Exit Interview With Washington Post Editor Marty Baron: “We endured endless vilification and yet we published what we were supposed to publish.”

From an interview on vanityfair.com by Joe Pompeo headlined “You’ve made the Post swashbuckling once again: Marty Baron receives a star-studded farewell and dishes in a wide-ranging exit interview”:

At 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, hundreds of Washington Post employees logged on to a video call for a pandemic-safe virtual farewell to Marty Baron, whose last day as executive editor is Sunday, February 28. Baron, who is retiring at age 66 after eight years at the Post and more than four decades in the news business, is a titan of the media world. Thursday’s pretaped video tribute to Baron was an A-list affair befitting journalism royalty, with remarks from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Steven Spielberg, Diane von Furstenberg, Lesley Stahl, Dean Baquet, Wolf Blitzer, and Lester Holt, as well as the Hollywood team that immortalized Baron in Spotlight: Liev Schreiber, Tom McCarthy, and Josh Singer.

“I know they’re bleeding out at The Washington Post already missing you so much,” said Spielberg.

“I am sorry he is leaving, as a reader,” said DVF, who also remarked that she emailed Baron almost every day during the election.

“In all seriousness,” said Bezos, “what you have accomplished over these last eight years is extraordinary. You’ve made the Post swashbuckling once again.”…

The previous afternoon, I had my own video chat with Baron, who had agreed to an exit interview.

Vanity Fair: Will you go back into the office again?

Marty Baron: Yeah, I have access until my last day, the last hour of my last day. So Sunday. Things are packed up, but I have to go remove them. But first I have to get a storage space.

It’s going to be weird, right? Leaving for the last time and with, like, no one around?

It is weird. You know, I’m not hugely sentimental, but I’ve invested so much of my myself in the Post. And so it’s weird to leave, and to leave with the newsroom entirely empty. Unfortunately, those are the times we live in.

Were my sources right that you had been thinking about staying around until it was safe enough for the newsroom to return in person?

Joe, whoever that source is, scratch him or her off the list, because I was not at all. I wondered, like, Where is this coming from? I never entertained the idea of staying till the place opened up, because I don’t know when it’s going to open up. I didn’t want it to be open-ended. I was just ready….

When you look back at your time at The Boston Globe, you’re obviously going to be most remembered for the work the Globe did on the Catholic Church there. What do you want to be most remembered for when people look back on your time running the Post?

I think we’re gonna be remembered for our work on the Trump administration. And that’s what we should be remembered for, as well as a lot of other good work. But clearly the press was under attack. The Post was under attack. There was a persistent effort to subvert the role of the press in this democracy. And we did not waver in our work at all. We set out to get the facts about what was happening in this administration. We endured endless vilification for that, and yet we published what we were supposed to publish in an unflinching way. And so I feel good about that, and I think we should be proud of that. And I think that’s what this period will be remembered for.

What are your thoughts on the right way to cover Trump going forward?

We’ve talked about it, and I think what we have concluded is that we’re not going to cover his every utterance. There’s no reason to do so. On the other hand, if his actions are having a concrete effect on the political landscape, we must cover that. He is the most powerful person today in the Republican Party. He essentially controls the Republican Party, and notwithstanding the wishes of some readers, who detest Trump, that we completely discontinue covering him, we have to cover the political landscape, and we have to cover the Republican Party. And you can’t cover the Republican Party without covering Donald Trump.

I don’t know if you’ve talked about this, but did he ever reach out to you personally? Like, were there times when you got angry calls from him? And if so, when was the last time you had an interaction?

It was during his first year. He called me twice to complain about stories. I don’t recall the specifics. He was upset; he was angry. You know, he did all the talking. The so-called conversations went on for a long period of time, but he did all the talking, and at the end, I thanked him for calling and for offering his perspective, and it ended there….

What about striking the right balance for covering the new administration as this return to normalcy sets in after four years of constant chaos? What are some of the pitfalls that you worry the press might fall into in terms of maybe being either too comfortable or overly adversarial?

Well, I think you’ve touched on it. There are two aspects. One is that just because somebody is being nicer to us doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do our job of holding power to account. And this administration is going to be nicer to us. It already is. It’s behaving in a more respectful and professional manner. There’s no comparison, frankly. But we still have to cover what the government’s doing. We have to dig for the facts. It’s not always in the interest of the administration to tell us what we need to know, and what the public should know and deserves to know. So we can’t let the fact that somebody was being nicer to us distract us from our mission. And then on the other side, we shouldn’t just go overboard just to show we’re being tough. We should just do our jobs. I mean, we should just understand that, you know, we need to find out what’s happening in government. Government has enormous power and influence over the lives of ordinary people. There are people who are exercising influence over government. We need to know what the policies are and what kind of impact they have and who made those decisions. Those are the things we need to pursue. We don’t need to prove anything. We just need to do our jobs, and over time, people can assess whether we did our jobs appropriately.

