A lawsuit against The Washington Post reignites the debate over objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905

The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.

Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.

Darcy and New York Times reporter Katie Robertson report that Baron has declined to comment on the case.

I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.

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What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.

Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”

Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”

What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.

There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.

In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.

Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.

The Washington Post chooses its first female executive editor

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Knight Foundation.

The Washington Post has a new executive editor — Sally Buzbee, currently the executive editor and senior vice president at The Associated Press. Of note: Post owner Jeff Bezos got involved in making the choice, and Paul Farhi writes that Buzbee was chosen at least in part because of her international experience.

Bezos and the Post’s top executives see world coverage as the next step in their competition with The New York Times, recently setting up news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, in order to give the paper 24-hour coverage.

Buzbee is the Post’s first female executive editor. Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization. The Post’s recently retired editor, Marty Baron, succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and “swagger,” to use a word that Bezos himself likes. Will Buzbee be able to adapt?

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Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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Why Jeff Bezos should rescue Tribune’s newspapers from Alden Global Capital

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Previously published at GBH News.

It’s going to take a miracle to save the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, New York’s Daily News and six other large-market dailies from the greedy clutches of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in the country.

On May 21, Tribune Publishing’s board is scheduled to vote on selling its papers. At this point, it looks like the only viable bid is from Alden, which has offered $635 million to boost its share of the company from 32% to 100%. A competing bid from the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum was dealt a huge setback recently when his partner, the Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, pulled out. Bainum, who wants to acquire Tribune’s Baltimore Sun and turn it over to a nonprofit, said he hasn’t given up. Right now, though, money and momentum are on Alden’s side.

Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. All have been decimated, a fate that you can be sure is in store for Tribune’s papers if the hedge fund’s bid is accepted.

But it’s not too late if someone with vast riches and a demonstrated interest in journalism is willing to step up. Someone, for instance, like Jeff Bezos. The mega-billionaire owner of The Washington Post would be the perfect savior for the Tribune papers. Would he do it? I have no idea. If he were willing, though, he could breathe new life into some of our most important journalistic institutions.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Bezos’ ruthlessness in running Amazon has caught up with him; his public image has taken some well-deserved hits since 2013, when he found $250 million in a spare pants pocket and bought the Post. Do we really want someone whose drivers have to pee into bottles in order to make their appointed rounds having even more power than he does already? Yes, Alden already owns about 100 papers via its MediaNews Group subsidiary. But whoever wins Tribune will control some of the most influential daily newspapers in the country. How can we be sure that Bezos wouldn’t use that power for ill?

To answer that question, we have to look at the record. And however brutal his treatment of Amazon employees may be, he has been an exceptionally good steward of The Washington Post. There is no evidence that he has interfered in the Post’s news coverage, or even in its editorial pages.

Then-executive editor Marty Baron stressed that Bezos had been hands-off when I interviewed him for my 2018 book “The Return Of The Moguls.” And Baron repeated that at a recent event sponsored by Northeastern’s School of Journalism. “His involvement on the news side was nothing beyond approving our budget,” Baron said. (Note: I’m on the faculty.)

What evidence exists to the contrary is, frankly, pretty thin gruel. In his new book, “Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America,” ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis observed that, after buying the Post, Bezos bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., and greatly increased Amazon’s lobbying presence in the capital.

MacGillis also noted that the Post ran a cheerleading editorial in favor of Amazon’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, coming to the D.C. subrub of Arlington, Virginia. “It would be left to a local business journal, not the Post, to uncover the emails showing the lengths to which Arlington officials had gone to ease Amazon’s path,” MacGillis writes. OK, fine. But the Post was hardly the only newspaper that expressed enthusiasm for HQ2 and the thousands of jobs it would bring. As a reminder, take a look at some of The Boston Globe’s coverage.

