The Washington Post CEO Fred Ryan (left) and executive editor Marty Baron addressing the newspaper’s newsroom in 2014.
Linda Davidson / The Washington Post
- Some insiders have concerns about how the Post will define its coverage after Trump leaves office and how it will deal with lingering tensions over its handling of race.
- Sources believe that Marty Baron will stay on as editor until the company can return to working from the office.
- Possible successors include Post alum Kevin Merida and national editor Steve Ginsberg.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In late 2015, Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida told his boss, executive editor Marty Baron, that he was leaving for a senior job at ESPN.
Baron urged Merida, a well-liked figure who had worked at the paper for 22 years, to stay. He reminded him that as the number two person in the newsroom, he was in the position to be the Post’s next editor, according to a person Merida told about the conversations at the time.
Merida ultimately moved to ESPN, where his responsibilities include leading “The Undefeated,” the network’s brand covering the intersection of race, sports, and culture. But as Post staffers anticipate Baron’s retirement this year, Merida’s name is back on some people’s minds as they view him as a leading candidate to take the top job and become the Post’s first Black editor.
The next editor of the Post will inherit a company at a journalistic and financial high point – but at its biggest moment of transition since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the paper in 2013. The Post is a profitable company that, along with The New York Times, dominated the biggest political story of a generation. Just like the Times, the Post had an internal reckoning on race this summer over issues including a lack of diversity and pay disparities, which the next top editor will have to address.
Meanwhile, the twin figures that have most influenced the Post’s editorial priorities – Baron and Donald Trump – are soon heading for the exits, raising the question of how the Post will define itself in the years ahead.
Read more: New York Times insiders say tensions are still simmering over its response to the ‘Caliphate’ disaster
“Everyone is worried about what happens after Trump,” said one Post reporter.
This story is based on conversations with nine current and former Post staffers. They told Insider that while they’re happy with the financial success – and the luxury of a Bezos backstop just in case – they are concerned about how the Post will adapt to the post-Trump era. Tensions, they added, still linger over unresolved diversity issues inside the newsroom.
The Post has ‘unresolved’ tensions on race
This past summer, the Post was among the many newsrooms – like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times – to deal with its own record on race as protests spread across the country following the killing of George Floyd.
The tensions spilled out into public view. Black journalists at the Post shared on social media their experiences of being passed over for opportunities. Their stories echoed a 2019 report from the Post Guild, the union representing staffers, which found large pay disparities between white men and women as well as people of color.
Read more: Salaries at The New Yorker magazine reveal major pay disparities, with women of color making significantly less than their coworkers across the board
Amid the backlash, the Post announced new newsroom positions focused on covering race and elevated Krissah Thompson, a veteran Black journalist at the paper, to a new position of managing editor for diversity and inclusion.
But some staffers described the Post’s moves as insufficient. They contrasted the paper’s summer to the more high-profile episode at the New York Times over its publication of an opinion piece by Senator Tom Cotton calling on the government to use the military to put down protests. The subsequent internal revolt, led in large part by staffers of color, resulted in the ouster of opinion page editor James Bennet. While Post staffers weren’t calling for top editors to be fired, some said they watched with envy as the Times was forced to contend with employees’ demands for accountability.
The Washington Post/Getting Images
“I would much rather be The New York Times as opposed to being the Post – having these ghosts be unreconciled and having the tensions unresolved,” said Darren Sands, a Black former Washington Post reporter who worked at the paper from August to December (Disclosure: Sands and the author of this article were former colleagues at BuzzFeed News).
Sands pointed to his own role on the general assignment desk covering the coronavirus pandemic as an example of the Post’s struggles.
“I have this perspective on the coronavirus because of who I am. We weren’t nailing it on race when it came to this big story. There wasn’t a robust conversation editorially that I was a part of about the way that the virus was affecting our community,” he said. Sands said he tried to force those kinds of conversations unsuccessfully. (A Post spokesperson did not comment on unresolved tensions on race at the paper).
The next editor will likely also face questions about the Post’s social media policy, which bars reporters from posting anything that could be perceived as political or showing bias. Other publications, including Insider, have similar social media policies.
Last year, the Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted a link to an article detailing sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant shortly after his death. In a letter, more than 200 Post colleagues came to the defense of Sonmez, who is a survivor of assault. (Sonmez, who still works at the Post, declined to comment for this story.)
