How does the Post look two years after Brauchli’s arrival? First, it must be acknowledged that his task is enormous: to put out a first-rate product with fewer resources in a punishing recession and a time of rapid technological change. A comprehensive report card on Brauchli’s Post would require a separate article, but impressions can be formed. “The Post is still a good, serious, competitive newspaper,” says Bill Keller. In an e-mail to me on July 21, Brauchli outlined some of his achievements:
We’ve kept up a strong cadence of investigative work—into subjects like the misallocation of AIDS money in the District, the hazards of the helicopter medevac business, the Redskins’s ticket office; the lapses that led up to the Fort Hood shootings, and most recently the world we described in our Top Secret America series. We also have put in place terrific teams covering national security and politics, reporters who have pretty much defined the Afghanistan policy debate over the last year and brought our readers real understanding of the party schisms that are driving politics this year.
But a former Post foreign correspondent with a sharp eye says: “There are just large subjects that they just don’t seem to deal with. They still have reporting power and talent that surfaces regularly in the A section and that makes itself indispensable. But it’s around selected subjects or it’s an ad-hoc surprise. The daily range of the paper’s confidence is noticeably reduced. And on international coverage they’re just not trying to cover the world every day anymore.”
The departure of Anthony Shadid, who joined The New York Times in January, left a hole in the Post’s foreign coverage. Shadid, forty-one, is the premier American foreign correspondent of his generation; his reporting for the Post from Iraq garnered two Pulitzer Prizes. “Anthony loved the Post more than anyone I know,” says Karl Vick, who now works for Time. “For him to leave it was such a staggering blow” to the institution.
Colleagues say that Shadid was deeply dismayed by the way his mentors—Philip Bennett and David Hoffman—were pushed out by Brauchli. (Hoffman, it turns out, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize nine months after he left the Post for his book The Dead Hand; Bennett teaches at Duke.) Moreover, Shadid came to feel that his technique—which entails prodigious reporting, lyrical writing, and deep skepticism of official sources—did not conform to Brauchli’s Washington-based vision. “The Post is a great paper,” Shadid said in July when I phoned him in Baghdad. “I think it will probably figure out what it has to do to survive. But the paper I joined in 2003 is not the paper I left in 2009. I say that as a foreign correspondent. It’s a paper that was about Washington in the end.” Shadid declined to discuss specifics. (The Post continues to lose gifted foreign correspondents: Steve Fainaru, a Pulitzer Prize winner, left in March, and Philip Pan, the Moscow bureau chief, recently announced his departure.)
Of the Post’s foreign coverage, Karl Vick says: “You still see good enterprise reporting from the war zones. You don’t see much of the rest of the world in there anymore.” Bill Keller says, “Bless them for continuing to take foreign coverage seriously, but it hews more closely than before to stories that fit a Washington agenda, which sometimes has the odd effect of making the Post’s world feel like an appendage of the State Department.” The emphasis on Washington means there is less room for quirky and human-interest features from abroad. “You’re seeing a lot more stories about policy,” says Keith Richburg. When the Post was edited by Downie and Steve Coll, the paper’s former managing editor, long, finely crafted stories were common. “Stories are coming in now at twenty-five or thirty inches,” says Richburg, “that used to routinely come in at forty or forty-five or fifty.”
When Post staffers are asked to describe the Brauchli era, they often use words like “chaos,” “reorganization,” or “time of transition.” Karl Vick offers a vivid example of chaotic political coverage. In January, Vick happened to be visiting the main newsroom in Washington, on break from his post in Los Angeles, when Scott Brown’s campaign began to surge in Massachusetts. An editor informed Vick they needed someone to cover the campaign; he agreed to do so. Vick recalls: “There was nobody on the ground. There was nobody who wanted to do it! This is supposed to be the nation’s premier political newsroom! And the L.A. reporter happens to have a weekend free. They sent him up! I was just amazed. To me, it spoke to no bench.”