More than a decade later, Steve Coll, whom Kindred calls “an old-school wordsmith and a twenty-first-century techie,” proposed the “Beyond Washington” project, which would marry “the newspaper’s mythic history with a future it could shape.” Coll recognized that The Washington Post was a valuable brand name. After six months of analysis, he recommended a drastic expansion of the newspaper’s website in order to grow its audience around the world.
At a retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he introduced his idea to the newspaper’s management, convinced it would appeal to the publisher, Donald Graham. It didn’t. Instead Graham argued that the Post should stress its local relevance and utility, even as subscribers continued to desert it in droves.
Again, the reader sits crestfallen. Not only at Graham’s response, but at the inevitable fallout: shortly thereafter, Coll decided to leave the newspaper, joining The New Yorker and the New America Foundation. Others followed, including award-winning foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid.
Kindred has a real gift for describing his fellow Posties. David Broder is “a wizened Yoda figure,” for instance. Bradlee is “silver-haired, chesty, the jaw line square and strong.” Other profiles—of Anne Hull, Dana Priest, Len Downie, and Chris Cillizza are rendered no less lovingly (and accurately).
Perhaps because of his previous career as a sportswriter, Kindred is equally adept at describing action in the newsrooms. On November 4, 2008, just after he was forced to retire, Downie is asked by his successor to preside over the Post newsroom on an election night for one last time. The chapter sings. Downie analyzes returns. Editors play with headlines. Designers put together the A1. It’s busy and exciting and fun to read.
As it turned out, 2007 was a good year for many of the paper’s journalists. Reporting, writing and photography from that year won six Pulitzer Prizes in 2008. Awards went to Steve Fainaru (for his dispatches from Iraq), Gene Weingarten (for a whimsical piece about violinist Joshua Bell), and Bart Gellman and Jo Becker (for their profile of Vice President Dick Cheney). These honors were richly deserved. Yet Kindred assigns too much value to them in the context of the Post’s battle for survival. In fact, his Pulitzer mania gets tiresome. Throughout the book, “Pulitzer Prize-winner” is the author’s favorite descriptor.
After all, none of the awards ameliorated the paper’s dismal financial situation. In 2008, The Washington Post Company’s newspaper division lost $192.7 million. Since then, there has been little improvement: according to a Wall Street Journal report in August 2010, “in the two most recent fiscal years, Post Co.’s newspaper division lost a combined $356 million.” Several of the 2007 winners, including Gellman, Becker, and Fainaru, left for employment elsewhere.
Early on, Walter Pincus, the newspaper’s septuagenarian national security correspondent and in-house oracle, asks Kindred two rhetorical questions: “So do you want two, three Pulitzers? Or a hundred and thirty thousand more readers?”
Like the rest of the industry, Kindred has no satisfying answer. Which is to say that his book successfully takes the reader inside a great newspaper as it tries to endure, but there is no satisfying sense of closure here, no reassurance that the Post will be able to survive. Meanwhile, there’s no arguing with Pincus’s underlying point: Pulitzer Prizes don’t pay the bills.
Correction: This review originally reported that Katherine Graham was Eugene Meyer’s daughter-in-law, and Phil Graham his son. In fact, Phil was the one who married into the family; Katherine was Eugene Meyer’s daughter. Apologies all around. The relevant section has been fixed. CJR regrets the error. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.
Click here for a complete Page Views archive.