Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. met with hundreds of newsroom staffers yesterday to outline management's latest attempts to combat declining circulation. However, the more intense discussion at the meeting involved diversity at the newspaper, as several minority staff members lamented that a white man recently was chosen over a woman and a black man as the paper's new managing editor.
Philip Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news, who is white, was selected by Downie to be the paper's No. 2 editor earlier this month, besting Eugene Robinson, assistant managing editor of Style, who is black, and Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for national news.
"We're crushed," said national reporter Darryl Fears at the meeting. Fears, who is black, organized two meetings of African American staffers in recent days in response to Bennett's promotion. "A lot of our worst suspicions were confirmed about the ability of African Americans and other minorities to rise to the highest level of the best papers in the world," he said.
Fears added that he respected Bennett, who takes over in January, and minority staffers would "follow the leader."
Robinson is a 24-year Post veteran. He covered then-Mayor Marion Barry as a city reporter and had been city editor. He then took foreign assignments in The Post's Buenos Aires and London bureaus before becoming the No. 2 editor for the foreign staff. He has served as the head of Style since 1999. Style section critics Henry Allen and Stephen Hunter won Pulitzer Prizes during Robinson's tenure.
"I was disappointed not to get the job, and it was gratifying to hear all those expressions of support at the meeting," Robinson said yesterday.
Robinson was silent during the meeting and sat next to Bennett, who came to The Post from the Boston Globe in 1997 as a national section editor, taking over The Post's foreign coverage in 1999. Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid won a Pulitzer last year for his reports on the war in Iraq, as did Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan for their coverage of Mexico in 2003.
"I didn't take this personally," Bennett said. "I felt several people made clear that there wasn't hostility toward me as much as a very legitimate series of questions and concerns about the newsroom's commitment to diversity."
The third candidate, Spayd, came to The Post in 1988 from the Detroit News and has reported and edited in the paper's Metro, Financial and Outlook sections. She took over the national coverage in 2000. The Post's national staff won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the war on terrorism in 2002.
Downie told staffers that the paper has made strides to increase newsroom diversity in recent years, and said that of the paper's 30 to 40 top editors, "white males are in the minority." But he said the paper needs to hire more minorities and to improve its coverage of the area's increasingly diverse population.
Downie and Bennett will hold a meeting to address diversity issues early next month.
The Post just wrapped up its annual self-evaluation meeting, an offsite event that includes top editors and executives from the paper's business side. This year's meeting focused on the paper's declining circulation -- now at 709,500 daily copies, down 10 percent over the past two years -- and the results of an extensive readership survey taken last summer.
In an effort to win new readers, Downie said Post reporters will be required to write shorter stories. The paper's design and copy editors will be given more authority to make room for more photographs and graphics.
The paper will undergo a redesign to make it easier for readers to find stories. It is considering filling the left-hand column of the front page with keys to stories elsewhere in the paper and other information readers say they want from the paper, which they often consider "too often too dull," Downie said.
"Newspapers should be fun and it should be fun to work at one," Bennett said.