After eight years leading the Washington Post—the capstone on a nearly half-century career in journalism—Marty Baron announced this week that he will soon be retiring. He is a legend in the industry, and his reputation is well deserved. But many in the Post’s newsroom also believe that his departure is well timed, because, ultimately, he is a man rooted in a different era.
Baron ran the Miami Herald and Boston Globe prior to coming to the Post. He was the editor depicted in the movie Spotlight, heroically taking down the Catholic Church’s child predators using only the mighty tools of journalism. Shortly after being hired to lead the Post, in 2013, he got the greatest gift a newspaper editor could hope for: the world’s richest owner. The deep pockets of Jeff Bezos allowed Baron to nearly double the size of the newsroom in less than a decade and to transform the Post into a premier national news brand for the digital age, fluent in everything from Pulitzer-winning investigations to internet chum. The Post has advantages that few other papers enjoy, but Baron used them skillfully and to great effect.
The downside of Baron’s old-school credibility, however, was its very old-schoolness. Nothing proved this more than two internal conflicts that gripped the Post in 2020: first, the paper’s decision to suspend its reporter Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted to point out Kobe Bryant’s rape case shortly after his death; and second, management’s clashes with star reporter Wesley Lowery over the fact he was being, well, too honest about his feelings on Twitter on touchy issues of racism and politics. Both incidents, and the tortured fallout they produced both inside and outside the company, pointed to the fact that Baron and his top deputies seemed unable to fully adapt to the world they both covered and lived in.
Nobody doubts the journalistic bona fides of (as one Post reporter called him, with respect) “Marty fucking Baron.” Even Lowery, who now works for 60 Minutes, told me that “even as we’ve had our disagreements in public and private, there’s no question that the Post is likely doing the best pound-for-pound, day-in-and-day-out journalism in the organization’s history and has found a way to not only survive but thrive economically at a time of extreme peril for journalism—for which Marty deserves a ton of credit.”
He added, though, that “some of the major challenges facing whoever succeeds him are the very things Marty failed to do during his tenure: assembling a newsroom and leadership structure that actually reflects the diversity of the nation—and world—it covers, figuring out how to nurture people with voices and experiences that differ from a white DC media establishment status quo, and figuring out a path forward in a social media world that manages to protect the reputation of the Post but does not rely on selectively punishing people based on incomprehensible and unequally enforced policies and the unpredictable moods of the executive editor.”
This combination of respect for Baron’s accomplishments and disappointment in his failures was echoed by many members of the newsroom. He was described by those who worked for him as “smart,” “principled,” diligent in understanding the challenges of the internet, and in general an editor of stature. Many reporters feel gratitude toward him for building a robust and financially strong news outlet at a time when huge chunks of the media industry have been crumbling into dust all around them.
But the events of the past year created a level of meaningful bitterness. One Post employee said that Baron’s departure felt like a barrier to progress being removed, giving them a sense of relief. Another said that “last summer really diminished his reputation in some people’s eyes…[and] left a lot of people thinking that while he has been a great editor with an amazing track record, he’s no longer the man for the moment.” Others said that the past year had been “deflating,” “disappointing,” and bad for morale, and that because of all that, Baron was “not particularly beloved,” though he was respected.
It remains to be seen whether the Post as an institution will take all of this into account when selecting Baron’s replacement. The Post Guild, the paper’s labor union, said in a statement, “We expect the Post to seek a leader who is committed to building a more diverse and inclusive company that can fairly and comprehensively cover our local region, our nation and our world. Post Guild members are eager to participate in this process and we hope the staff will have a seat at the table.”
Fredrick Kunkle, a staff writer on the local desk and the former chair of the Post’s union (speaking only for himself), complimented Baron’s editing skill and investment in the newsroom, and added, “As for his successor, I think many of us are hoping the Post hires a journalist with a proven record of leadership and accomplishment while also going beyond the company’s previous efforts to consider candidates who reflect the diversity of our nation and this city.”
Virtually every Post employee I spoke to cited the same priorities. Baron has earned the right to be proud of all the great journalism he helped to produce. His failures are the failures of an entire industry, and of an entire society. The fact that we see those failures so clearly now should give the newsroom hope.
TOP IMAGE: Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron on January 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)