When Martin Baron announced his upcoming retirement from The Washington Post on Tuesday, it made clear what is either a crisis or opportunity for American journalism: Several major media organizations are all looking for new leaders at the same time.
As of yet, there is no named successor at any of those major newspapers. And it’s the same situation at Reuters, Wired, Vox, HuffPost, and the Center for Public Integrity, all actively seeking new leadership.
The departure of a top editor has historically been a tumultuous time in newsrooms, especially for those devoted to daily journalism. In past generations, it could involve a showdown between a paper’s most ambitious talents, with room for only one to ascend, followed by a months-long reshuffling down through the middle ranks.
Yet the generational turnover happening now comes as the obvious pool for top managerial talent has shifted — with many of these papers said to be chasing the same candidates — at a time these once-coveted jobs have become more challenging than ever.
“When the news media industry was more stable, it was easier to have an orderly transition,” said John Harris, the founding editor of Politico. But at a time of “extraordinary flux” for media, “I think you’re seeing all these news organizations face a demand for new leadership that’s very different for what they would have faced 10 to 20 years ago.”
The challenges include the demands of running newsrooms that have become 24/7 multiplatform entities; diminished trust in the mainstream media; the pandemic’s brutal impact on already shrinking advertising revenue; and concerns that the end of Donald Trump’s presidency will lessen readers’ interest in the news.
But publishers assessing the next generation of editors willing to tackle these challenges are coming up against limited horizons: Some of the industry’s most promising stars abandoned journalism as the industry grappled with cutbacks. And the pipeline of talented managers from regional papers has slowed now that so many of those papers have weakened or folded.
Each paper faces its own set of issues.
Pearlstine — who previously ran the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time Inc., SmartMoney, and Bloomberg Businessweek — was recruited to the Los Angeles Times by its new owner, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, and asked to repair a newsroom in turmoil after years of cutbacks. Originally cast in the role of an interim editor, he ended up staying for three years.
“The Los Angeles Times needed 18 to 24 months just to get to the starting line,” said Pearlstine. Now, he’s helping recruit his replacement — at a time that his staff, like many others in journalism, have expressed frustration with a failure to cultivate and promote more women and minorities over the decades to better reflect a diverse city.
“I don’t see how you can seek to fill the top job at any of these publications without being mindful of the ways in which the protest movement in 2020 migrated from the streets into newsrooms,” said Pearlstine. “It will be interesting to see how much of what we learned this summer is going to carry over into these searches.”
Managing editor Kimi Yoshino has been floated as a possible contender, despite a brief suspension during a leak investigation conducted by prior management in early 2018. Editorial page editor Sewell Chan and deputy managing editor Julia Turner are also said to be in the running. The paper has also reached out to Anne Kornblut, a Facebook executive and a former editor at The Post. Hillary Manning, a spokeswoman at the Los Angeles Times, declined to comment on candidates or timing but said “the search is ongoing.”
In October, the Media Guild of the West, which represents Los Angeles Times journalists, urged Soon-Shiong to pursue “diverse candidates from outside the newsroom,” making a pitch for a “fresh perspective.”
“Whoever becomes the next editor in chief will need the respect and the support of our membership in order to truly succeed,” said Matt Pearce, a national correspondent who leads the newsroom’s union. “Everybody benefits from a strong Los Angeles Times.”
Nikki Usher, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studies the news industry, said newspapers need to start looking in nontraditional venues — podcasts, digital start-ups, radio or television. “People who’ve climbed the ladder of a news organization and won certain awards — that’s indeed a successful model for hiring. But the long and the short of it is, news organizations are bastions of Whiteness and there hasn’t been a lot of movement [in a long time].”
Though Baron’s retirement had long been expected to come at some point after the 2020 election, many inside the newsroom were surprised this week when he announced he would leave in just a little over a month.
Publisher Fred Ryan said in a memo to staff that he will conduct a search both inside and outside the newspaper. The Post, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, historically chose its top editors from within, but Baron and his predecessor, Marcus Brauchli, came from the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal, respectively.
Rumored candidates include Kevin Merida, a former Post managing editor who is now the editor in chief of ESPN’s the Undefeated. But according to people familiar with the search, ESPN, which is owned by Disney, is eager to keep him. Merida is in his mid-60s, which would suggest he would not serve as a long-term replacement for Baron, who is 66.
Ryan has told employees at The Post that he is dedicated to finding a successor who can lead The Post forward for a decade or longer.
But The Post has not started a search in earnest, and Ryan has not indicated how he plans to bridge the gap between Baron’s retirement date and the start of a new and permanent candidate. Baron declined to comment on the upcoming leadership changes.
“Fred has made clear that Marty will be the executive editor until his last day,” said Kris Coratti, The Post’s vice president for communications. “It’s possible that the search could go beyond Marty’s retirement date, and if so, an interim editor will be named closer to that time.”
The Times’s search for a successor to Baquet has been discussed since almost the time he became the paper’s top editor in 2014.
A celebrity gossip tabloid, OK magazine, reported earlier this week that Baquet had purchased a home in Los Angeles, speculating that he may be in line to run the Los Angeles Times, a job Baquet left in 2006 to return to the New York Times. Baquet didn’t respond to questions about the timing of his retirement from the Times but noted that he and his wife bought a home in Los Angeles because his son lives there, and they had rented an apartment for years. “I plan on being in the newsroom in New York the day it opens,” he told The Post in an email.
The most likely successor is Joe Kahn, his current managing editor. That selection has been winnowed from an initial pool of candidates that included the paper’s former editorial page editor James Bennet, who left after an uproar over an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Cliff Levy, another rumored candidate, was recently named to a top masthead position that will at least temporarily put him in charge of the Times’s audio efforts, which include “The Daily” podcast. Marc Lacey, an assistant managing editor, and Carolyn Ryan, deputy managing editor, are also considered long-shot candidates.
Jeremy Barr and Paul Farhi contributed to this report.