“This Is Not, No Matter What You May Have Heard About Ben Bradlee, a Dog Eat Dog Business”

By Jack Limpert


The movie of All the President’s Men reinforced the idea that Woodward and Bernstein had to fight off other Washington Post reporters.

For most of its 50 years, the Washingtonian has had an editorial intern program—each spring, summer, and fall, four or five young people worked with us for three or four months. They did a lot of fact-checking but they also earned the minimum wage, worked with writers and editors on stories, and met with all the key people at the magazine.

I usually was the first editor to meet with the new group and I tried to give them a feel for how we worked. I always made the case that journalism was not, as they may have heard, a dog eat dog business, that I had learned over the years that much of the satisfaction of being a journalist was working together to do great stories.

Part of the reason for making that case was the sense that many of the interns had seen the movie All the President’s Men and had read about Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein. At one point in the Watergate reporting the national staff at the Washington Post had tried to take the story away from Woodward and Bernstein, the two young metro reporters, and Bradlee had become known for fostering “creative tension” in the newsroom. Jeff Himmelman, in Yours in Truth, his book about Bradlee, said some people called the Post newsroom “a snake pit, a place where everyone was striving to get ahead.”

I wanted to let the interns know that at the magazine we worked very collaboratively, that there was no snake pit. I made the case that when I had helped other journalists, the end result was that sometime later they then helped me even more, that almost every time I had seen a journalist try to put down a fellow journalist, it had boomeranged.

I told them about my biggest career turning point—I had been at the Washingtonian eight years and was in New York City as part of a Folio panel discussion on editing. While walking through a hotel lobby, a man introduced himself, said he had just bought Baltimore magazine, and could we talk for a few minutes about what makes a magazine successful. We sat down, he asked good questions, and for an hour I told him pretty much everything I knew.

Two years later, the Washingtonian was continuing to grow, Baltimore magazine seemed to be getting better, and one March morning Loc Phillips, the Washingtonian’s owner, stopped at my office door and asked me to come with him. In his office was Phil Merrill, the owner of Baltimore magazine. Loc said, “I want you to meet the Washingtonian’s new owner.”

I didn’t tell Loc that Phil and I already had met. Phil and I shook hands and worked together for 27 years. The moral of the story, I told the interns, was that they’d be amazed by how helping other journalists would over the years help their own careers.
Is the atmosphere that different at a daily newspaper? Yes, there is competition to get stories on page one—that’s where Bradlee stoked the competitive fires at the Post. Susan Baer, until recently an editor-writer at the Washingtonian, had earlier worked at the Baltimore Sun and she’s married to Mike Abramowitz, who worked for Bradlee and then Len Downie at the Washington Post. I asked Susan if she and Mike also had found daily newspaper journalism to be more collaborative than competitive.

She said Mike had worked briefly for Ben Bradlee but mostly for Len Downie. “Mike says reporters were encouraged to work together and help each other out, which they did. There was some private and personal competition among reporters but that wasn’t the culture that was fostered at the Post.”

Susan about working at the Baltimore Sun: “My experience at the Sun was the same. There was a lot of camaraderie in the Washington bureau. We often teamed up on stories or contributed to and edited each other’s stories. I wouldn’t hesitate to seek help from colleagues—editors, fellow reporters, columnists like Jack Germond and Jules Witcover—on everything from story ideas to sources.

“We also bonded over our efforts to turn out stories that would get good play in the paper. If there was any creative tension, it may have been the daily competition with the other desks to get stories on A1. But in general everyone throughout the paper was pulling for everyone else to produce great pieces and, from my perspective, the newsroom culture seemed very collaborative.”
As for Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, A Good Life, he writes at length about what he knew and didn’t know in 1965 when he left Newsweek to become an editor at the Washington Post. He said he didn’t know about budgets or production but he did know about good reporters and he put all his energy into hiring the best he could find—Ward Just, Dick Harwood, David Broder, and many others.

“That was real firepower,” Bradlee said. “The impact of these hires—on the outside world, as well as on the paper—cannot be overstated. Especially Broder, who was the first top rank reporter to quit the Times for the Post. The traffic had all been the other way. I romanced him like he’s never been romanced—in coffee shops, not fancy French restaurants, because Broder was a coffee shop kind of man: straightforward, no frills, all business. I told him we had determined to get the best there was for every beat, that politics was the quintessential Washington Post story, and we wanted him. And we got him.”

As for creative tension and the rumor that he liked to assign two reporters to the same story to see who came out on top, he told Alicia Shepard in a 1995 AJR interview that it happened only once, it was by accident, and he’d consider it “sinful to give two reporters the same assignment and see who does the best.”

And as for all those Washingtonian interns, we hired a lot of them. When we were adding a staff writer or editor, the first pool we looked at was former interns. We knew how they worked—if they were lazy or careless or too full of themselves to learn. Most of all, we got a sense of whether they had an open mind, an interesting mind—that’s really what magazine editors are looking for.

However it’s done, hiring good people—and getting them to work together—is what makes any news organization a great place to work.


  1. From a longtime magazine journalist:

    I agree with your general concept on the value of cooperation and I think the message is a good and valuable one, especially for young journalists. It also gave me a different take on Bradlee who I’d thought of as something of a sadist for his “creative tension” nonsense. I’m happy to learn it wasn’t what I thought.

    Overall, I think your piece came out a little too Kumbaya because competition is inherent in a lot of journalism and that’s generally a good thing if not carried to extremes. We all want to be first with a story so I think the line to draw is between unhealthy and healthy competition, sort of like the Patriots and the rest of the NFL.

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