City Desk

Washington Alt-Weekly Retracts Little-Noticed Story

The Washington City Paper today retracts a story that it published last summer about a top manager at the Washington Post. Published in the paper’s July 18 edition, the story—“On the National Stage” by Editor Erik Wemple—focused on the controversy surrounding Susan Glasser, the Post’s ranking editor on national affairs.

Glasser was cast as a visionary with the brains to remake a paper in great need of fresh energy and ideas. Though this miserable piece of journalism discussed Glasser’s sharp-elbowed ways, it essentially sided with the view of the Post leadership—namely, that such is the price of progress. The money quote belonged to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Glasser’s deputy, who said, “Do we need to be shaken up a bit? Yeah, we do. The old sort of fat, happy, complacent days are over. We’re losing subscribers.”

That sentiment compromised the longevity of the story, which was marred by misplaced emphasis. Yes, Glasser is a smart newswoman, but she’s really distinguishing herself with bad management. Washington City Paper should have listened more closely to the various sources who cast her as a train wreck.

Glasser’s detractors have recently found a more attentive ear. This winter, Tom Wilkinson, a veteran editor at the Post, conducted a series of interviews with national staffers under Glasser’s supervision. According to three staffers who provided input, Wilkinson plumbed at least three topics—Glasser’s management skills, her ability to communicate, and morale in the national section.

Wilkinson in late March circulated a written report that is allegedly critical of Glasser to a short list of Post managers. Wilkinson refused to comment on his findings. Glasser declined comment.

Though Wilkinson routinely investigates problems in the newsroom, the ambit of his national-section study has no apparent parallel at the Post in recent years. The whole effort marks the masthead’s recognition that staffers’ complaints about Glasser—whether whispered between pods or exchanged via non-company e-mail accounts—can no longer be dismissed as standard newsroom carping.

The gripes cluster around what staffers describe as Glasser’s top-down approach to newsgathering. With an assist from Chandrasekaran, Glasser has a vision for the stories that her people should be covering, and sometimes other views have trouble sneaking into the mix. Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell addressed this very point in a March 23 column detailing how the paper’s national desk—as well as Metro—turned down a staffer’s pitch to get a jump on the story about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright.

Late last year, national political writers proposed doing something splashy on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee weeks before his win in the Iowa caucuses made him a mainstream media fixation. They didn’t get far with their bosses.

Glasser is colliding with decades of newsroom tradition. Unlike the New York Times, where the bosses think nothing of dialing up story after story, the Post is a reporter’s paper, one where ideas make their way up from the bottom. Reversing the prevailing current was bound to kick up some static.

Cultural clashes, however, don’t figure as prominently in the Glasser indictment as do attitude and arrogance. When contacted for this story, two of her colleagues volunteered the same observation: In meetings, Glasser goes out of her way to make clear that she’s the top expert on the issue at hand, whatever the issue may be. Communication is another trouble spot—unless the story is about politics or involves one of Glasser’s star reporters, say staffers, she has trouble feigning interest in the conversation. “She looks right past you, right over your shoulder,” says a Post staffer.

Linked to the haughtiness is occasional scorn for the paper of yore. “The new regime is thinking they’re the new brilliant talents of the place,” says a Post veteran. “Part of that, yeah, is that they’re dismissive of anything that came before them.”

Plain bad judgment also weaves its way into the narrative. Last year, Glasser managed to question the productivity of Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank—at a time when Milbank was doing his weekly columns plus special commentaries for the paper’s profiles of presidential candidates. Milbank, never known as a whiner, raised some concerns, and the two have since reconciled. When contacted on this matter, Milbank refused to talk specifics but did say, “The concerns that I voiced last year have been addressed, and I like the direction Susan is taking us in.” Glasser declined comment.

It all wouldn’t be quite so bad for Glasser if she weren’t pissing off her equals as well as her charges. In January, she met with star sportswriter Eli Saslow and told him that she’d talked with other editors about hiring him to a key national reporting slot. One person she hadn’t consulted, however, was Saslow’s boss, top Sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, according to newsroom sources. The slight infuriated Garcia-Ruiz. Glasser declined comment.

To the Post subscriber, of course, none of this crap matters. The news product that Glasser has put on the Web and the street each day is solid. Sure– the coverage could use a fresh dose of old-fashioned scoopage, as the Wright and Huckabee incidents illustrate. But there’s good analysis, some probing narratives—especially of the multiple implosions within the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign—and plenty of volume, thanks to the resources that Glasser has managed to marshal in her section. The Trail, her online-and-print collection of campaign anecdotage, is a hit, and the section is reportedly preparing to launch a similar product in the area of national security coverage.

Big shots at the Post, though, worry about sustainable agriculture. If Glasser is pissing off people as central to the brand as Milbank, how far is the section from a brain drain that’ll hurt the product? Glasser declined comment. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., too, refused to comment on these matters, citing the manager's personnel comment exemption.

