City Desk

Brauchli: Washington Post Swamped with Media Calls


Yesterday, I interviewed Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli for a story I was writing on the Washington Post Magazine. I was working on allegations that Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth may have played a part in killing a magazine story written by a freelancer who happened to be a friend of hers.

And as I found out in this morning's edition of the Washington Post, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz was working on those same allegations. Kurtz's story detailed how Matthew Mendelsohn had worked for months on a long narrative about Lindsay Ess, a woman who had had all four limbs amputated. When Mendelsohn mentioned the piece to Weymouth at a social event, she just about gagged, exclaiming that this was just another in a too-long lineage of depressing Washington Post Magazine stories. Of course, the publisher hadn't yet read the piece, but from the sound of it, BLECH! Depressing!

As Kurtz laid out in his thoroughly reported, perfectly timed piece that blew all my efforts out of the water, Weymouth didn't keep her thoughts to herself. Rather, she mentioned it to top editors, and the piece ended up on the spike.

And thus the question posed so timelily by the Kurtz piece: Did the publisher of the Post kill a story?

When I put this question to Brauchli, I got a definitive answer. The publisher, he said, played no role in killing the piece, which died via a "normal editorial decision." "Whatever Katharine may have felt about the piece was immaterial to the editorial process," said Brauchli in his chat with me.

That was a strong statement, I told Brauchli, but I told him I still needed to speak with the editor of the piece to verify the normality of this decision. I mentioned that I'd tried to reach the editor—Sydney Trent—but hadn't gotten a call back. Trent has since declared that she'll have no comment.

The top guy couldn't have been less sympathetic to my sourcing problem. "I don’t think it’s necessary for us to lay out all of the processes in the newspaper to make decisions," he snapped. "Newspapers spend way too much time explaining themselves." He went on: "Too many people call our newsroom. There are endless queries on our journalism these days. I think it’s better for us to focus on producing journalism than on our process."

When I opened the paper next morning to see the timely Kurtz piece (have I linked to that thing yet?), I discovered that the magazine editor had indeed explained her decision to kill the Mendelsohn piece. Here's the quote, which comes from a well-reported, timely piece that indirectly prompted a bout of screaming and swearing at a certain D.C. residence this morning: "Sydney Trent, the magazine's acting editor at the time, said she declined to run the story 'because it was clear the newspaper wanted to move in a different direction. That handwriting was very clearly on the wall.'"

Hmmm—is that what you'd call a "normal editorial decision"? On the face of things, it sounds like an editor frustrated with management, not business as usual.

So I put the question today to Brauchli—just how "normal" was this decision? His response:

I'd made clear to the magazine's editors that we were shifting direction, away from overlong, occasionally overwrought articles and towards livelier, more engaging journalism. Story lengths in the magazine were often too long, subjects were sometimes remote, and tenor wasn't always consistent with what other editors and I believe our readers want in a Sunday magazine. When Mr. Mendelsohn's piece landed, we were in the early stages of making the changes that the magazine editors knew were coming, and they acted in a perfectly sensible way to begin implementing those changes.

I should add that I have read Mr. Mendelsohn's piece, and it is a fine article, illustrated with some beautiful photography. Our decision not to publish it was not predicated on the quality of his work, but on the changes we were making to the magazine.

We interrupt this overlong blog item to consider that last sentence. So the magazine made a decision about a story that wasn't based on the quality of the story? Now there's an editorial principle for ya.

Actually, Brauchli's statement about the story quality not affecting the decision may be dead on. Mendelsohn says that he got the bad news about the piece from a junior editor at the magazine. Quite naturally, Mendelsohn wanted to know what the mag's boss—Trent—had to say about the piece. "I asked my editor what she—meaning, the acting editor of the magazine—thought of it, and there was a moment of silence and she said, 'She didn’t read it.'" (Update: Trent just e-mailed to say that she did indeed read the story.)

Normal editorial decision?

Executive editor's protestations notwithstanding, a publisher's opinion about a pending story is a terribly hard thing to bottle up, especially in a newsroom filled with Twittering, texting, e-mailing, mouth-talking gossips. "I probably should have kept my mouth shut," says Weymouth. "I fully expected them to publish it." As evidence that she didn't imagine she'd influence the editorial process, Weymouth noted that she'd been pushing for "four and a half years" for a wedding column—a feature that appeared only recently in the pages of the Post.

