For more than thirty years, Keith Richburg has been a classy and distinguished presence at The Washington Post. Richburg served as bureau chief in Manila, Nairobi, and Paris, and also spent more than two years as foreign editor in Washington. One assignment had eluded him at the Post: New York bureau chief, a job that he finally obtained in late 2007. He never finished out his term. Last November, two days before Thanksgiving, Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, walked into the New York bureau and shut it down. Brauchli was dressed in a tuxedo: his next stop that evening would be the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, for the annual fundraising dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Post reporter Karl Vick, who was in the bureau when Brauchli appeared, recalls: “Essentially Marcus said, ‘I’m dressed like an undertaker for a reason. I’m bearing bad news.’ ”
When I recently talked to Richburg, he was still somewhat surprised, but not bitter, about the demise of the New York bureau. (The Post, in the same week, also liquidated its bureaus in Chicago and Los Angeles.) “Nobody saw it coming,” said Richburg, who is now based in China for the Post. “I’m not sure Marcus saw it coming. We had just moved into new offices with Newsweek.” If the Post’s management wanted to close the trio of national bureaus, why couldn’t the bureau chiefs stay in those cities and work from home? “All of the bureau chiefs recommended the same thing,” said Richburg.
But Richburg had a chance to report from New York again, after all. He flew back to the city on May 1—the same day Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Richburg went to work immediately to assist the Post in coverage of that story. He is not unaware of the irony: “I was back to close down the bureau and clean out my apartment when a big story happened there.”
For years, the Post’s three national bureaus have produced vibrant and original journalism, and closing them was not something Brauchli was eager to do. Richburg recalls him saying: “I might regret that if something major happened there.” But it is Brauchli’s fate to be a newspaper editor in a time of diminished expectations and resources for journalism, and luck has not always been with him. He started in the basement of Dow Jones, and, twenty-three years later, clawed his way to the managing editor’s job at The Wall Street Journal—only to then find himself face to face with Rupert Murdoch.
He lasted eight months under Murdoch, who pushed him out in April 2008. Brauchli rebounded with impressive speed: three months later he was named executive editor of the Post—a job that, for forty years, had been held by only two men: Ben Bradlee and Leonard Downie Jr. But the newspaper that Brauchli joined is not the same Washington Post that James Fallows evoked in a 1976 Esquire profile of Bradlee—“the most exciting paper to work on, the most interesting one to read, and the one from which wrongdoers had most to fear.” Rather, it’s a news organization that has lost a staggering amount of money in recent years; that has endured four waves of buyouts; that was unnerved by a scandal unleashed by its forty-four-year-old publisher, Katharine Weymouth; and that, like many journalism outfits, is enduring an existential crisis about its future. The Post’s journalism can still be formidable—as evidenced by its “Top Secret America” investigation in July, and its impressive coverage of the BP oil spill—but it has diminished in reach and, some argue, quality. A former Post business reporter says: “Brauchli inherited something that was already adrift and in decline.”
Some longtime readers are worried. A year ago James Fallows returned to Washington after three years in China. The bundle on his doorstep left him dismayed: “I’ve thought of the Post as my hometown paper for years,” he wrote, “and feel as if I’ve come back to see a family member looking suddenly very ill.” “It’s not as good as it was,” says Charles Peters, the longtime editor of The Washington Monthly. “I attribute this to the loss of so many good reporters. There is much less original reporting than there was. There is less to read. It’s a faster read. You have to depend more on The New York Times than you did before.” Seymour Hersh says: “We all worry about the survival of the Post.”