Indeed, Bezos has built such a sterling reputation for his leadership of the Post that Hamilton Nolan, who keeps tabs on the paper for the Columbia Journalism Review, recently devoted an entire piece to speculating about what would happen if Bezos woke up one morning and decided to weaponize the paper on behalf of his business and personal interests. Nolan wrote that “the editorial independence of the Post should never be taken for granted.” No, it shouldn’t. But after more than seven years of ownership, Bezos has done very little to raise concerns about his vision for the proper role of a newspaper owner.

Needless to say, Bezos could afford to buy Tribune. Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how rich he is. In January 2020, his net worth was $118 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index. By early 2021, it had risen to $196 billion as the pandemic super-charged Amazon’s business even while millions of Americans were being thrown out of work.

In other words, it would cost Bezos less than 1% of the money he’s made just over the last year to buy Tribune in its entirety. The latest news about Alden, meanwhile, is that the hedge fund “probably violated federal pension protections by putting $294 million of its newspaper employees’ pension savings into its own funds, according to a Labor Department investigation.” The story, reported by Bezos’ Washington Post, noted that Alden has admitted no wrongdoing and paid the money back. But still.

Bezos is 57, an age when many successful people start thinking about their legacy. He’s stepping down as Amazon’s CEO later this year. By investing resources in The Washington Post, he transformed it into a profitable, growing, digitally focused news organization in just a few years. Attempting to work the same magic with Tribune’s papers would be a worthy challenge.

Is this any way to ensure the future of journalism? No, it is not. As I wrote recently, the fate of great news organizations shouldn’t be left solely to the whims of unregulated, predatory capitalism. Unfortunately, that’s the system we have, and it’s not going to change between now and May 21.

So please, Mr. Bezos. Is it OK if I call you Jeff? Give these papers a chance to thrive. You did it with the Post. You can do it again.

Still more on The Emancipator

Ben Smith of The New York Times weighs in on The Emancipator, the antiracist digital publication that will be launched later this year by The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

Of note: Former Globe reporter Wesley Lowery, who later clashed with now-retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron over his use of social media, may be coming back.

As Smith describes it, The Emancipator will have a seven-figure budget and will blend “reportage, opinion and academic research, some of which will appear in The Globe.” Founders Bina Venkataraman, the Globe’s opinion editor, and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Antiracist Center, say they also want to “revive the tradition of a generation of media that predates the formal division of news and opinion in 20th-century American journalism.”

Well, that’s fine. I’m sure they know that any number of quality magazines already do that. It was a hallmark of the alternative press as well. Not to say it isn’t a good idea, but there are contemporary models they can look to.

We also talked about The Emancipator on “Beat the Press” last Friday. The video is above.

Marty Baron on Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post and the soul of American journalism

Photo (cc) 2013 by Esther Vargas

Previously published at GBH News.

Sunday was Marty Baron’s last day as executive editor of The Washington Post. The legendary editor, along with the Post’s deep-pockets owner, Jeff Bezos, is widely credited with reviving the paper and restoring its status as one of the pre-eminent American newspapers. Five years ago GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy interviewed Baron for his book “The Return Of The Moguls: How Jeff Bezos And John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers For The Twenty-First Century.” An excerpt from the book follows.

When I interviewed Marty Baron in March 2016, his office at The Washington Post’s new headquarters was smaller than I had expected. We sat at a conference table next to a human-sized cardboard cutout of an Oscar statuette, which he said was waiting for him after he returned from the Academy Awards gala in Hollywood.

The Oscar was for “Spotlight,” based on The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation into the pedophile-priest crisis within the Catholic Church — the story that defined Baron’s years as editor of the Globe. He also showed me a small chocolate Oscar he’d brought home. Soft-spoken and businesslike, with graying reddish hair and a closely trimmed beard, Baron talked for an hour about life at the Post under Jeff Bezos.

“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling The Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us” — a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior.

“I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”

Even though Bezos bought a $23 million mansion in Washington, D.C., in late 2016, he spends most of his time on the West Coast. For the most part he manages his newspaper from afar, presiding over an hour-long conference call with the Post’s top executives every other week.

