Marcus Brauchli: Man in the News
Bethesda Magazine Interview
Photo by Michael Ventura
Marcus Brauchli holds the distinction of having served as top editor at not one, but two, of America’s most influential newspapers.
A Bethesda resident since becoming executive editor of The Washington Post four years ago, he previously spent almost a quarter century at The Wall Street Journal—first as a foreign correspondent, and later as managing editor, the top job in the Journal newsroom. He held that post less than a year, departing in April 2008 amid fallout from the newspaper’s sale to media baron Rupert Murdoch.
Brauchli (pronounced like the cruciferous vegetable) did not remain unemployed for long. In July 2008, he was hired by the Post—the first outsider to be named to the top editorial position since Eugene Meyer, great-grandfather of Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, purchased the newspaper nearly 80 years ago.
Brauchli’s tenure has coincided with a wrenching time for the industry, as he and other big-city editors have been forced to scale back newsrooms amid falling print circulation, while searching for ways to grow online audiences and recapture lost revenue. It’s a job that has Brauchli commuting, sometimes by bicycle, six days a week from his home in Bethesda’s Westmoreland Circle neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, also a journalist, and two daughters.
Brauchli turned 51 just two days after the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that boosted the Post’s reputation outside the Beltway. He talked with us at his office in downtown Washington, D.C., about some of the challenges of the job, as well as his life in suburban Maryland.
One of your great-grandfathers founded The Herald-Dispatch, the daily newspaper in Huntington, W.Va. Was that legacy responsible for getting you into journalism?
When I was growing up in Colorado, my father [a Boulder attorney] would come home and watch the evening news. It was the only television we were allowed to watch—which is not to say we didn’t watch other television, but that’s what we were allowed to watch. Like so many Americans, we watched the Watergate hearings, and read every scrap of news about them. And so I guess you could say that, like so many journalists, I was pulled into journalism by Watergate.
You seem to have decided at a fairly early age that this is what you wanted to do.
I worked for The Denver Post as a photographer for their local zoned edition in Boulder when I was in high school. And I wrote for a weekly paper in our hometown. I covered the 1976 congressional campaign between [Republican] Ed Scott and [Democrat] Tim Wirth—Tim Wirth won—in the 2nd District in Colorado, and thought that I would probably want to go into political journalism.
But you ended up as a foreign correspondent for the first 15 years of your career. Was that by accident?
It was more by girlfriend than by accident. …When I got out of college, I had a girlfriend who had worked in Europe for some television networks, and she really wanted to go back overseas. So I took a job working for AP/Dow Jones, which was part of the company that owned The Wall Street Journal. After eight months, they sent me to Hong Kong.
When you were appointed editor of the Post, you were quoted as saying, “I’m anticipating having to go through a steep learning curve at hyper speed.” Is there anything that really took you by surprise?
The Post...serves one of the most passionate, news junkie audiences of any newspaper anywhere. This creates all kinds of special challenges. You get watched in Washington more closely by far than I imagine editors of other newspapers do. If I compare what it was like being editor of The Wall Street Journal—which had a larger, but much more widely dispersed circulation base—and compare it to the Post, the experience is completely different.
You raise an issue that has been debated for years: Are you a national newspaper, a local newspaper or both?
We are in a unique position among American newspapers. The newspaper itself is a local newspaper. We print half a million copies a day. We distribute them in this metropolitan area, and we distribute very few copies anywhere else. [But] the ambitions of the newspaper have been for a long time to produce journalism that is the equal of the journalism that’s produced in the national newspapers—which The Wall Street Journal has always been, and The New York Times has become.
We’re also increasingly a digital news organization. We reach the second largest digital audience of any newsroom in the country after The New York Times. And the vast majority of the people who come to us digitally come to us from outside of Washington. That audience tends to want news about politics, about foreign affairs, about regulatory matters. …So we have to serve two audiences.
Someone characterized the Post of today as a website with a newspaper attached.
