Tag Archives: Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee and the importance of private ownership

471661184_d792d22c04_oPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Several months ago I re-read what David Halberstam had to say about The Washington Post in “The Powers That Be,” his monumental 1979 book about the rise of the Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and CBS News.

As we celebrate the life and career of the Post’s legendary executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who died on Tuesday, it’s worth pondering the economic environment that made Bradlee’s charismatic brand of leadership possible: private ownership.

The Meyer and Graham families had been the sole owners of the Post since the 1930s. But in the early 1970s, publisher Katharine Graham decided to take her newspaper public. Here’s Halberstam:

So Katharine Graham went public. In the end she did it because she felt she had no choice. It was that or sell one of the television stations, which would provide instant cash but would narrow the base of the company. During the months that they prepared the stock issue [Post lawyer and Graham confidant] Fritz Beebe, whose office was in New York, talked frequently with the Post’s New York financial writer, Phil Greer, who was unusually knowledgeable about the workings of the market. Greer was pessimistic about the entire enterprise, and consisted it a drastic mistake. Wall Street, he believed, was a brutal partner, it was not interested in journalism or good writing, and it demanded not just profit but a relentless kind of profit; Wall Street wanted systems, and cost accounting, and a monitoring of expense accounts and higher productivity and lower expenditures. None of these things had anything to do with talent or covering the news. Greer did not believe that the Post could embrace Wall Street without changing. The Post would inevitably become, if not far more conservative on its editorial page, then far more conservative as an institution. When editors thought about covering stories or opening bureaus they would think of the accountants and the costs. What had made certain family-owned papers like The New York Times and the Postspecial in the past was a certain obliviousness to materialism, the power of the editors over the accountants, a willingness to settle for less than maximum profit. Now, however, simply being in the black would not be enough, the margin of profit would have to be larger, 15 percent or more a year to satisfy the stockholders. That was a powerful weapon for the Post’s accountants, for they could go into budget meetings and when editorial expenses were being discussed they could argue, not that the paper was losing money, but that the margin of profit was too low and that the stock might fall. The stock fall? What editor could argue back against that? Was a bureau in Johannesburg worth endangering the stock? The old paternalistic norms, some of them good and some of them bad, would be replaced by new modern computerized ones, some of them good and some of them bad, and all of them cold.

The decision had instant ramifications after the Post joined The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. As Halberstam writes, the Post could have been charged with a federal crime, which would have had serious negative consequences for the paper’s upcoming stock offering. Yes, the Post was on the verge of becoming a public company. But because Graham and Bradlee continued to run it as a highly personal institution, they held firm and went to press. Here’s Halberstam again:

Watergate, like Vietnam, had obscured one of the central new facts about the role of national journalism in America, a fact that helped explain the not entirely latent discontent at places like the Post and CBS and The New York Times, rich and powerful and successful as they were. Only very rich, very powerful corporate institutions like these had the impact, the reach, and above all the resources to challenge the President of the United States. Yet the price of that external influence was high to those institutions in an internal sense. The bigger and richer and more powerful the journalistic institution, the more bureaucratic its way of dealing with its own best people, the more distant and aloof its management. The Post was now part of a big rich corporation, 452nd in the Fortune list. Its standards and goals now resembled, not the standards and goals of small old-fashioned newspapers, but those of the other giant corporations on that list. For a highly individualistic profession like journalism there was an inherent contradiction in this. Even those Post reporters who were not entirely enamored of Bradlee, who thought his attention span too short, who objected to the fact that he sometimes preferred sexy stories to what they considered more serious ones, and who thought him too star-oriented, nonetheless welcomed his presence, highly personalized as it was, as a defense against the corporation. They believed that he was buying the newsroom time, that his connect to Mrs. Graham was so close that he could secure freedom of a sort that his successor could not.

In fact, the Post was often characterized as less engaging under Graham’s successor, her son Donald, and the executive editor who followed Bradlee, Len Downie. Whether that’s fair or not, there’s no disputing the reality that public ownership finally met its limits in 2013, when Don Graham sold the Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Under executive editor Marty Baron, the Post is experiencing a revival, as Baron gets to expand coverage with the money that billionaire Bezos has proved willing to invest in the paper.

The New York Times Co.’s sale of The Boston Globe to financier John Henry in 2013 returned that paper to private ownership as well — and Henry and editor Brian McGrory have expanded the Globe’s coverage of politics and the Catholic Church, among other areas.

Neither Bezos nor Henry has been entirely benevolent. Bezos is trying to cut pension benefits for his employees. Henry has made reductions here and there, and some staff members continue to endure unpaid furloughs first instituted by the Times Co.

Yet there’s no question that both the Post and the Globe are better off in wealthy private hands than they were under the ownership of publicly traded corporations. News organizations are unique. The relentless focus on the bottom line that Wall Street demands inevitably hurts the journalism, which, in turn, harms the bottom line as the audience is driven away. Private owners can focus on the long term in a way that publicly owned corporations simply can’t.

They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Ben Bradlee was both. And we were the beneficiaries.

Photo (cc) by John C. Abell and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

 

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, 1921-2014

Ben Bradlee in 2010.

Ben Bradlee in 2010

Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee has died at the age of 93.

Bradlee had been in failing health for some time, but it’s still a shock that this legendary figure is no longer with us. Interestingly enough, the Post obit is by former managing editor Robert Kaiser, whose essay “The Bad News About the News” has been generating a lot of attention and debate over the past week.

