A not-so-loving look at the Washington Post’s Marcus Brauchli from the Columbia Journalism Review—and my own take from afar

image In The Solomon Scandals, George McWilliams runs a word-mill at the fictitious Washington Telegram—using his Rolex to time reporters writing stories or pumping news sources on the phone. A little at odds with the style and conduct of most executive editors today? Definitely. But that’s Mac, come down to D.C. from New York after careers with the Herald Tribune, the OSS and a Wall Street firm. In the words of narrator Jon Stone, McWilliams is remaking the whole paper “to reflect his ambitions for the Telegram and the rest of us.”

So is Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli—not an OSS alum or currency trader but also a Columbia University graduate and dedicated numbers-cruncher, as well as ex-editor of the Wall Street Journal—another Mac?

I hardly had Brauchli (pronounced BROW-klee) in mind when I dreamed up the McWilliams character decades ago. But if you go by a portrait of him and the Washington Post in the Columbia Journalism Review, you might see a few overlaps. The CJR piece starts off with some recollections from Karl Vick, who was on the scene at the Post’s New York bureau when Brauchli walked in, wearing a tuxedo that he had donned for a fundraising dinner. “Essentially,” CJR contributing editor Scott Sherman quotes Vick, “Marcus said, ‘I’m dressed like an undertaker for a reason. I’m bearing bad news.” The Post was so keen on reducing costs that when it shut down domestic bureaus in New York and elsewhere, it wouldn’t even let the bureau chiefs stay in the field and work from home. Sherman goes on to depict Brauchli as not driving Post people to mutiny but not exactly endearing himself to the crew, either. He also comes across as somewhat sharkish, in the Mac vein, ruthlessly playing newsroom politics during his career at the Wall Street Journal.

That said, I’ll not diss Brauchli at this point as simply a real-life Mac—and not merely because he comes from a more genteel background, has been at the Post just two years and deserves more time before anyone reaches a final conclusion.

First off, consider Brauchli’s present job as accurately depicted in CJR; it isn’t to grow the Post but to shrink it and keep it alive. At least some funeral-directing is unavoidable for now if he’s to please his bosses.

Second, numbers crunching isn’t such a bad skill to have after the Post’s decline in daily print circulation from 830,000 in 1994 to 556,000 today. It will help to be able to identify sources of revenue and losses and come up with trends and solutions. If Brauchli and the Post’s business side can implement successful new revenue models—good for the employees and the community at large, not just the shareholders—his numbers-oriented background might well work out to the positive. The issue is whether he and the rest of the Post management can mix imagination with analytical and mathematic ability. And will they listen to people inside the Post with innovative ideas? One recent change for the better was the Post’s new focus on tags for news stories (not everyone is pro-tags, but they certainly drive their share of traffic to the Solomon Scandals blog and, I suspect, a little site called the Huffington Post). This is the Google era, after all, and things so often intertwine—for example, those tags might work not just as Web traffic boosters but also as as one way to help determine ad selection and placement. Simply put, we’re talking about much more than spreadsheet reading.

Third, although Brauchli is low in lovability compared to Leonard Downie, his popular predecessor, it’s possible that some of his lieutenants can make up for that deficiency. While Mac may have strolled through the newsroom, Rolex ready, simultaneously menacing and charming his reporters, Brauchli’s style of management at the Post is less hands-on. Will it matter? If you’re on deadline, won’t it be sufficient if your direct boss is cheering you on?

Fourth, keep in mind that Brauchli has just so much control and in many cases will simply be reflecting the goals of Publisher Katharine Weymouth, who lacks Donald Graham’s street-level journalistic experience and attachments to the staff. She wanted the digital and paper sides integrated, a tough job, given the differences between the two of them in culture and editorial methods, and the result was that Jim Brady quit as editor of Washingtonpost.com and today oversees TBD.com, a local rival to the Post. Brauchli is the guy who has to deal with platforms ranging from print to mobile phones. He may well have made the same choice, but that’s really Ms. Weymouth’s doing, and I currently think it was a wise strategy despite the unfortunate loss of Brady. Likewise, in terms of the scope of influence, I doubt we can blame Brauchli for the Post Company’s decision to boost dividends rather than sending the money to the Post newsroom. Similarly, although Leonard Downie probably would have raised his eyebrows higher and pushed back all the way, it was Weymouth rather than Brauchli who originated the problematic idea of holding salons at her house and charging lobbyists as much as $250,000 for access.

How will it all turn out? Maybe history will remember Brauchli as being to the Washington Post what Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was to his department during the Vietnam War: too much of a numbers and top-down guy despite his belated reservations about our presence in Vietnam. None other than Katharine Graham, the Post’s Watergate-era publisher, was a friend of McNamara’s. But then she was also the cheerleader and protector of Ben Bradee, who, despite his philosophy of “creative tension,” was often in management style the opposite of the remote McNamara. If Brauchli can develop his Bradlee side, or encourage his lieutenants to do the same, the Post will be better off. In the end, however, charisma and fuzziness by themselves can take you only so far, and that is why, as I see it from across the Potomac, it’s too early to write off Brauchli.

One sign of whether there’s hope for the Post in general: Just how long will it take for the Post to improve its Web site, which Sherman justifiably says is “harder to navigate than other major newspaper Web sites”? Ideally the chaotic site won’t serve as a permanent metaphor for the Post under Brauchi’s editorship. Especially, as a Northern Virginia resident, I’d love to see the Post have a coherent vision in regard to local and hyperlocal coverage. In that respect and others, good luck to Marcus Brauchli and everyone else at the paper.

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David Rothman

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