On Tuesday, the demanding, detail-oriented Baron was named the new executive editor of The Washington Post, and he will arrive for his first news meeting in January carrying respect from people who have worked with him at four major newspapers.
But he will also face anxiety among a staff that wonders whether his time at The Post will be defined by that sort of journalistic distinction or by deep staff reductions and the continued erosion of the newspaper’s franchise.
During Baron’s 11 years as editor, the Boston Globe’s newsroom staff was cut by 40 percent. And the paper’s prizes could not stop its financial decline. The New York Times bought the Globe for a record $1.1 billion in 1993 and decided not to sell it in 2009 after getting offers as low as $35 million.
“All news organizations are under tremendous financial pressure,” Baron said by telephone Tuesday. “I wish I could make that go away. The best I can do is work with the resources I’m provided. The resources will depend on the revenues of the company.”
He said that “as journalists, we have to be realists and face facts as they are and not as we wish them to be.” He added, “Undoubtedly it will require us to make some tough choices. . . . The key is to make the hard choices and make them well.”
By all accounts, Baron has done that.
“Marty is a superbly well-qualified and credentialed veteran newsman who’s been able to produce really outstanding journalism and deal with severe resource constraints at the same time,” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University Journalism School.
“I think his track record as a journalist speaks for itself,” said Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Post. “He has overseen hard-hitting coverage at the Globe and before the Globe. That’s my priority: an editor who will continue the legacy of [former executive editors Benjamin C.] Bradlee, [Leonard] Downie [Jr.] and Marcus [Brauchli] to produce world-class journalism.”
Baron pursued the scandal about the sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests despite the tremendous pressure the church could bring in the heavily Catholic city of Boston. Walter Robinson, who headed the Globe’s investigative team that did the church stories, credits Baron with pushing the coverage forward. “In his first news meeting, he asked why a court had sealed the personal records of one priest,” Robinson recalled in an e-mail. “No editor here had noticed that, or thought we could get those records.”
The paper also won Pulitzer Prizes for its arts criticism, and recognition for its coverage of hometown presidential candidates John F. Kerry and Mitt Romney and of the arrest of James “Whitey” Bulger, the organized crime figure and FBI informant turned fugitive who became one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.
“I believe it’s journalism that changed the world,” Baron said of the church scandal, “and it was a signal that we were going to do journalism about powerful institutions and hold them accountable. This has been important here in Boston and it is important in Washington.”
Robinson, who now teaches at Northeastern University, said that one colleague early in Baron’s Globe tenure said the editor’s mantra was “the joyless pursuit of excellence.” But Robinson said that Baron “had softened up over time,” adding: “I think it would be hard to argue that there is a better newspaper editor around.”
Unlike Larry Kramer, who recently took over as publisher of USA Today, Baron said that he is not carrying a makeover plan for The Post.
“I’m not coming in with a road map or bill of particulars,” he said, adding that he wanted to consult with people at the paper first. “Unlike the folks who ran for president, I’m not talking about what I would do on day one because I don’t have a list of things to do on day one.”
Baron, 58, was born and raised in Tampa. He simultaneously earned a BA and MBA at Lehigh University, completing the five-year program in four years. He started out as a local and business reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where he rose to business editor and then assistant managing editor. From 1996 until 1999, he was a senior editor at the New York Times, where former colleagues said he roiled longtime Washington correspondents by sometimes asking for additional reporting.
From 2000 to 2001, he did an 18-month stint as executive editor of the Miami Herald, where he oversaw Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the saga of Elián González, the Cuban boy ensnared in an unusual international custody fight, and was named editor of the year by Editor & Publisher magazine.
He also hired an accounting firm to recount valid ballots cast in all 67 Florida counties in the disputed 2000 presidential election. Republicans accused the paper of seeking to delegitimize the George W. Bush presidency.
“Of course, that wasn’t our intent,” Baron wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. And, he added, the paper’s recount “showed that under almost all scenarios — depending how you counted the various levels of hanging chads — Bush would have won a recount.”
The recount ended up costing $850,000, far more than Baron’s initial $250,000 estimate, though he avoided the wrath of Knight Ridder chief executive Tony Ridder and the Herald’s then-publisher, Alberto Ibarguen. “By the grace of God, Tony, and Alberto, I wasn’t fired for being so wildly off on the estimate,” he wrote in the e-mail.
He now heads to Washington, where he has never worked before.
“It is a great newspaper,” he said of The Post. “It has had a distinctive role in American journalism since I got in the field and it has a great future ahead of it. It has a tremendous reservoir of talent and it will be a great place to work.”