Challenges for New Washington Post Editor Brauchli

Being the executive editor of the Washington Post is one of the most coveted jobs in journalism. It's also among the most challenging. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers tested Ben Bradlee. Leonard Downie, who retires in September after 17 years on the job, struggled to maintain quality and circulation despite industrywide declines in advertising revenue. But the biggest challenges may yet fall to Marcus Brauchli, who was named the Post's new editor this week. Brauchli, who served a brief stint as top editor at the Wall Street Journal before stepping down after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, takes over the Post at a time when readers and advertisers alike have been defecting to the Web in droves. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the paper's weekday circulation has dropped 7.1 percent over the past 24 months. And according to the Post's own annual report, ad revenue in the print edition was down 13 percent in 2007. To cope with the economic pressures, the newspaper has trimmed some 200 newsroom jobs, and more cuts are considered likely. [Full disclosure: NEWSWEEK is owned by the Washington Post Company.]

NEWSWEEK's Arlyn Tobias Gajilan spoke with John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst and American Journalism Review contributor, about the challenges facing Brauchli and the Washington Post. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When Marcus Brauchli walks into the newsroom on Sept. 8, he will lead a paper with a declining circulation, deep divisions between its print and online staffs, as well as a shrinking ad base. From Wall Street's perspective, which of these pressing problems will be his biggest challenge?
John Morton:
It'll be integrating the newspaper and online staffs. Unlike most newspapers, the Post has kept them separate culturally and geographically, even separating their offices. That's created tension and has had a bad effect on the overall editorial product. Getting both sides to work together will pose the biggest challenge. That is, of course, after he adjusts to being an outsider.

How much of a factor is his outsider status?
We really don't know. It's never happened before. The Post's culture is steeped in promoting from within, so the staff knew a little bit of what to expect [from new editors]. With Brauchli coming in during the middle of a presidential campaign, I suspect the staff will take a wait-and-see approach.

But the paper—and the industry as a whole—needs to act quickly. There's not a lot of time, is there?
The Post has the same problems as a lot of newspapers. But it has some advantages that others in the industry don't. It operates in the best local newspaper market in the world; the federal government is the major employer in town, and the demographics of the area boast very high levels of education and income. The paper has strengths that will help it do better than most. But clearly, circulation has been declining and will likely continue to. That's why it's key for them to integrate the print and online divisions.

In announcing his appointment, Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth said Brauchli's experience at the Wall Street Journal would "help us navigate the new world of media." Is that true? Will what he did at the Journal translate to the Post?
Let's hope that he can. They are very different places. At the Journal, if you're a reporter, you are accustomed to wearing several hats. You report your beat, write for the paper, blog for the Web and contribute to the wire. It's normal to work across lines. Getting the Post staff to do that will be a more difficult job. But having had that experience will certainly help him going forward. … One thing he doesn't bring to the table is experience in local journalism. But he does bring a lot of experience in foreign news, and that will go a long way to reassure those who laud the Post for being more than an average local paper.

There were other contenders for the job, including NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham, Jonathan Landman at the New York Times and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Would Wall Street have preferred a different editor?
I don't think Wall Street gives a crap about who the editor of anything is anymore. They're not interested in the journalism. All they care about is the next quarter and if it's going to get better or worse.

The company's stock is down about 42 percent from its peak in 2004. What will drive a rebound? Or is one even possible?
First of all, they are down far less than most of their peers. Again, that's thanks to [educational services company] Kaplan [which is owned by the Washington Post Company]. As for a rebound, that's a big question mark. In past recessions, as in 2002, most newspapers recaptured what they lost. There was an Internet then, but it was not nearly as powerful a competitor as it has since become. That's why there's such a big question today. A recovery is conceivable, but the classified ad revenues newspapers relied upon are in a tailspin and much of [that money] will be lost forever.

Despite being named for its newspaper, the Washington Post Company these days describes itself as an education and media company—an acknowledgement of Kaplan's contribution to the bottom line. Do investors see the news division as a secondary component of the company?
It really has become an education company that just happens to own a newspaper and some small cable outlets. Investors in the long run will view the news divisions as a drag on the company's earnings. But because of the Graham family's devotion to the news division, I don't think that matters. In an effort to cut the drag on their performance, other publicly owned media companies like Scripps and Belo have spun off their news divisions. That's not likely to happen at the Post, which is still willing to spend more on its journalism. Fortunately for them, the company can afford to keep doing that thanks to Kaplan.