We don’t think of ourselves as a website or a newspaper. We look at ourselves as a news organization. And we deliver that content on any platform that readers might want to find it. But the way people consume information is changing incredibly fast. You cannot sit still and expect people to sort of settle into a habit before some new technology comes along that disrupts those habits.
We know, for example, that fewer people now come to the website for destination reading. ...Instead, those people tend to find news where they are—and they may be on Facebook. So the Post has developed [an app] called Social Reader, which allows readers on Facebook to read their news without even leaving Facebook to go to the Post. It’s not the same as reading a newspaper, it’s not even the same as reading the news on your phone—but…every month there are 8 or 10 million people reading some of our news on Social Reader or Facebook.
You personally have a Facebook page, and a Twitter account—albeit an inactive one. How would you describe yourself in terms of social media use?
I’m a fairly active observer of what people produce on social media—somebody called me a lurker, probably not a flattering term. I don’t tweet at the moment because I don’t have the time to think things through in a way that I’d want to tweet. I realize that may not be the way the art form is conceived by other people, but I think it’s important that if you’re going to tweet, at least have something to tweet about.
We’re talking just days before the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. In the current digital era, some wonder whether modern-day Woodwards and Bernsteins are under such pressure to blog, tweet and write regularly for the Web that they can’t pursue an in-depth, elusive story.
The Post still has the investigative unit here that was founded by Bob [Woodward] after Watergate. And we continue to have dedicated investigative staff that we actually have plans to buttress soon. We have people in this newsroom today who are embarked on monthslong—and in one case yearslong—projects that we think will bear fruit and provide really important accountability journalism, the kind that the Post believes is its stock in trade. And we haven’t in any way reduced our interest in that kind of journalism.
It’s true that if you’re a reporter covering a daily beat, there are expectations that you will serve different audiences in different media, and I think it does, from time to time, strain reporters when they’re chasing a story that may go from morning until night. But we’ve also learned that you put more people on a story when it’s a hot, running story—rather than assume that one person is going to get up at 6 in the morning, start feeding the Web, and be filing the newspaper version of that same story at 10 that night.
You said earlier that you’ve received more attention in this job that you anticipated. Some of that has related to morale in the Post newsroom. In hindsight, do you wish you had devoted more attention to it?
Journalists depend utterly on change for their profession; it’s change, after all, that makes news. And yet, journalists can tend to be somewhat change averse.
I don’t doubt there are people in the newsroom who have been troubled by some of the changes that we have made in the last few years. But I think that on the whole—and I think this is the vast majority of the people in this newsroom—there is an understanding that the changes we’ve made are imperative for the Post’s survival and, indeed, for our growth and for our future viability.
The employment level in the Post newsroom is now around 600, as compared to more than 900 just over a decade or so ago. What has been the impact of this reduction on the paper’s news-gathering abilities?
I do think there is some conflation in the world of quality and of staff size that is misguided. I think [there is] an analogy that applies to our industry—as to any other big legacy industry that built up lots of costs doing something that, as technology changed and as the marketplace changed, became unnecessary. So we had a very large staff, and we were attempting to do journalism in certain ways that we just fundamentally don’t have to do anymore. Just as you no longer have to have the same number of people in the pressroom putting out a newspaper, you don’t have to have the same number of people in the newsroom putting out the newspaper.
Can you provide some examples of things you feel you no longer have to do?
An example I’ve given in the newsroom before is that if a tornado hits a trailer park in Oklahoma, if a plane crashes in Majorca, The Washington Post doesn’t bring any special value to the coverage of those events.
We’re looking for people who can do what you might call, in business school parlance, “differentiated journalism.” That’s our priority—not bulk journalism, not commodity journalism, not “cover all the same stuff that everybody else is covering” journalism. Because all that information is readily available to people through other media.
A recent New York Times report suggested that the Post’s Style staff, once at 100, is now about a quarter of that.