It is often said when someone important dies that it’s the end of an era. It’s an overused phrase, and Bradlee’s era of newspaper giants and swashbuckling editors ended some time ago. He was a great journalist who, along with the late publisher Katharine Graham, created a great newspaper. The news business will not be the same without him.

Photo (cc) by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Jill Abramson reveals few details about startup venture

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Jill Abramson, fired (her words) last summer as New York Times executive editor, will join with Steven Brill on a startup to “give great journalists money they can live on.”

In a Boston University question-and-answer session Monday evening, she provided few details but said she and Brill — who won the National Magazine Award last year for his Time magazine cover story on medical costs — will write one story a year for the site. She said they’ve been pitching potential investors on the project.

Abramson was joined on stage by New York Times media columnist David Carr, a visiting professor at BU, who served up a steady stream of questions to his former boss.

In other remarks, Abramson praised former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee as “the most consequential editor of my lifetime”  and called The New York Review of Books a “perfect publication.”

Abramson, now teaching a once-a-week class at Harvard on narrative journalism, condemned “false equivalence” — reporting “on the one hand/on the other hand” as if each side is equally credible.”

After weighing and sifting all the facts, she said, journalists have the right to determine which side is right. As an example, she cited “Strange Justice,” the 1994 book she wrote with her then Wall Street Journal colleague Jane Mayer. They concluded that Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas had lied about significant incidents in his past.

“What is the press but calling power people and institutions to account?” she asked.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Marty Baron leaves Globe for Washington Post

Marty Baron

Weeks of rumors and speculation came to an end a little while ago with the announcement that Boston Globe editor Marty Baron will replace Marcus Brauchli as executive editor of the Washington Post. The Huffington Post has memos from Baron, Brauchli and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

This is a very smart move for the Post and for Baron, who’ll have the opportunity to rebuild a faded brand. Not that long ago, the New York Times and the Post were invariably mentioned in the same breath. There’s still a lot of great journalism in the Post, but the paper these days lags well behind the Times.

Brauchli, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, got off to a rocky start at the Post. In 2009 he and then-new publisher Weymouth got embroiled in very bad idea: to put together paid “salons” featuring Post journalists, corporate executives and White House officials. As I wrote in the Guardian, there was evidence that Brauchli knew more about the salons than he was letting on.

I take Weymouth’s decision to replace Brauchli with Baron — and Baron’s decision to accept the offer — as a sign that she’s grown in the job and was able to assure Baron of it.

Baron arrived at the Globe in July 2001 to replace the retiring Matt Storin. (Here’s what I wrote about the transition for the Boston Phoenix.) Baron was executive editor of the Miami Herald before coming to the Globe, but he also had extensive experience at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Many observers believed his stint in Boston would be relatively short, and indeed he was considered for a top job at the Times less than two years later.

Instead, Baron ended up staying in Boston for more than 11 years, winning six Pulitzers, including the public service award in 2003 for the Globe’s coverage of the Catholic pedophile-priest scandal. He has been a solid, steady presence — a journalist with high standards who made his mark at a time when the newspaper business, including the Globe, was steadily shrinking. He also gets digital.

Last February, at an event honoring him as the recipient of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, Baron told journalists they should stand up against the fear and intimidation to which they have been subjected. You’ll find the full text of his speech here, but here’s an excerpt:

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

What’s good news for the Post is less than good news for the Globe. A new editor after 11 years of Baron would not necessarily be a bad thing, as every institution can benefit from change. But at this point it’s unclear who the candidates might be, and whether the next editor will come from inside or outside the Globe. And whoever gets picked will have a tough act to follow.

Baron will be a successor to the legendary Ben Bradlee and all that represents — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and a boatload of Pulitzers. I think he was an inspired choice, and I wish him the best.

More: Peter Kadzis of The Phoenix has a must-read blog post on Baron’s departure. Great quote from an unnamed source: “On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit. He’s like a character out of Camus.”

Kushner bid to buy the Globe keeps inching along

A lightly publicized effort to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co. continues to inch forward.

Casey Ross, writing in the Globe, reports that businessman Aaron Kushner is prepared to offer more than $200 million for the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and Boston.com. That’s considerably more than the $35 million figure that was bandied about two summers ago, which the Times Co. ultimately chose to walk away from.

No one even knows if the Sulzberger family would consider selling the Globe at this point, and Kushner is just a guy with money. What makes his bid interesting is that he’s pulled into his group such people as former Globe publisher Ben Taylor, his cousin Stephen Taylor, a former Globe executive, and Ben Bradlee Jr., a former top editor. (The Taylors were also involved in one of the efforts to buy the Globe two years ago.)

As Ross notes, the Globe is doing better today than it was during the crash-and-burn summer of 2009, though it’s hardly out of the woods. A lot of us would welcome a return to local ownership as long as that wouldn’t presage either a wholesale dismantling or a diminution of news standards and values. Kushner sounds serious about wanting to reinvent the Globe, though I suspect he’s kidding himself if he thinks he’s got some secret formula.

Earlier this year, Katherine Ozment profiled Kushner for Boston magazine. He did not, shall we say, come across as the second coming of Gen. Charles H. Taylor. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing moment in the life of the region’s dominant media organization.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

WikiLeaks’ uneasy alliance with the traditional media

Why did WikiLeaks work with traditional news organizations rather than go it alone in releasing the Afghanistan war logs?

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange learned from the way he handled the Apache helicopter video earlier this year that sometimes it’s better to be Daniel Ellsberg than Ben Bradlee. And that Stephen Colbert was right.