“It starts on time, ends on time; it’s very disciplined,” Baron said. “He gets all of the material in advance. We don’t use it to go through presentations. We use it to review any questions that he might have or to embark on any broader discussions. But typically all of the material is sent to him in advance in a narrative style, not PowerPoints. He doesn’t like PowerPoints, thankfully. He typically has some questions, and those questions become a springboard to discussion of whatever we need to talk about.” The Post’s leadership also travels to Seattle twice a year for a day of meetings. Baron said those meetings run from around noon to 6 p.m., followed by dinner.

I also asked Baron how the Post had been able to amass as large a digital audience as The New York Times — between 80 and 100 million monthly unique visitors at that time — despite a staff that was about half the size. His answer was two-fold. First, he said that the Post was not competing with the Times so much as it was competing for people’s attention, whether it be against The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico or Vox. Second, he said the Post is “doing things that are much more attuned to the digital environment” by “treating the web as a distinct medium.”

Among the examples Baron cited: hiring young digital-native journalists who write with a distinctive voice and who are unconcerned as to whether their stories appear in print or are only posted online; embracing multimedia tools such as video, the publication of original documents and annotation — debate transcripts, for instance, have been marked up with highlighted comments by Post journalists, adding context and occasional snark; and writing engaging headlines that are not constrained by the artificial confines of column width, as are print headlines.

“I mean, look, radio is different from newspapers, television is different from radio,” Baron said. “Here comes the web. We should be different, and mobile might be different, too.”

Now, I would argue that the Times’ approach to digital, although different from the Post’s, is every bit as engaging and innovative. But in discussing the Post’s rapidly growing digital audience, there’s an additional topic that can’t be avoided: its reliance on a presentation for some types of material that are aimed at maximizing shares and eyeballs.

Baron doesn’t like the term “clickbait,” and I agree with him that that’s not quite the right word. After all, “clickbait” suggests that the underlying story does not live up to the promise of the headline, and that’s rarely the case with Post journalism. But the Washington Post experience can vary quite a bit depending on how you access that journalism. The print paper mixes heavy and light fare, the serious and the entertaining, in a way that isn’t much different from what news consumers are used to. The website and the apps, though, often take a more viral approach.

That’s especially true with the national digital edition — the magazine-like app for mobile and tablet that debuted on Amazon’s Kindle Fire and later migrated to other platforms. For one thing, it omits local news so that its low cost won’t lure Washington-area readers into switching from their more expensive print or digital subscription. For another, the story mix and the presentation often have a viral feel to them. For instance, as I perused the national app on my iPhone on a Wednesday afternoon in April 2016, I saw stories like “O Cannabis! Canada Moves To Legalize Marijuana in 2017,” illustrated with a pot-festooned Canadian flag; “What Your First Name Says About Your Politics”; and “Diet Coke Is Getting A New Look.”

To be fair, these stories were well-reported and were interspersed amid more serious news. If I were riding on the subway and looking for something to read, I would have clicked on any of them. And there is nothing wrong with lightening things up as long as the core mission remains in place.

Longtime media critic and Post-watcher Jack Shafer, now with Politico, told me that he’s an admirer of Baron’s Post.

“It’s as good as it’s ever been,” he said. “In terms of accuracy, accountability, imagination, Marty Baron is a genius and an inspirational editor.” As for what Shafer forthrightly called “click-baitery,” he said it was no different from the days when newspaper editors would drop in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” brief to fill a hole on a page. The idea, he said, is to make the Post a “habit.”

“You’re sitting there, you’re bored, or you’re angry at your editor, and you just want a media moment,” Shafer said. “It turns out that there’s a much larger market for that than we ever imagined.”

Baron put it this way: “Being viral doesn’t mean clickbait, and writing a headline and using a photo that would cause somebody to share something on a serious subject doesn’t make it clickbait. We do write headlines that we think will lead to sharing, and in many ways they get to the point a lot better. They actually explain the story better than traditional newspaper headlines. I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese. The web and our apps allow us to write in a way that people speak.”

