making this book work? For instance, if you'd never worked for the Post, and only owned 10% of a bookstore in the capital, would you be able to breathe life into this story? (I say this because Shakespeare pulled it off, if we are to believe the Stratford myth.)
Leonard Downie Jr.: My experiences in Washington were crucial to developing this novel. I hope to branch out more beyond my own experiences in future fiction.
The News About the News: I read this book when it came out, quite a while ago now. Do you think you and your co-author did a good job of predicting what the challenges for journalism would be a decade out? What has surprised you the most?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The News About the News turned out be even more predictive of the perils for journalism in a rapidly changing media environment than my co-author and I expected. The biggest surprise for us has been the speed with which the Internet has changed the audiences and economic models for journalism.
Arlington, Va.: It's come up recently in Howard Kurtz's chats -- whether something might be set up for people to contribute to the cost of producing the newspaper and website, like a voluntary subscription model, maybe something like what public radio does? And in today's New York Times, David Carr writes about whether an iTunes model might be applied to online news content. What do you think -- should readers have to pay for what they read online? Is there a way to make it work better than it has for other online news outlets? Thanks!
Leonard Downie Jr.: We must find a way for consumers of news on the Internet to help pay for the reporting of the news by newsrooms large enough and expert enough to deal with the complicated issues of our time and hold those with power accountable to the rest of us. Everything, including non-profit voluntary subscription models like NPR or iTunes model, needs to be explored, without alienating the very large audience that major news sources like The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, etc. have attracted on the Web.
Watergate!: I want to write in about not your new book but a piece you wrote recently about whether Watergate would have been covered differently today. The thought that such a story might be missed is horrifying, do you really think it's possible?
washingtonpost.com: Could We Uncover Watergate Today? (The Washington Post, Dec. 21)
Leonard Downie Jr.: I really do think that a story like Watergate would be found again today, even more so because of the Internet, which has intensified the scrutiny of everything by professional news oreganizations, bloggers and everyone else. As I wrote, it would probably unfold differently and more quickly because of the Internet. There are many, many good people inside the system who come forward every day to help journalists uncover such stories and many journalists who work hard to find them.
Washington, D.C.: How many of your characters in Rules of the Game are based on real people? Will we be able to recognize them?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Most of the characters combine many different traits of people I've known and/or people you may recognize from the news, but only one, the newspaper's editor, is a lot like a single person, Ben Bradlee.
Rochester, N.Y.: Why the unoriginal title? Are you going to title your next book "The Grand Illusion"?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Good thinking. I realize that "The Rules of the Game" has been used before, particularly in cinema. But it was the most apt title for a novel that explores all the gamesmanship in Washington, the rules that everyone pays lip service to in politics, government, journalism and personal relationships, and the way that most players of Washington games break the rules sooner or later. I wanted to explore all that moral ambiguity in Washington and picked a title that fit that.
Orlando, Fla.: Due to this book, might there be people you expect have removed you from their holiday season holiday season card sending list? Have you had any negative feedback from any journalists about the book's content?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Early reaction from other journalists has been positive. But since the book is only going on sale later this week, we'll see.
Washington, D.C.: Do you like reading thrillers? What are your favorites in the genre?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I like Washington thrillers and have particularly enjoyed those written by my colleague, David Ignatius.
Washington, D.C.: Just as the persons are compilations from various people you've known through the decades, are the plots compilations of things you've seen through the years? Is the worst of Washington as portrayed in your novel fiction or dramatized reality?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I think you will see both the best and worst of Washington in this novel, as you do in real life. Except, perhaps, for some of the violence, everything in this novel is very real.What was eerie for me was that I began writing the book about five years ago with a background premise that came true after I finished writing it: an older U.S. senator nominated for president shocks the country by picking a much younger, rather inexperienced woman senator as his running mate who becomes a media sensation.
Washington D.C.: Having just written a novel, do you now prefer fiction to fact? Was the transition difficult or did you just let your imagine run wild and start writing?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm interested in both. In Washington, fact seems to both nourish and sometimes outrun fiction. My future plans include both another novel and a factual reporting project outside The Washington Post. What was enjoyable about writing the novel was creating and inhabiting a fictional world, which was based on real life but then took on a fantasy life of its own, and then sharing that world with my readers.
Advice?: You famously started at the Post as an intern and worked your way up to the top editing job. Given the iffy outlook for newspapers in this country, would you recommend this career path to today's twentysomethings?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I would definitely recommend journalism as a career. It is now more dynamic and exciting -- and just as important to our democracy -- than ever. But, because it is also more uncertain in economic structure, I would warn that a career path like mine -- 44 years at one news organization -- is much less likely. So entrants have to be self-reliant enough to go with the flow of the fast-moving currents of the media today.
Worldwide news: Just curious -- do you know if newspapers in other countries are facing challenges of the same kind and on the same scale that ours are? Why or why not?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Yes, in most other developed countries with independent media, they are -- because of the sweeping technological and economic changes caused by the Internet and cable TV. I believe printed newspapers will survive, but as only one of very many means of distribution for the news. So the question is how that news will be paid for in the future.
Annapolis, Md.: In this chat you've talked about newspapers as a news distribution channel -- but not as a news gathering channel. Bloggers and other cybermedia seem to depend on the reporting by major media. What changes do you foresee to news gathering?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Very good observation. The print newspaper is a distribution channel. Newspaper NEWSROOMS are the newsgathering organiztions -- the largest and most important in journalism, including television and indepedent Internet sites. Preserving the newsgathering capabilities of newspaper newsrooms, regardless of what platforms distribute the content they produce, is what concerns me most as many newspaper owners are forced by business realities to reduce the sizes of their newsrooms drastically. What I now hope to do is study how that newsgathering capability can be financed in the future.
D.C.: Dude, I know you won't publish/respond to this, but I just wanted you to know that as 35 year reader of the Post I feel qualified to say that it is absolutely tanking, while the NYT is not (yet). The reporting and writing quality is way, way down.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Of course, I'll respond, ignoring the quality of the writing of the question. I think The Post's coverage of the campaign, the current transition of power in Washington, the economic crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan and the war in Gaza, among many other subjects, has been very good. And it still excels in accountability journalism like Walter Reed. Its website is one of the best produced by a traditional news organization, with a very large and steadily growing audience. Like all news organizations now, it is coping with a rapidly changing media environment and economic model, but remains strongly dedicated to public service journalism.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks to everyone who contributed to and read this chat. I hope you will enjoy my novel and continue being a part of the washingtonpost.com community.
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