Update: Check out the piece by Slate's Jack Shafer on why the boss needs to be careful about critical ketchup-and-mustard decisions.

Stay tuned for City Desk's Next Piece on the Washington Post Magazine: What Do L&B Mean to You?

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  • edward

    I read the rejected piece, and found it way too long, meandering and overwritten. Why do you need to dig through irrelevancies like missing stage clothing, a section of verse, and Chik-Fil-A, etc., to get to the point. So the publisher didn't like it. Doesn't she have a vote in saying something doesn't pass muster as far as she is concerned? She pays the bills. She's trying to recast a Sunday magazine in desparate need of being revamped.
    The other point I would make is that the story involves a woman in Richmond, which has already appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (as the author very cleverly notes). The events that led to her problems occurred in a Richmond hospital. If the Washington Post is to survive, it needs to concentrate on its circulation area

  • Kelly

    The point is she said something "didn't pass muster" without ever having read it. She's a businesswoman, not an editor.

    She's a bull blustering her way through the Post's china shop, making stupid decisions that affect the newsroom and its credibility (hello? paid salon anyone?). That's what I take away as important from this fiasco, not whether you liked the rejected story or not. Even if it were the worst piece ofshit ever (which it wasn't), it wasn't her place to cow editors into backing away from it based on some ridiculous notion that advertisers wanted rainbows and puppy dogs. That's not journalism.

  • Arthur Delaney

    I wonder if Gene Weingarten's story about people who leave their babies in the car would have passed muster. (Seriously, I wonder.)

    Being a Washington Post subscriber is starting to feel like being a Redskins fan...

  • 4m123

    Right: she pushed for 4 1/2 years for a wedding column . . . and got it.

  • toughy

    There have been at least eight stories in the Richmond paper that i found, and one in the local alternative paper. There have also been fund-raising drives. This all happened in 2007-2008. Isn't the Post a little late coming to this story in 2009?

  • paul maryniak

    your take and those comments that agree with you are so utterly naive. besides not being very good, the killed piece isw something i'd expect in some second rate city magazine.

  • toughy

    Erik: It just occurred to me you missed a golden opportunity here to run the story in the City Paper under the headline: The Story WPO Publisher Weymouth Killed."

  • Tom T.

    "I wonder if Gene Weingarten’s story about people who leave their babies in the car would have passed muster. (Seriously, I wonder.)"

    What is there to wonder about? That story WAS published.

  • CapitalClimate

    You might want to look at how conflicts of interest are expanded in the online arena:
    WaPo Blog Policy Promotes Climate Astroturfing

  • Just saying

    A few observations:
    1. It is well within Ms Weymouth's perogative as publisher to set the tone and direction of every section of the newspaper, including the Sunday magazine.
    2. It is not surprising that a number of hard-nosed inked-stained wretches would grumble and mumble about the change from mauldin and overwraught Sunday magazine pieces to the print equivalent of happy talk.
    3. While the "salon parties" were definitely something to be concerned about, the latest seems like a tempest in a teapot. Did Ms Weymouth directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally affect the future of the freelancer's piece? Who knows, and frankly who cares?
    Ultimately the buck stops with her, despite Mr. Brauchli's protestations to the contrary.

  • Alec Ethanson

    Edward (comment 1): A magazine is not a daily newspaper and something like Lindsay's story, taking place in the Commonwealth of Virginia, has inherent regional appeal. Do you live under a rock? Do you not care about anything that happens outside your basement? Way to be curious.

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  • Fairfax reader

    I really want to know (and obviously never will) how many of the Washington Post magazine stories that I have read, savored, and occasionally been moved to tears over, would never have been done in this "new" shallower, Parade magazine version of the Washington Post magazine, or would been made perkier and shorter.

    I have liked the new weekly fun features like people hyping their new small businessess, the car-accident-can't-look-away dating stories, the reader anecdotes in response to a question, now and then photos of the same DC scene, and personal vignettes from DC bigwigs. I hate the comparison game of photos where there are different details between them.

    But the only real reason I open the magazine has been the long form journalism, which used to be really good. Gene Weingarten's serious pieces, including Little Diomed Island, have been among the best. Without the strong articles, the magazine's going in the recycling bin unread.

  • JTFloore

    a publisher or senior editor at the washington post probably does not have to actually "kill" a story he/she dislikes. in many cases all they've got to do is hint that they don't like it. then most editors below them will follow the hint and kill it and make up some excuse to explain their decision. isn't that how alot of people further their careers, by not making waves, by going with the flow, by always refusing, in effect, to talk truth to power?