Post media blogger Erik Wemple, a veteran print journalist — among other career stops, he was the editor and media columnist at the alt-weekly Washington City Paper — told me that he was untroubled to be a newspaper columnist whose work rarely appeared in the newspaper. “All of the messaging and the emphasis seems to be on digital,” he said, adding that when he looked at the print paper, he often found it stale, as he saw stories that had appeared online a day or two earlier. “There’s a clear focus on digital work here,” he said. “That’s what the feedback loop bears, and that’s what drives conversation.”

***

One subject that often arises when asking about Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post is whether it can cover Amazon independently and impartially. Of course, it’s not unusual for a news organization to have an owner with outside interests that deserve coverage, with John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and the Red Sox being a prime example. But Amazon represents a particular challenge given its size, influence and cultural impact. Amazon, after all, is largely responsible for disrupting the book industry. Amazon Web Services does business with the CIA.

When Bezos met with Post staff members a month after he announced he would buy the paper, he told them that they should “feel free to cover Amazon anyway you want, feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.” By the spring of 2017, there were no reports that Bezos had tried to interfere with the Post’s news coverage.

Indeed, within days of the announcement that he would buy the paper, the Post published an in-depth examination of Bezos and Amazon that could fairly be described as warts and all — he was described as “ruthless” and a “bully” in his dealings with competitors and a boss who was known for launching “tirades” that “humiliated colleagues.”

As is his custom, Bezos refused to cooperate with the team of reporters who worked on that story. But national investigative editor Kimberly Kindy, who was among those journalists, told me there were no repercussions from Bezos after publication. “I don’t think that we have shied away from covering him. And he certainly has invited us to,” she said. Kindy’s Post career thrived under Bezos’s ownership. Among other things, she was deeply involved in a massive effort to document fatal shootings of civilians by police officers — a project that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

Yet it was The New York Times, and not The Washington Post, that produced a lengthy, highly critical investigative story about Amazon’s workplace culture — a story that created a sensation when it was published in the summer of 2015. For anyone who had read Brad Stone’s 2013 book about Amazon, “The Everything Store,” there was little new information. Indeed, it struck me that the Times, unlike Stone, missed some crucial context in its implication that Amazon was uniquely awful rather than merely awful in the manner that’s typical of hard-charging technology companies. As the technology writer Mathew Ingram put it in criticizing the Times’ reporting, “To take just one example, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ treatment of his staff makes anything that Amazon has done (or likely ever will do) seem like a day at the beach.”

Regardless of the merits of the Times’ story, though, it may be too much to expect that the Post, of all media outlets, would take the lead on in-depth enterprise reporting about the dark side of Amazon. “To expect a newspaper to be a fifth column against itself and its owners is naive and probably without precedent,” Jack Shafer said.

Erik Wemple, on the other hand, said he hoped the Post could engage in such reporting if it was warranted. “It would be incredibly awkward to commission a big investigative story. And I hope we do endure that awkwardness,” Wemple said. “Bezos’s dream of a paper of record necessitates tough coverage of Amazon.” He added: “The difficulty is always one of self-censorship. That’s a serious concern of any news organization that has a mogul running it.”

Baron, for his part, said he had no intention of letting Bezos’s ownership of the Post interfere with the way his journalists covered Amazon. “Jeff said at his first town hall here, ‘You should cover me and cover Amazon the way you would cover any other company and any other chief executive, and I’m fine with that,’” Baron said. “On multiple occasions since then he has repeated that. He said the same thing to me personally. And I said, ‘Good, because that’s what I’m planning to do.’ And I have never heard from him about a single story about Amazon.”

***

In his early days at The Boston Globe, Baron kept an exceedingly low profile. As the news business shrank, Baron slowly began to emerge as a voice for embracing change while at the same time maintaining high journalistic standards. In 2012, when he was still at the Globe, he gave a speech in which he urged journalists to fight against the “fear” that had overcome them — fear of being accused of bias, of losing customers or offending advertisers: “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.”