Read more: The Washington Post says Felicia Sonmez’s tweets about Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case were ‘ill-timed,’ but not in violation of the newsroom’s social media policy
Following the incident, the paper collected recommendations from a group of staffers about social media use. The report, first obtained by The New York Times, criticized “management’s reliance in part on digital mob reactions [which] has created an erratic approach to enforcement… and makes women and people of color more susceptible to discipline.”
The internal quarrel pitted many in the rank-and-file against Barron and his top group of editors. But there has been no major update to the Post’s in-house policies, which sources attributed to Baron’s tight grip over the institution. “For better or worse, Marty is a strongman,” said one former Post staffer.
Talk has turned to Baron’s successor
Baron’s succession has been a favorite topic of discussion inside the Post for years. Portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the movie “Spotlight” as chilly and inflexible, Baron, 66, is one of the most famous journalists in the country. The speculation has been aided by Baron himself. He has reportedly mused to colleagues for years about retiring.
Baron is expected to stay on at least until employees can safely return to working from the newsroom, likely meaning the summer or fall, Post sources told Insider. Earlier this summer, Baron was thought to stay on only through the inauguration, they said.
Kevin Merida, ESPN SVP and editor-in-chief of ‘The Undefeated,’ is widely tipped as a successor to Marty Baron.
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Merida’s name has come up for years as a possible successor. New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reported that he is seen by insiders at both the Post and also the Los Angeles Times as a favored candidate. (Merida declined to comment for this story).
Three staffers said if the paper chooses an internal candidate, the most likely choice is Steve Ginsberg, the paper’s national editor who has worked at the paper since 1994. Ginsberg oversees much of the Post’s high-impact journalism, including its Trump coverage. (Vanity Fair previously reported on Ginsberg’s potential ascension). Ginsberg did not return a request for comment.
Baron also did not return a request for comment. In December, he told CNN that his decision to retire was “TBD.”
“What you have sent us about potential searches and successors is inaccurate,” said a Post spokesperson, who declined to specify any inaccuracies. “If and when the time comes, we will be transparent in our process.”
For now, Baron is still at the helm, guiding coverage and even occasionally popping into the Post’s “typos” Slack channel to correct errors, one Post staffer said.
There is still the possibility of a surprise hire. The next editor will be the first selected during the ownership of Bezos, who inherited Baron when he bought the paper. According to two sources familiar with the matter, publisher Fred Ryan has indicated he intends to use a headhunter for a national search, but a formal process does not yet appear to be underway.
Can the Post find purpose, post-Trump?
Some staffers said they feel lucky to be working at a healthy organization during a deeply insecure period in the media industry.
While many other news workers faced layoffs and furloughs due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Post started the year by handing out a $2,021 thank-you bonus to staffers. “How can morale not be good if you’re looking around and you’re getting bonuses in a year when every other place aside is shedding jobs?” one reporter said.
As the Post gets ready to cover the Biden administration – on Tuesday it announced its new White House reporting team – it is also making a broad investment outside the political coverage that has come to define the paper, ramping up its international bureaus to better cover global breaking news 24/7.
Baron (center) applauds staff as reporters celebrate winning the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2016.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The paper plans to add more than 150 new positions in 2021, which would bring its newsroom to more than 1,000 journalists, the largest in its history, Ryan said in an end-of-year note.
There is still some fear, staffers acknowledged, that the void left by Trump leaving office coupled with Baron’s eventual departure will deprive the paper of the strong sense of purpose of the Trump years, when it adopted the slogan “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Read more: Trump administration staffers are getting snubbed while hunting for jobs. One recruiter tried to place 6 of them and couldn’t land any interviews.
Across the media industry, Trump coverage has been a huge contributor to readership and subscribers. The Post met the moment with a long list of Trump scoops, from the “Access Hollywood” tape to the president’s “shithole countries” remark to his recent attempt to influence officials in Georgia. In 2020, the Post increased digital subscriptions about 50% to about 3 million.
The Post “decided that we’re the politics paper,” one reporter said.
But how the paper will define itself in the Biden years is far from clear.
“Trump made it easy to know what the identity of the Post was,” said a former staffer. “Donald Trump was a local news story.”