Glasser took over the paper's 75-strong national section in late 2006 after a celebrated run at Outlook, the Sunday opinion section. If ever there was a perfect posting for someone with her skill set: Plenty of opportunities to package and edit and conceptualize–and only a skeleton staff to manage!

Glasser’s efforts to upgrade national coverage have apparently left little time for introspection. In a phone conversation about her work, she received many opportunities to acknowledge the Wilkinson probe and perhaps concede that she’d screwed up a thing or two. She passed up each one. Glasser did open up about the challenges and successes of national under her leadership, an inventory that includes The Trail, Michael Dobbs’ Fact-Checker, and a “very strong emphasis on enterprise journalism throughout the staff.”

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Comments

  1. #1

    Is there any reason on God's Green Earth for one journalist to write a story about another journalist? Not that I am aware as a reader, in fact I find this kind of psychosis amongst journalists obsessed with themselves and mightily confused about their reader's interest in their personal business lives to be almost frightening.

    If I may suggest that the City Paper writers take a 2-3 hour meeting with an organizational therapist to discuss why they might think they'll get more readers with articles about topics that no one but themselves care about? I think Molly Ivins is right on the money, the city paper has decided to improve itself, post-layoffs by printing articles that are smaller and less interesting to the readers. Is that success?

  2. #2

    Don,

    Yours is an attitude often encountered in the comments around here. I, for one, am mystified by it, probably just as much as you're mystified about our "psychosis." It's especially mystifying considering the criticism regularly flung at other media outlets. When we report on the Post--and we're one of the few places that do so--it's often dismissed as the product of envy or personal vendetta.

    I don't get it: The media--and in this town, the Post in particular--are institutions with great power and influence. Just as I, as a political columnist, examine the inner workings of the government, why shouldn't we welcome the same treatment of the Post?

    Is it that any profit-making journalistic enterprise should be precluded from writing about any other one? In that case, keep in mind that the Post itself employs a full time media columnist.

    I'd also dispute that Post biz doesn't interest anyone but us. (To wit: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2008/03/31/last-weeks-most-popular-blog-posts-2/) Sure, this stuff appeals to a specialized Romenesko-reading population, but it's a substantial population nonetheless. In other words, just cause you don't care for it doesn't mean that everybody else doesn't.

  3. #3

    Unfortunately, Don, Molly Ivans is dead and so is not saying anything these days. And if you don't like stories about Washington journalism, then don't read them. There are other items in the City Paper that might deal with your interests.
    As for the subject of this column, I can only agree that national coverage of the Washington Post has done nothing but decline in the last year. But so has Post coverage across the board, especially the business section left stranded and floundering by the collapse of a Carlyle Group fund. It took the Post two full days to find out about it. Carlyle's office is located at 11th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and includes many prominent Washingtonians on its payroll or board.
    In local news, compare rich details that appear in the accounts of stories in the Express and Washington Times, compared to those in the Post. Ditto Sports, except women's basketball, which the Post follows with dogged attention.
    What Glasser and everyone else working at the Post today needs to realize is it they who are to blame for this decline in standards. I think this is the reason for the 10 percent drop in revenues and swoon in Post circulation. If they were putting out a compelling newspaper people wanted to read, this would not be happening.

  4. #4

    Glasser did not "decline comment." She declined to comment.

  5. #5

    I'm really confused by the headline on this blog post. "Retracts little-noticed story"? Seems that it would only resonate with journalistic navel-gazers (of which I am admittedly one). Takes too many paragraphs to get to the point of your piece. Then I read it and think, "who cares?"

  6. #6

    Story is dead-on. Glasser's deputy, the money quote guy, has the same problems

  7. #7

    Most of the concrete examples in your story of "bad management" and "bad communication" sound more like editorial disagreements, where reporters are pissed off that they're not in charge.

    Reporters are smart people, and realize that complaints about not getting their way won't go over well, so they try to cast everything in terms of bad management skills.

  8. #8

    The Post, and every other media outlet in the world, need their watchdogs, also, and for 25-plus years, The Washington City Paper has been a great watchdog on the Post and other local media. Yes, the media does need a watchdog and media institutions do need to be reported on--that's part of freedom of the press. At least the great City Paper is doing something like this--not many others in town are doing this. And at least one other local media outlet only publishes sickening puff pieces on the Post and other media that never scratch the surface. Good for the City Paper, and good for the area that there are media commenting on media. Howard Kurtz, of course, should be praised for regularly reporting on the media, but he really needs to focus more on media hard news rather than continually reporting on surface-only television news-readers.

  9. #9

    Yaaaawwwn.

    And yet, I foolishly read this diatribe. Someone hit me in the head with a ball bat.

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