Baron’s public persona has only become more prominent since the release of the movie “Spotlight.” After the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, marked by unprecedented attacks by Trump on the media, and especially on Jeff Bezos and the Post, Baron made use of his public platform to call for tough, independent coverage of the incoming president.

“If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly — because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions — the public will not forgive us,” Baron said in accepting an award named for the late iconoclastic journalist Christopher Hitchens. “Nor, in my view, should they.”

Some months earlier, sitting in his office on a Wednesday afternoon, I had asked Baron about his emerging role as a voice of conscience in the news business. It was a moment that I found surprisingly poignant. Nearly 15 years earlier, I had interviewed him at the Globe for the first time. In those days he was virtually unknown outside the newspaper business. Now he was the most famous editor in the country by virtue of “Spotlight” as well as a respected advocate for excellence at a time when many newspapers were just a shadow of what they had once been.

“We could use more leadership in the industry,” he replied. A few moments later he added: “I think that people are searching for how to survive and succeed in the current environment while not abandoning our core principles. To the extent that I have helped shape the thinking in our profession about how one might do that, I feel pleased by that.”

Adapted from “The Return Of The Moguls: How Jeff Bezos And John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers For The Twenty-First Century,” by Dan Kennedy. Published in 2018 by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England: www.upne.com/1611685947.html.

The template for the Bezos-Baron revival of the Post was set early on

Marty Baron, center. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.

There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.

Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”

In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:

Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.

One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.

Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.

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Marty Baron, Walter Lippmann and the true meaning of objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905. Photo in the public domain.

Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker has a terrific interview with Marty Baron, who’s retiring as executive editor of The Washington Post. I’m amused at the way Baron treats The New Yorker with the same brusqueness as he does other media outlets. For instance:

Chotiner: Why do you think [Jeff] Bezos decided to buy the Post?

Baron: You can look at what he’s said about that. I assume that you have. He’s talked about it many times.

Baron also expresses the view that local newspapers are going to have to save themselves the same way that national papers did: by persuading their readers to pay for it.

I was struck by how similar much of what Baron said was to my 2016 interview with him for “The Return of the Moguls.” Baron has his lodestar, and he follows it. But how journalists should and shouldn’t use social media is a bigger issue today than it was in 2016, so he and Chotiner talk about that quite a bit. And Baron also defines objectivity in exactly the way that I try to get it across to my students:

I do think that people have been routinely mischaracterizing what objectivity means. It really dates back a hundred years. Walter Lippmann essentially was the originator of the idea. What was the idea? It was a recognition that all of us as journalists, all of us as human beings, have preconceptions. Those preconceptions arrived from our own backgrounds, our life experiences, the people we associate with, you name it. And it’s important as we go about our reporting that we try to set those preconceptions aside — and almost approach our work in as scientific a way as possible — and to be open-minded, to be honest, to be fair, to listen generously to people, to hear what they have to say, to take it seriously into account, to do a thorough job of reporting, to do a rigorous job of reporting.

The idea of objectivity — I should make clear — it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered.

The entire interview is well worth your time.

The Washington Post’s top editor, Marty Baron, will retire next month

Marty Baron, right, in conversation with Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

Republished at GBH News.

Not unexpected, but stunning nevertheless: Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring after eight years at the helm, according to Brian Stelter of CNN. Baron was widely regarded as the best newspaper editor of his generation, and his leadership — not just at the Post but as a voice for journalism and the First Amendment — will be hugely missed.

Under Baron, the Post was fearless, negotiating the bizarre media landscape dominated by Donald Trump with a sure-footedness that its larger competitor, The New York Times, never quite seemed to master. Before coming to the Post, Baron was the editor of The Boston Globe, where he led the paper’s reporting that showed Cardinal Bernard Law was deeply involved in the pedophile-priest crisis.