How do you feel about the newspaper business right now? And I’m talking specifically about newspapers. Obviously, the Post is thriving, and the Times and the Journal are thriving. But then you look at the ongoing struggles at the L.A. Times. You see what’s happening with Alden getting its hands on Tribune. I mean, do you feel optimistic about newspapers as you step away after so many years working at them?

I try to be optimistic, and I feel optimistic about the news. Whether I feel optimistic about newspapers is a different matter. I am concerned about hedge funds that are buying news organizations and who seem to have as their intention stripping them of the available cash and then watching them die and treating them as an annuity essentially. I have deep concerns about that. That’s not healthy for democracy, and it doesn’t bode well for the long-term future of those news organizations. I do think that there are some signs of that that are causes for optimism. If people want high-quality coverage, they’re going to have to pay for it. I think there’s a growing realization of that, and so I think there’s an opportunity there. I think there’s a recognition now that when these newspapers disappear, or they’re stripped of all resources, that communities aren’t getting covered, and without that kind of coverage, communities are not going to receive the information that they need and deserve. And so I think there’s a growing realization on the part of the public that something critical is lost when a news organization either dies or is so diminished that it doesn’t have the resources to provide adequate community coverage. The public has to be willing to pay, and the news organizations have to be willing to provide something that’s worth paying for. I do think that there are some news organizations that are showing some promise. It’s a fairly grim picture at the moment, but I’m not without optimism that we’ll find our way through it.

There’s lots of optimism for the Post going forward, and for the Times, whose subscription numbers just look really impressive every single quarter. But I’m sure that you, just like all of us, have been watching this chaos that continues to unfold there. It just seems like there’s always some new explosion. As someone who’s worked for the Times, who has been in consideration for the top job there, what’s your take on what’s going on there right now? There’s obviously endless fascination about this in the journalism world.

Well, I’m not going to offer a take specifically on what’s happening there now, because I don’t think it’s my place to do so. I mean, look, there’s always a crisis. They’re certainly heavily scrutinized, but we’ve been scrutinized pretty heavily too. I’ve been fairly heavily scrutinized. There’s always something, some crisis that blows up in a newsroom. It’s just the nature of our business. We’re much more public people; what happens in our workplaces is much more public than what happens in most workplaces. That’s just the way it is. We’ve certainly had plenty of blowups at The Washington Post of one sort or another. I’ve been part of that obviously. And look, the Times is a great news organization. They’ll get past it. It’s a fraught time. A lot of people are addressing issues that have the need to be addressed. But they don’t come with easy answers.

Well, what is the answer to these very heated, emotional, divisive discussions around race and speech that we’re seeing again and again, not just at the Times, but also in just the past couple of weeks alone at Slate, at Gimlet? I guess, what did you learn or take away from your own experience as a manager confronting these issues?

Clearly we need to do a better job of listening. I think I and others probably need to do more in anticipating these issues, perhaps listening better to the staff more closely, and then drawing people out before pressure builds and it explodes. And you know, that’s probably something that I should have done. And probably something that should be done more regularly at other news organizations, including our competitors. I think people want to be heard. We need to listen to them, and by the way, listening doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to end up agreeing. I do think it’s important that news organizations have standards and that people stick to those standards. We are institutions; we are more than a collection of individuals under one group. Our institution stands for something. We have core principles that we believe in, and I wouldn’t just toss those away just because of the sentiments of the moment. But I do think that we need to talk those out more regularly with people on the staff. It’s quite possible that the way we apply those principles can be adapted to the different environment that we’re in today. But I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that. And I’ll be interested to see how people navigate it. It’s just not very easy to navigate.

You were confronted with concerns about diversity and equity from Black journalists in your newsroom. Do you feel that the Post, under your leadership, adequately addressed those concerns? Do you feel like the newsroom today is better positioned to address those concerns, or is there a lot more work to do?