  • Doctor Biobrain

    I think the real story here is that the Post has decided to focus its Sunday magazine on lightweight fluff in order to sell more ads. While this article getting cut makes that obvious, I think the bigger implication shouldn't be missed. The free-market just gave us another source of fluff journalism.

    Yes, in these times of trouble, what we REALLY need is another wedding column. Brilliant.

  • Valda

    I disagree with commenter 14, Dr. BioBrain. Now that I know the Washington Post has a wedding column (and surely it must be more like "Celebrations", to include couples who aren't actually married according to the Federal government) I will be sure to check it out and provide the WashPo with valuable clickthroughs and eyeballs. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to scan the Sunday Times' (NY, not Washington, London, or Calcutta) Vows section and play the "How the hell did THEY get in there?" game. I am a master at it, especially when they publish the "Vows" of gay couples (gay marriage isn't legal in New York.) I remember whooping with glee when I read about the 50s-ish guy who was the Sulzbergers' gardener! Make no mistake: a good, solid wedding column (as I'm sure Katharine Weymouth is producing, perhaps personally? Her mother is certainly quite social) is the surest sign of a quality publication.
    I approve. Highly.

  • david

    Heck, this is not surprising. The publisher of the Post's weekly papers outside D.C. has been pushing and killing stories for years. If you are a friend of his, expect your stories to run and editorials to follow. If you are on his bad side, watch out. The staff needs to keep their jobs so no one can speak up. Weymouth must be following that lead.

  • Toutatis

    paul maryniak and edward, your posts might carry a little weight if you were literate. The WaPo is a paper on the edge of very rapid decline. It's between a rock and a hard place. It's subscribers are by and large older people with education and a sense of history and an understanding of the significance of a well-functioning news media. It's publisher and chief editors are largely uneducated or ideological averse to literate discourse and fact; who totally lack any such education, sense, or understanding of the significance. No paper of significance would retain a warmonger like Fred Hiatt. Over. Done. Shut it down. It has outlived its usefulness. If we could subscribe only to the Food, Home, Health and Real Estate sections, we would. It's main pages are dispensable and are of interest only for the humor. Come on back Catherine, you would be forgiven anything. Disown this monster child/publisher.

  • asc

    "So the magazine made a decision about a story that wasn’t based on the quality of the story? Now there’s an editorial principle for ya."

    Don't editors always reject quality stories? There are hundreds of talented journalists out there, writing thousands of quality stories. But a magazine can only publish so many, and reserves the right to define its own identity. I expect "quality" stories in New York and The New Yorker, but expect the stories each prints to be distinct to each magazine's voice and vision. "Car and Driver" isn't going to publish a report on cheese-making,whatever the quality (of the article, not the cheese), and Cheesemaker's Monthly isn't going to take a "quality" look back at the Delorean years.

    Now whether a publisher should be making it clear wht "advertisers" prefer is another story...

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  • Kelly

    "Now whether a publisher should be making it clear wht “advertisers” prefer is another story…"

    No, that's exactly what THIS story is about.

    Mendelson's piece was not a story on cheese for Car and Driver. It was assigned by Post editors. And then spiked by those same editors antsy about rocking the boat with their publisher, who decided she didn't like the story without ever having read it.

    That's not good journalism.

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  • edward

    From some of these comments, there is clearly a misunderstanding about the role of a publisher. Might I recall that during Watergate, Ben Bradlee took a Woodward-Burnstein story to Katharine Graham to see if she wanted to publish it. Famously, she said yes. But there was the lingering option that she could have said no, with all that might have meant.
    Weymouth's role is similar. She is setting a tone for the newspaper, which she owns. She has positioned her office in the newsroom, which is unusual. I vehemently object to the changes she has engineered, and think they have led to a very pallid and wan paper filled with ridiculous pseudo-religion stories on faith written by people who have none, and feel-good pop pyschology garbage. But it is her property and her money. If she wants to spend it that way, that is her decision. If she doesn't want a story to appear in the newspaper, that is also her decision.

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  • Napkin Roosevelt

    Hey, what happened to the story you teased at the end of this column? The New wapo mag manages to be full of fluff AND an eyesore. what the crap are they thinking over there? Whatever's going on, I hope you find out.

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