Jack Shafer: “Sally Buzbee Can Do What Her Washington Post Male Predecessors Never Figured Out”

From a politico.com story by Fourth Estate columnist Jack Shafer headlined “Sally Buzbee Can Do What Her Male Predecessors Never Figured Out”:

Thanks to Jeff Bezos’ bottomless pockets and former Executive Editor Marty Baron’s atavistic editorial powers, taking the top editor job at the Washington Post in the summer of 2021 is somewhat akin to stepping in as the manager of the 1928 New York Yankees. You have inherited a franchise spinning with so much positive momentum and cred that you needn’t do much in the short term but activate the cruise control, tap the brakes to negotiate corners and avoid scraping the guardrails to be considered a success.

So, take care, but not so much care that people start calling you the caretaker. One reason you got the job is your relative youth: Today, you’re the executive editor of the Associated Press and a youthful 55. Places like the Washington Post tend to pension off their top editors at 65, which gives you a decade to improve the paper and deserve a place in the history books alongside those of your esteemed predecessors Baron, Leonard Downie Jr. and Benjamin Bradlee. Not to get all Soviet on you, but a 10-year plan seems in order if you hope to “use the gifts the Internet gave us,” as Bezos said when he bought the paper in 2013, and make the Washington Post America’s top newspaper.

Under Bezos and Baron, the Washington Post retreated from its Graham-era position as a local paper…to a national and international newspaper that still does some local news. Bezos may have never said he wanted his Post to be more like the Times, which stopped pretending to be very local in the early 1980s as it began printing a national edition, but that’s been the outcome. As you know, the abandonment of local news made business sense because, to use the tech term-of-art, local news doesn’t “scale,” i.e., it doesn’t interest readers living outside the publication’s local footprint. The shift away from local helps explain why the New York Times now has 7.8 million subscribers today, and the Washington Post has almost 3 million.

Bezos hates being No. 2 at anything, so if you’re to challenge or displace the Times, you’re going to need a bigger newspaper. The Washington Post will soon have about 1,010 newsroom employees versus the New York Times’ 1,700. That’s not a fair fight. Your 10-year plan must include a strategy to reach newsroom parity with the competition or to come up with a plausible explanation why the Post doesn’t need as many bodies to make its arts, magazine, business, books, travel, culture and fashion coverage the equal of the Times….Make it your first priority to shake some of those Bezosbucks loose; a billionaire is a terrible thing to waste. If Bezos can afford a $500 million superyacht, he can afford a Times-sized newsroom….

The New York Times has already colonized the American upper-middle-class’ weakness for consumer advice, cooking hints and crossword puzzles and games. Can that franchise be stolen? According to Digiday, the Times reaped $25.1 million from games, cooking and audio subscriptions in the first six months of 2020. I don’t know what the New York Times is paying its crossword editor, Will Shortz, but even if you had to pay him millions to defect, it would be worth the splurge. It wouldn’t necessarily close the gap between the two papers, but it would be a start….

In the old days, you probably wouldn’t have made the Washington Post’s executive editor shortlist because you had no experience managing a newspaper. But the fact that the Post hired you, an AP lifer and leader of 2,800 journalists, signals that Bezos intends to make the Washington Post more like the AP than the Times—a 24/7 continuous river of news and updates….

Going from the cosmic to the microscopic, show you’re in charge by deleting that embarrassing “Democracy Dies in Darkness” Page One motto Publisher Fred Ryan and Bezos tacked on in 2017. The only thing it’s good for is as a punchline for jokes at the paper’s expense….

Trump kept all of American journalism on high alert, encouraged readers to spend more time with the Post and extend their subscriptions. With news like that pouring out of every Washington gutter (and backed by Bezos’ money), any competent journalist could have gotten a solid B or B+ grade over the same period as the Post’s executive editor. In lieu of Trump, perhaps the nation will find another means of going sideways. But if it doesn’t fill your news hole with disaster, that lifestyle coverage will be even more essential….

If the expansion of the Post is your mandate—and how can it not be with Jeff Bezos as its owner?—remember you have one advantage the New York Times does not have: The Times is shoehorned in by its legacy as the paper that both the right and the left love to hate. The right hates the Times because it’s a liberal newspaper….The left hates the Times because it’s not liberal enough. This gives, in theory, the incoming Washington Post executive editor an enviable amount of running room to offend the left with tough coverage but not have to worry about starting a subscriber boycott. Tee up your best stories, and wage a plague on all ideologies. If you’ve got the goods, abuse the right, abuse the left, and do so with the confidence that no matter how you cover the news, you will never replace the Times on the leftists’ dartboards.

A Jack Shafer Disclosure: My wife has worked for the Post for more than 20 years.

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