“The reputation of the place is that you didn’t want to work there because it’s a snake pit and that people will backstab you and it’s not a pleasant place to work,” said Mr. Baker.
“I don’t want to say I’m shocked, but everyone here has been terrific.”
“Because of its size and importance, the bureau is always to some extent its own weather system, but it’s no secret that there have been periods when the relationship between New York and Washington was pretty dysfunctional,” said Mr. Keller. “Not now.”
And the people who work with him all like him. Several D.C. Times reporters described his presence as “sunny.”
“With Dean Baquet at the helm, he has brought as much energy as any bureau chief I’ve ever worked under—all because of his his news judgment and enthusiasm for news and his way to connect to people,” said another Times reporter who didn’t want to go on the record out of fear of looking like a kiss-up to colleagues.
“He’s a guy everyone wants to work for,” said Mr. Baker.
And in addition to Mr. Baker, the paper has made a spree of hires: In the past year it added Mr. Baker; Jackie Calmes from The Wall Street Journal; and Pulitzer winner Charlie Savage from The Boston Globe.
“I can’t remember a more impressive concentration of talent,” said Mr. Keller. “You sit in a brainstorming meeting and it’s electric. The recent hires—Jackie Calmes, Peter Baker, Charlie Savage—reinforce a staff that is smart, experienced, deeply sourced and extremely well led.”
The paper’s White House team will consist of four reporters: Jeff Zeleny, Helene Cooper, Mr. Baker and Sheryl Stolberg. Each brings a bit of strength to the table: Mr. Zeleny is the world’s broadsheet Obama expert after covering him at the Chicago Tribune; Ms. Cooper brings national security to the table; Mr. Baker brings years of White House experience; and Ms. Stolberg has had time covering Bush and has years of experience on the Hill.
The Times is coming off its campaign coverage, which other than the John McCain lobbyist story—widely panned as one of the biggest blunders of the year, and a source of frustration among some in the bureau—had a strong run in the capable hands of Dick Stevenson, political editor for the national desk. When the campaigns were still in full swing, he reported to former Washington editor and current managing editor Rick Berke; now his talent is at Mr. Baquet’s disposal.
But the Washington bureau always gets to hide out a bit in the heat of a bitterly contested presidential election—all the action is on the road, isn’t it!—and now, with a new administration, new obstacles are presenting themselves already.
Some are internal: Can the bureau—and the paper itself—continue to justify a giant staff here at a time when job cuts are bombing the entire industry, particularly for a paper whose owners are as troubled as the newspaper’s parent, the New York Times Company?
Some are outside the paper. There’s Mr. Obama and his press team, led by Robert Gibbs, who seem to have made the Times an object lesson in the new order in Washington: Nobody gets automatic access; nobody’s too important, too powerful to turn down. (Mr. Gibbs’ strategy is something that one reporter in the paper’s bureau, Mark Lebovich, wrote about in The Times Magazine last month.)
Could the Obama team sense what’s happened with the news—that because other places like Politico can file little bits of news throughout the day, The Times’ lead story matters a little bit less these days?
And there’s the increasing fractionalization of news, which has diminished the impact of the journalism that the paper has produced—Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said in these pages that he was mystified why some Times front page stories didn’t seem to create buzz during the campaign cycle; it’s an assessment that Dean Baquet found himself considering in an interview with The Observer.
“Maybe,” said Mr. Baquet, a little skeptically.
He continued: “I think the Washington bureau is the best Washington bureau in Washington right now. The distance, if anything, is getting greater. There are fewer competitors, fewer people who are the same size.”