The Answer Man?

Good luck, Marcus. You'll need it.

Now that The Washington Post has chosen Marcus Brauchli over Phil Bennett to be its new executive editor, I hope I don’t sound impertinent if I ask: What’s the difference?

Not “what’s the difference; they’re both mediocre.” Actually, the opposite is true. Both are superbly accomplished, well-spoken forty-somethings with records of achievement at American journalism’s highest levels.

Brauchli was a foreign correspondent, foreign bureau chief, national editor, deputy managing editor, managing editor (the top job, for a few months) at The Wall Street Journal.

Bennett, the other leading contender, was a foreign correspondent, bureau chief, foreign editor, and managing editor (the number two job) at The Washington Post.

Brauchli oversaw Pulitzers. Bennett oversaw a few more.

Yes, Brauchli brought some baggage, as I noted recently, in failing to push back after his new bosses at News Corp. essentially stripped his job of its power after promising specifically and emphatically that they would do no such thing and after signing a detailed contract designed to head off that very event from occurring—which it promptly did, like clockwork.

My only point there was, if he didn’t stand up to Rupert Murdoch, how do we know if he’ll stand up to the president of the United States when the next Pentagon Papers drops on his desk? But, look, it was just a question, and frankly, I’m betting that when the time comes, he will.

The issue of the moment, though, is ensuring the Post’s survival in this time of troubles for all newspapers, this transition to new media that we hope is just a transition.

In her statement appointing him, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth emphasized the job of navigating this “new world” and pointed to Brauchli’s year as WSJ managing editor, when he:

led the integration of the Journal’s print and online newsrooms and put an emphasis on breaking news and dynamic content online and while focusing the newspaper on original or exclusive news. He also oversaw planning for a new luxury lifestyle magazine that will launch this coming September.

I’ll have more on these “luxury lifestyle” magazines later. But the fact is, Brauchli wasn’t in charge long enough to put much of a stamp on the paper, online or otherwise. Soon after being named managing editor, the paper was embroiled in the News Corp. takeover battle, which lasted the rest of the year. He reorganized the newsroom, and promoted Bill Grueskin, who had run the online operation, to broad oversight of news.

But no dramatic changes were visible, as I say, online or off. By the end of the year, News Corp. had taken over. Even Brauchli would admit, I think, that the atmosphere from then on was not conducive to, shall we say, broad conceptual thinking about the digital future. The place was a Jerry Lewis movie on fast forward.

And as far as the Post goes, I don’t remember anyone complaining that Len Downie, or Bennett, for that matter, was standing athwart history, blocking new media initiatives. If they were, why is the Post running a video series sponsored by AT&T featuring an interview with a shoe salesman?

Like all reporters these days, Post reporters carry digital gear around like so many Inspectors Gadgets. They’re already trying everything over there, as they should.

The point is whether Brauchli is the best choice available to be the Post’s executive editor. Probably is. Is he uniquely qualified to solve the newspaper industry’s most pressing problem? No.

All he can do is his best. All the rest of us can do, while remembering that no one has the answers, is wish him luck.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.