What is Becoming of the Washington Post?

Scott Sherman attempts to answer that question in a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by taking a close look at executive editor Marcus Brauchli and zooming in on how the Washington Post has changed since he left The Wall Street Journal to take over. Mr. Brauchli appears at the beginning of the piece wearing a tuxedo and telling Post‘s New York bureau in person that their office has been closed.

Mr. Brauchli has been brought in to cut costs, Mr. Sherman writes, and move the paper into the digital age of newspapers. He has redesigned the newsroom and pushed the paper’s web strategy forward. Mr. Brauchli spoke with Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi about the practices he has implemented on the web in August. Mr. Brauchli’s Post was also included in a New York Times article last week about how web traffic is informing story assignments at certain newspapers. Michael Calderone reported earlier this week that for the first time in the Post‘s history there was an advertising cover wrap last weekend, and there will be a frontpage ad for the first time in this Sunday’s edition. (The New York Times started selling frontpage advertising for the first time at the beginning of 2009).

Mr. Sherman interviewed more than 50 members of the Post staff — including many veterans — and the general sense is that Mr. Brauchli hasn’t sold the staff on a new vision for the newspaper, aside from ‘we need to do more with less.’ Mr. Sherman invokes an inscription from the lobby of the paper’s headquarters in Washington from former publisher Eugene Mayer, the father of Katherine Graham. Mr. Mayer once said “In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good.” The paper has certainly seen sacrifices to its material fortunes, but Mr. Sherman questions how much it is doing for the public good. Post articles are coming in 10 column inches shorter than they used to, there are fewer foreign correspondents and several beats have been abandoned. Losing Anthony Shadid, one of the most fervent believers in the imporatnce of the Post, to The New York Times was an especially harsh blow. Mr. Shadid said earlier this year that he left because the Post had decided not to go head-to-head on daily stories. Mr. Sherman concludes that the Post has moved too far away from its legacy.

New York Times executive editor throws Mr. Brauchli a bone. “The Post is still a good, serious, competitive newspaper,” Mr. Keller said. Meanwhile Seymour Hersh told Mr. Sherman that he is worried about the shape of the Post and about depending more and more on The Times.

Mr. Sherman is also very harsh on Mr. Brauchli at certain points. His broadsheet faces the same challenges as every other newspaper in America, after all. At one point he says that Mr. Brauchli sounded like a “cagey public relations officer” in an interview. Mr. Sherman was asking him about things like how much money he has cut from the budget, so of course. Mr. Brauchli also declined to discuss his time at Dow Jones because that era “has been amply described.” Mr. Sherman shows Mr. Brauchli getting mad, but he’s right — it has been amply described.

Thomas Edsall, who spent more than 25 years covering politics for the Post, has one of the best quotes in the piece. Mr. Edsall has been working most recently as a political editor at the Huffington Post. “If a newspaper is not making money, it loses self-confidence. Cowardice beings to set in. People are afraid of taking strong steps. As revenues began to decline, the aggressiveness of the Post also began to decline.” Then he added “They’re doing a pretty good job. They’re getting stronger.”

A Rocket’s Trajectory [CJR]
What is Becoming of the Washington Post?