Philip Bennett, a Washington Post editor who joined the staff seven years ago from the Boston Globe, was named the newspaper's managing editor yesterday.
Bennett, 45, now The Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news, is a veteran foreign correspondent who has run the paper's coverage of the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which he visited at the time. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. picked Bennett from among four contenders.
Acknowledging that he doesn't know much of the staff -- the reporters he supervises work thousands of miles away -- Bennett said: "It's something I need to address. I'm in the unusual position of knowing people's work better than I know them. I'm going to work at getting to know them as well as I know their work." He added that he is "deeply honored" to be chosen and that in some ways the challenge is "petrifying."
Downie said Bennett has "a vision for maintaining journalistic excellence and stepping up to the big challenges," along with ideas "to try to improve readership. He has a good grasp, and what he doesn't know he will learn."
Bennett's promotion, which was approved by Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham and Publisher Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., instantly makes him a leading contender to eventually succeed Downie, 62. Asked about this, Downie said: "I intend to stay here for quite some time to come," and that Graham and Jones "have indicated they want that, too."
Bennett will replace Steve Coll, who is stepping down to pursue book projects, on Jan. 1.
Newsroom reaction was mixed. Some staffers say they don't know much about Bennett, a low-key man with a studious air, and expressed a feeling of uncertainty; others praised his editing skills and journalistic acumen. Still others were disappointed that two other assistant managing editors -- Eugene Robinson of Style and Liz Spayd of the national desk -- were passed over, along with Post columnist David Ignatius, former editor of the International Herald Tribune. Robinson is a longtime newsroom favorite, and some had hoped he would become The Post's first black managing editor.
A native of the San Francisco area, Bennett is a Harvard graduate who describes his outlook this way: "I love newspapers and the people who make them."
One of his top goals is to reverse the circulation decline, a problem facing many big-city newspapers. The Post's average daily sales have dropped from 830,000 in 1994 to 708,000 this year. Bennett said he wants "a better newspaper that's more interesting, more accessible, more in tune with the concerns and issues facing readers. . . . We have to be continually asking ourselves whether we're in touch with the lives of people we're expecting to buy the paper."
Immigrants in particular "don't feel well served" by The Post, Bennett said. But, he added, "I don't think the paper's broken -- quite the contrary." While readers say in surveys that some stories are too long, Bennett said, it is important for The Post to champion "long-form journalism."
Post reporter Anthony Shadid said he was "really worried" that he would be ordered out of Iraq two days before the war began last year, so he called Bennett at home at 3 a.m. "Phil hardly knew me at that point. He said, 'We'll let you stay, Anthony, but you have to promise me that if I ask you to leave later on, you will.' I was struck by how collected he was at that hour and that he put faith in his reporter."
After returning from a trip to Iraq in May, Bennett questioned in an opinion piece for The Post whether the dangerous conditions "make coverage overly negative, expressing journalists' oppressive sense of siege, or too complacent, reflecting the reporters' estrangement from Iraqis and their lives."
Post correspondent Barton Gellman said Bennett "made my stories better every time. He knew how to tell me when something wasn't working without making me feel like an idiot." He said that Bennett and Coll, during a conversation about what the paper would regret not covering 50 years from now, ordered up a series on the global spread of AIDS -- which became a year-long project for Gellman and six colleagues and was a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Bennett went to Peru in 1982 "on a lark" and became a Post stringer there, and two years later joined the Globe as a local reporter in Boston. The Globe later dispatched him to Mexico City, and "the formative experience of my life," as Bennett put it, was covering the violence in Nicaragua and El Salvador during his decade-long stint in Latin America.
Bennett also met his future wife in Peru, Monica Klien-Samanez, now a professor of Latin American literature at Georgetown University.
The Globe named Bennett foreign editor in 1995, and two years later, he said, a Post editor "sweet-talked" him into becoming national security editor. The Chevy Chase resident said his lowest moment came at a Washington dinner party when someone asked him: " 'Are you a journalist or an editor?' . . . I still feel my core identity is as a reporter."