I interviewed Baron several times over the years, including in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” Here is an excerpt about Baron’s reaction when he learned in August 2013 that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Post:

“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling the Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us”—a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior. “I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”

Bezos, to his credit, realized what he had inherited, kept Baron in place and by all accounts left him alone to do his job. The Post has built its paid digital subscription base from around 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016 to 3 million today, and the newsroom has grown from 580 to more than 1,000 since Bezos bought the paper. It’s also been profitable for five years.

And the Post’s main selling point has been the excellence of its journalism. Baron is going to be incredibly difficult to replace.

Globe editor Brian McGrory addresses diversity in the newsroom and in coverage

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

This past Wednesday, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sent a long memo to his staff about steps the Globe will take to respond to issues of race and equity — both in the paper’s coverage and the diversity of its newsroom.

So far, at least, the Globe has been able to avoid the sort of public turmoil over race that the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other news organizations, have experienced. But the Globe has long suffered from a lack of people of color in leadership positions. The last ranking Black editor, Greg Moore, left for The Denver Post in 2002 several months after losing out on the top position to Marty Baron. (The Globe’s opinion pages are led by Bina Venkataraman, who is Indian American.)

A couple of other points. First, although McGrory sent this out on Wednesday, no one leaked it to me until late Thursday. I don’t know the outcome of the Thursday presentation McGrory refers to. If someone at the Globe would like to send something along, I’d love to see it. I’d consider publishing an anonymous report as long as I knew who it was from.

Second, toward the end McGrory mentions wanting the Globe to adopt what amounts to a “right to be forgotten” for people who’ve been charged or even convicted of minor crimes. This sounds like an excellent idea as long as news stories aren’t going to be deleted from the archives.

Before the web, print editions soon disappeared into microfilm collections that were virtually impossible to search, which meant that the sort of minor incidents McGrory is referring to could not be easily found by, say, prospective employers. We need some way of returning to those days of semi-privacy without destroying the historical record.

What follows is the full text of McGrory’s memo.

Updates and plans

Hey all,

We’ll start with a request: Everyone should do everything possible to attend Thursday’s presentation of the company’s inclusion council. You’ve received an invitation under separate cover for an 11 a.m. Zoom call. The group will share findings and insights that may be hard to hear, but are vitally important to know, so I’d urge you all to participate.

Beyond that, we agreed at our town meeting a few weeks back that discussions about race, even and especially discussions involving deeply uncomfortable truths, are utterly vital. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have had a good number of one-on-one conversations and small group discussions with people in the room, all of which have been eye-opening to the point of being invaluable. While all these exchanges are important, they are but a start. The real marker of this moment will be the actions that we take. So here, I’d like to outline some of the plans for the newsroom going forward. They are not the final word. They are a starting point, something that will ideally serve as our foundation for durable progress.

Recent assignments

In terms of our coverage, some key assignments have already been made and are worth sharing with you now. We launched a criminal justice team to look at the underlying racism in law enforcement that has served as the tipping point in the protests and calls for action. About two weeks old, it’s already had remarkable impact with stories on outrageously high overtime payments and ballooning payrolls, police officers on the streets despite numerous civilian complaints, a T officer who quietly resigned after abusing a homeless man, the acquisition by Boston Police of more miltary-style equipment, and clear-eyed looks at the push to defund. There is much more on the way. That team includes Milton Valencia, Vernal Coleman, Evan Allen, Tonya Alanez, Andrew Ryan, and Evan Allen, with strong assists from Dugan Arnett, Laura Crimaldi, and Danny McDonald. It’s led by Brendan McCarthy and Nestor Ramos, in a pitch-perfect example of cross-department collaboration. We are past time giving Boston Police and other law enforcement the scrutiny they warrant; this team is already addressing that.