That may be exaggerated somewhat.
Precise numbers aside, many of your readers recall the days when they could pick up the Style section and, on a nearly daily basis, find an in-depth, informed profile. You don’t see as much of that now.
I think that there’s a certain amount of nostalgia drenched in myopia about what was.
Some of the kinds of writing you would have seen in the Style section before now appear in front of the Sports section, in front of the Metro section. …We’re also publishing more of those stories on the front page of the newspaper, because the way people consume news has changed. This notion that somehow the newspaper should be what it was is a rather quaint and illogical one.
Not long ago, many newspapers went “hyperlocal” and sought to cover just about every governmental meeting. The Post appears to have opted not to be so “granular” in its coverage.
It’s not what our readers want. We publish that information, and it doesn’t get read. Again, there’s an awful lot of criticism of newspapers that’s ill-informed and ill thought-through. We have great data now on what people expect of us, and what people read—in part because, on our website, we can see what kind of information draws an audience and what kind of audience it draws.
[Readers are] not looking for the kinds of granular “who voted which way in every school board meeting” coverage that once filled American metropolitan newspapers. In part, that’s because they can get that information so many other ways, from neighborhood listservs to the websites of the organizations themselves.
In contrast to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the Post has indicated that it has no immediate plans to charge online readers for access to most of its content. Why is that?
I don’t think we would rule out anything—but…I don’t think that what is happening today in any of the digital payment systems that I see is actually the long-term answer. I think there is a lot of experimentation, all of which may be leading in the direction of a longer-term solution. But there is still a great deal of tumult and change that has to happen before there will be a sustainable model that works well for consumers.
The Post’s daily print circulation is at just under 500,000, down from more than 750,000 a little more than a decade ago. There are now cities where readers receive a print edition two or three days a week, and are asked to go online the rest of the time. At some point, do you see the Post doing that?
Our print circulation has certainly seen some declines, but, in general, we have ebbed at a slower pace than many profitable papers in the country. …We continue to have the highest metropolitan area newspaper print circulation penetration of any paper in the country. Holding onto those readers is important to us—because we want to serve this community, and we want to be their primary source of news and information on any platform, including the traditional print newspaper.
I presume yours is a job that involves at least six-day weeks at the office.
I come in most Saturdays. ...I tend to bicycle in on Saturdays if the weather is nice, down the Crescent Trail. It’s about five miles.
What do you do to relax at home?
I tend to do a lot of walking, some running and I ride my bike. Bethesda’s a terrific place to eat. We have a lot of friends who live there; in fact, we live a block and a half from two college friends of my wife’s.
You were a Brooklyn resident in New York. Why did you opt for the suburbs when you moved to D.C.?
Schools were a big part of it. We didn’t have a lot of time to plan our move, so we zeroed in on education in the area, and Montgomery County public schools have a terrific reputation. Bethesda is a fabulous place to raise a family.
Given the current issues surrounding this business, would you and your wife—a former Los Angeles Times reporter—like to see your daughters follow you into it?
My younger daughter, Zoe, who is the editor, reporter and publisher for the Puppy Post in our basement, has already declared that she wants to be a journalist, a marine biologist and fashion designer. She’s 10. My older daughter, Aria, who is 12, is taking a more prudent path and not committing to anything like journalism at this point.
You’re one of only three people to serve as executive editor of the Post over the past 45 years. Will this be your last job in journalism?
There are so many different ways of answering that question (chuckling). I intend to be here for the long haul. I am honored to work for [Post Company Chairman] Don Graham and [Post Publisher] Katharine Weymouth. They are committed to the same things that I’m committed to—which are ensuring that The Washington Post remains a strong voice in this community and an important journalistic voice in this country. So I would very much like to be here for a long time.
Bethesda’s Louis Peck has been a Washington-based reporter and editor for nearly 35 years. He is currently on the faculty of Boston University’s Washington Journalism Program.