Who should succeed Leonard Downie Jr. as editor of the Washington Post?

Media criticism.
May 20 2008 6:32 PM

The Next Editor of the Washington Post

Who should it be?

The executive editorship of the Washington Post has been put into play by the paper's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, who, according to a report in yesterday's New York Times, has talked to a cluster of possible candidates and others about who should succeed Leonard Downie Jr.

The Times identifies Newsweek's Jon Meacham, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, current and former Post managing editors Phil Bennett and Steve Coll, TheNew Yorker's David Remnick (a former Postie), Washingtonpost.com Editor Liz Spayd, and Post columnist Eugene H. Robinson as Weymouth's communicants. While every one of these veterans possesses the smarts and skills to edit today's Washington Post, I would hope that Weymouth also consult a less Post-centric list of prospects and think more in terms of what sort of person should edit tomorrow's paper.

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But first a parenthetical.

(Am I the only one creeped out by what looks like an aggressive search to fill a job that has yet to be vacated? The Times reports that Downie "is not exactly being forced out, but that [Weymouth] is pressuring him, and he is not happy about it." As publisher, Weymouth has every right to name a new editor any damn time she pleases. But Downie, 66, has served the paper well, preserving and extending Ben Bradlee's accomplishments and adding his own. The search, or the talking tour, or whatever you want to call it, makes Weymouth look bad, and it undercuts Downie, who has to tell press-beat reporters almost daily that he's not quitting, not taking the buyout, not going anywhere soon. And it makes the Post look unstable. If Weymouth is replacing Downie, let's have out with it, if only to reduce the cringe factor. He deserves better.)

Just two people, Bradlee and Downie, have led the Post's editorial side during the past 43 years, the Times notes, and this has made the institution more insular and plodding than newspapers that change top editors frequently. Point of reference: The New York Times has had five executive editors in just the last 20 years.

If the news business had not changed since 1991—the year Downie took over from Bradlee—I'd say clone Downie and continue course. But ongoing tumult in the business requires an editor less psychically beholden to the existing order than those listed above, one who isn't so busy preserving the old that he can't invent the new. In no particular order then, I present my candidates for executive editor of the Washington Post.

VandeHarris: Political aces John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei left the Washington Post to start the newspaper-Web site amalgam Politico in the fall of 2006 and quickly made a place for themselves at the daily-reading table. Their professionalism and dot-com-ish entrepreneurial skills should make them top entrants in the succession sweepstakes. Better than most, they understand how to make something new, how to hire young and smart, and how to take chances.

Downside: They're bolted together at the hip, which makes it difficult for them to pass through the normal-aperture doorway without walking sideways.

Jonathan Landman: I won't remind you of what Landman is most famous for because that is the least of his accomplishments. Landman has visited most of the stations of the cross at the New York Times, where he now runs the digital-news side. In my vision, the future executive editor of the Washington Post would spend six months at the Washingtonpost.com as its top editor and then annex the newspaper, just to let people know that the company's priority is electronic.

When Times Executive Editor Bill Keller appointed Landman deputy managing editor in charge of digital journalism in 2005, he said, "There is nothing quite as infectious as Jon Landman when he's excited about something." A quick round of antibiotic knocked out the infection back then, so I'm certain that if appointed to the Post job he could clear his disease quickly and lead the new Post to glory.

Downside: He's never been a foreign correspondent. Whoops! That's an upside!

Evan Smithor Adam Moss: I've listed Smith and Moss together not because they're joined in any fashion but because they're both inventive magazine types who have the patience to build the whole, not just the part. At Texas Monthly, Smith covers the state as though it were an independent republic, which many of its citizens still think it is. Like Downie, he has sustained and extended somebody else's founding vision, which is almost impossible to do. T.M. investigates, it sustains long-form literary journalism, it entertains, it wins the usual awards, and it publishes the extraordinary Mimi Swartz. At New York magazine, Moss covers the city as though it were an independent republic, which many of its citizens think it is. Raised by a pack of wild magazines in the remote Yukon (some say Long Island), he understands the publication gestalt better than anybody. He rejuvenated the tired New Yorkfranchise, which is advertisement enough.

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