I think we’re in a much better position. We already had one of the most diverse major newsrooms in the country. That’s not to say that it was diverse enough, but it was one of the most diverse newsrooms in the country. The issue for us was that it wasn’t diverse enough at the most senior levels. Now, you know, my first personnel decision, in fact, my very first decision, was naming the first Black managing editor of The Washington Post, Kevin Merida. But you know, it’s a work in progress. Did we move fast enough? No. Should we have done more? Yes, obviously. How are we doing now? I think we’ve taken good, concrete steps. We named a managing editor for diversity and inclusion. We have really stepped up our hiring of diverse staff. We announced that a dozen positions would be dedicated to coverage of race, ethnicity, and identity. We have said quite clearly that this is not the end of the line, it’s the beginning.

What would you say is the most challenging thing you faced during your editorship?

This depends how you define challenge. I think some people have forgotten the NSA stories that we did and the Snowden leaks. Those were the most highly classified documents in the U.S. government. You don’t just go ahead and publish those without thinking through what the implications are, and that was really sensitive stuff. So that was quite challenging in terms of how to deal with that. I don’t know that there’s any one thing that’s the greatest challenge. It’s challenging just to come into a news organization when you haven’t been part of it, like I did a little over eight years ago, when people don’t know you, they don’t know what to expect with you. It was a financially challenging time for us. We were having to make cuts. We were facing even more cuts. So there’ve been any number of different challenges. I’m not sure how I would rank them.

So much of the Post’s success has been attributed to the sustained investment of Jeff Bezos. And as you point out, you got here right before he did, and there was no guarantee the business would turn around. You didn’t sign up knowing there was going to be a white knight. You theoretically could have been managing a decline. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you think things would have played out if Bezos hadn’t bought the paper? Where do you think the Post would be today?

Well, first, it’s not just a sustained investment. There was a change in our strategy to become national and even international, and to accomplish that through digital means, whereas previously we were focused on our region. Jeff fundamentally changed the strategy of the Post, and that made all the difference in the world. And then he did make an investment that gave us runway. We were able to sort of build a bridge toward digital without having to make severe cuts in what we were already doing. But since then, you know, we’re not treated like a charity. We’re not some charity case that he’s just putting money in. We actually are profitable. We reinvest our earnings, and we pay our own way.

So is the answer that without him, you might’ve still been kind of—

That’s what I was going to get to. Yes, without him, we would have been facing the same kinds of severe difficulties that other regional news organizations face today. And I’m not sure we would have known how to get out of that. I don’t know how we could have gotten out of that mess.

Now that someone is gonna take your place, or maybe not take your place, but they’re going to take your job, what do you think are the most important qualities for this person, who’s coming into such a different news organization, a different business, and also just such a different time in the world than when you took over?

Well, I think there’s several issues. The first is to make sure we don’t become complacent. I think there can be a tendency, when you’re having success, to think that you’ve found the answer. And the truth is that we have to continue searching for the answer because the answer will change as technology changes, as the ways that people get information start to evolve. And so we always have to act as if we’re on the edge of the cliff, and we have to find a way to not fall over. The other thing is just the difficulty that we have in society. I think the biggest challenge that our democracy faces, certainly the biggest challenge that the press faces, is the inability on the part of a large segment of the population to distinguish fact from fiction. I think that’s a societal problem. Everybody keeps asking, how can the press solve this problem? It doesn’t fall entirely on the press, not even mostly on the press. We have a huge segment of the population that doesn’t understand how our government works, that doesn’t understand the founding principles of this country, that’s not media literate and cannot understand what are the sources of information that can be for the most part relied upon, and which ones cannot be. We have a huge segment of the population that believes in outright falsehoods, lies, and conspiracy theories that are bizarre. How is that possible? How do we operate a democracy when we can’t agree on a common set of facts? How does the press operate in an environment where we can’t agree on what happened yesterday?

So you’re saying this person has to have the stomach to confront that.

Not just how to confront it, but how to communicate in a way that engenders trust. I think we are trying to do that by showing more original documents, by talking more about the work we do, by annotating to videos that are representative of what we’re writing about, or annotating to court documents, or whatever it might be. We have to back up our work more than we have in the past. That’s just one step….

What’s next for you? Literally, like, you go from running this huge news organization every day, and especially the past four years have just been nuts, and now, like, next week, this weekend, what do you do? What are you going to fill your days with?

I’m gonna start planning to sell my place in D.C. I’m gonna start looking for, you know, I’ll probably take a small apartment in Manhattan.

I did hear some gossip to that effect. So clearly my sources aren’t that bad!

Right. So I’m gonna look for that. I’m gonna finish up my taxes. There’s a long list of things I’m going to do.

Will you ever work for a news organization again?

I never say never.

Joe Pompeo is Vanity Fair’s senior media correspondent.

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