When Leonard Downie Jr. stepped aside as executive editor of the Washington Post in 2008, he didn’t vacate the paper’s premises at 15th and L Streets NW. Instead, he moved to a different office and a different spot on the masthead, which has listed him as a vice president at large ever since.
Those perquisites are ending. When The Post moves to its new offices at 1301 K St. NW in December, Downie will lose his emeritus office space. His run on the masthead will end on Dec. 31.
In a chat about the changes, the 73-year-old Downie said that they were “understandable.” The new headquarters, he noted, will have less space than the current setup, which accommodated the more massive staffing levels that he himself presided over during his executive editorship, which started in 1991. And he notes that The Post’s management decided it was “time to end the other arrangements,” said Downie, referring to the masthead placement, company e-mail and the like. A senior company executive explained the changes to Downie at his Post office.
Downie hasn’t collected a salary from the Post since moving out of his executive editor posting. Then-Washington Post Co. Chairman Don Graham proposed that Downie, who helped the paper to 25 Pulitzer Prizes in his 17-year tenure, acquire the vice president at large title that legendary former executive editor Ben Bradlee also slipped into after his newsroom retirement. “Don just said he’d like to do that and I said OK,” recalls Downie. Bradlee died a year ago.
Had Downie managed to hang onto his Post space, he might well have been the most highly officed former executive editor in history. He has an office not only in the Phoenix building that houses the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, but he also shares an office at the school’s Washington facility. He’ll have an even bigger space once the Cronkite school finishes a build-out at 18th and I. So, no hard feelings from Downie. “I love the Washington Post,” he says. “I am definitely still a part of it and I feel like I’m still part.”
The ceremonial footholds for guys like Bradlee and Downie stem from two things: Graham’s hugs-for-everyone approach to running a family newspaper and the wonderful newspaper business climate of the pre- and early-Internet years. Both are now gone, as newspapers have struggled to fund their newsrooms over the past decade, and The Post was sold to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in 2013. “With the move to a new, far tighter space, this was the right time to make the transition,” writes Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti. “There are no other remaining emeritus-style positions, and we do not plan on adding any going forward.”
Outspoken veteran education reporter Valerie Strauss doesn’t like how the Jan. 1, 2016, masthead is shaping up: “It seems like a gratuitous move to me,” she says. “The Post’s influence is deeply rooted in its past and Downie was a big part of that. Why take him off the masthead?” The Erik Wemple Blog seconds Strauss’s sentiments. Honoring a 44-year Post newsroom veteran with a ceremonial title seems just the sort of thing that a newspaper can afford to do in the 2010s.