Reading Marty Baron’s Memoir from the Business Side
What a close look can tell us about an editor's view of his publishers
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The most interesting journalism book of the season is Martin Baron’s memoir, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post. It’s well written, unusually candid and worth your time. But in all of the coverage of its tales of struggles with Trump, fights with reporters over social media and debates about objectivity, I think there’s another important story being told in the book, albeit a bit indirectly, that deserves more attention.
That’s the story about why the Washington Post, despite being owned by Jeff Bezos, someone Baron convincingly portrays as a principled billionaire intent on preserving its independence and quality, has so clearly fallen short of the objectives the new owner and his brilliant editor set for themselves a decade ago.
This week, I want to talk about what I think a close reading of the book reveals about what the author seems to see as the failings of his newspaper’s business side—even though he’s too polite to spell it out as clearly as he does other matters—and to ask whether his account is persuasive.
The goals at the outset of Bezos’s ownership of the Post are plainly stated. It was going to be “the dominant news organization in the nation’s capital” and “Americans’ first choice for what to read.” I think there is probably a solid consensus today that, while it remains a great newspaper, it is neither of those things.
Why did it fall short?
Part of the problem, at least from Baron’s perspective, lies with two consecutive publishers. Baron reveals that Katharine Weymouth, the last Graham family publisher of the Post, who continued for a year under Bezos, never met with Bezos alone, and didn’t have the new owner’s direct phone number or email address. (Baron contacted me after this piece was published to say he didn’t either; I had mistakenly had a different impression in reading the book.) She missed a flight once to meet with the new boss, Baron tells us, and the rest of the paper’s senior team met in Seattle without her.
Weymouth’s successor, Fred Ryan, rubbed Baron the wrong way from the outset. He came from Politico, along with what the editor describes as its “culture of ceaseless preening.” They eventually got along, but only up to a point.
And while Baron offers frequent and detailed examples of Bezos’s defense of the Post’s independence and integrity, he also leaves breadcrumbs that add up to different concerns. Bezos was fixated on distinguishing between news staffers who were customer-facing and those who were not, producing a relative weakening in the ranks of editors as the staff grew. And this came even as the new owner rejected the notion of a more personalized news report for the Post, a la Amazon, declaring that readers, in his view, preferred the curation of…. editors. On the other hand, Bezos may have been more insightful than his experienced newsroom chief in calling early for more aggregation (which Baron, mistakenly in my view, derides as “bottom-feeding”), as well as in recognizing the potential of newsletters.
Along the way, both editor and owner did little to address a situation in which, we are told, by the Fall of 2018, fewer than 10% of Post readers identified as conservative, while more than 80% termed themselves liberal. Points for disclosing this (which I know is not fun to do), but in a country where the overall numbers at this point were 35% conservatives and 26% liberals, what happened to the goals of dominance in Washington and being Americans’ first choice?
Baron is very proud of work done at the Post under his watch, as he should be. But his statement, in reflecting on the 2016 election, that “You can’t adequately measure the quality of our work by the magnitude of its impact, especially in the short run,” makes precious little sense to me—then or now.
A strategic failure?
Baron’s most sweeping critique of the business side comes quietly, and close to the end of his 450+ pages. Bezos, he says, paid too little attention to the Post in the later years of Baron’s time there; left unsaid is whether this may have been a consequence of the tumult in Bezos’s personal life. Baron suggests that one result may have been the opening of what he calls “a seemingly unsurmountable competitive gap with The [New York] Times.” It is Ryan (although not by name) who is apparently blamed for a failure to invest in daily non-news, as the Times has with cooking and games. But, again, where was the vaunted business genius of an owner? Don’t worry, Baron tells us toward the end, he’s more engaged now.
Maybe that’s because (or is why?) the chickens are coming home to roost at the Post, which recently announced a buyout of 10% of the staff amid shortfalls in subscriptions, traffic and advertising, its second staff reduction this year. The buyout announcement pulled no punches in knocking the previous business leadership for “overshooting” on expenses, and poor forecasting of revenues over the last two years.
There is a time-honored tradition in the news industry of editors blaming publishers when business results fall short. And they are often not wrong to do so. Moreover, as I have said before, the overall quality of news leadership in our business has generally been higher than that of the business leadership.
But for all of his courage and determination, and restraint, in standing up to a would-be authoritarian, the news report produced under Marty Baron’s editorship of one of our greatest journalistic jewels left its business still in a precarious position. It feels to me like the responsibility for that should be shared.
Correction: This post has been corrected to indicate that Baron, in a note since this piece was initially published, says he too didn’t have Bezos’s phone or email. Baron also says that surveys prove the Post is the dominant news organization in Washington, but this seems to me both subjective and highly debatable, so I am sticking with my disagreement on that point.
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