If we focus only on criminal justice, we have failed in our mission to address core issues of racial inequality in and around Boston, one of the most unequal places on the planet. This, as we’ve discussed for years, should be a part of everyone’s beat, whether you cover the environment, the arts, sports, transportation, retail, or real estate. It’s especially vital in primary education, where society blithely accepts systems that are profoundly unequal. We have a strong education team already in place. Naomi Martin will join it, and the indefatigable Felicia Gans will also play a pivotal role ramping up the digital presence as part of her broader portfolio. Felice Belman will now help editor Sarah Carr with oversight.

In addition, we’ve asked Deanna Pan, Zoe Greenberg, Dasia Moore, and Jenee Osterheldt to focus a good part of their time and creative energy on broader racial and social injustice issues, including that wide space where race and COVID collide. And our business staff will remain focused on the epic economic injustices that are prevalent in this region.

Before, during, and after the recent town meeting, many colleagues have been forthright and generous with their insights and ideas. Not surprisingly, they’ve been really thoughtful — and really appreciated. Many of the plans below are pulled from these conversations, discussions with senior editors, and feedback from smaller groups. Again, there should and will be more to come.

• Cover the neighborhoods of color in and around Boston with more intensity — the culture, the economics, the challenges, the triumphs, the people, while also looking at broader stories about city life. We would assign at least one but likely more reporters to it, with strong editing guidance. We would also look for partnerships and innovative ways to get information to residents.

• Promote and/or hire Black editors and other editors of color to significant roles, including, but by no means limited to, the masthead. This is of paramount importance.

• Require a staff-wide work audit for racial representation. Each reporter, photographer, columnist, producer, and editor will be given the necessary time to look back six months and assess their work through a racial lens — how many people of color were subjects, how many were quoted as experts, how many were depicted in photographs and videos, and in what fashion?
Likewise, we’ll go through home pages and print section fronts, as well as the magazine, to see how often and in what ways we depicted Black people and other people of color.

This exercise is not meant to embarrass or penalize anyone. It’s to learn from our own work and create awareness of what we need to do. We’ll figure out a meaningful way to share the broader results.

Meantime, it is of the utmost importance for everyone to include a diverse range of voices in stories and to develop sources who don’t look like you. Jenee has worked up a strong list of Black sources to share, with an assist from Adrian [Walker] and Yvonne Abraham, to help people get started.

• We’ve had important success hiring star journalists of color over the past couple of years, but we are nowhere near where we want or need to be. We’ll redouble our efforts to make the newsroom more diverse, with a dual focus on retention and hiring.

• Make sure we dedicate the right resources to cover law enforcement agencies as a key part of our regular and ongoing coverage.

Internal changes

• Reframe our summer internship program, beginning in 2021, to a diversity internship and training program in which all participants will be students or recent graduates of color.

• Mandate that a specific proportion of our co-ops are students of color.

• Work with the Guild to amend the newsroom’s ethics policy to allow for participation in Black Lives Matter rallies by staffers.

• Form a newsroom advisory council to weigh in on coverage and initiatives that involve race issues.

• Explore outside funding for a training program for early-career journalists of color, in partnership with universities, nonprofits, and possibly other news organizations. This program would allow for the hiring of journalists for a predetermined tenure at the Globe involving intensive training, mentorship, and meaningful work while they are here.

One more

• Launch a ‘right to forget’ initiative that allows people to appeal their presence in a story from the Globe archives and ask for it to be de-linked from search engines. This includes, but is not limited to, someone charged and even convicted of non-violent crimes. Our journalism was never meant to be a permanent obstacle to someone’s success, with the worst decisions and moments in regular people’s lives accessible by a few keystrokes for the rest of time. This will be a complicated endeavor, involving a small committee and imperfect judgments, but it will be worthwhile.

There will undoubtedly be additional measures. And we will also be working closely in the newsroom with ReadySet, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm that has been smartly engaged by the Globe’s inclusion council to help the entire organization.

As tends to happen in this business, we find ourselves at the intersection of opportunity and responsibility. It’s on all of us to make the most of it and to have the strongest impact, meaning we have much work to do in the weeks ahead.

Please keep reaching out with your thoughts, insights, and ideas.

Brian

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