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From AJR,   May 1998  issue

Coll Forwarding   

Award-winning journalist Steve Coll makes his debut in newsroom management – as the Washington Post's managing editor.

By Unknown

A year ago, if you'd asked Washington Post Magazine Editor Steve Coll if he wanted to be the newspaper's managing editor, he probably would have laughed off the question. After all, he had only been editing the Sunday magazine for less than two years. Prior to that, his resumé highlights his accomplishments as a writer and reporter since joining the Post in 1985: Style section writer, financial reporter in New York, South Asia correspondent, London-based investigative projects editor. He also has written four books and shared the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. Yet nowhere in his stellar career path is there any actual daily editing experience.

No matter. After Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser announced he was stepping down to become an associate editor and roving correspondent, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. turned to the 39-year-old Coll, who assumes his new post July 1.

Coll's ascension was something of a surprise, given that the competition included a talented collection of older Post veterans with stronger editing and management credentials. Some Postologists read the tea leaves and concluded that the unconventional choice reflected a desire to breathe new life into a paper that to some is less exciting than in earlier incarnations.

"People who've dealt with him are all uniformly impressed," says national correspondent Eric Pianin, who recently worked with Coll on a story for the magazine. "He's smart and insightful. He can read through a story and understand it better than you do."y´Another Post editor, Bob Thompson, who works with Coll, says the new managing editor is "someone who can always see the big picture clearly, and a person who truly values the most sophisticated kind of journalism being a practitioner of it himself." Thompson calls Coll "the single most efficient human being that I have ever encountered."

AJR interviewed Coll in late March, a few weeks after his appointment was announced.

AJR: Steve, what do you like to read?

SC: I have eclectic tastes. I'm an avid reader. During the first year or two after coming back to America, I read a lot of American history to reacquaint myself with this place. I actually undertook this didactic, bizarre program of reading from the American Revolution forward. I'm in the middle of the 1850s. I read a lot of narratives and primary sources. I read the diary of James Polk. He's the only president in the 19th century to have kept an authentic daily diary as president. I do a lot of history reading, but I'm now taking a break from my campaign. I read fiction as well. From my time overseas, I read a lot of Indian fiction.

AJR: How would you describe yourself?

SC: I'm very high energy. Over the last 10 years I've had this incredible run in which I've felt almost unnaturally happy and energized about my work and my life generally.

AJR: That's a long time.

SC: Yes, I feel very lucky. But when you are having a good time with what you do and you feel pretty fulfilled by it, you are also aware of how fragile it is. You are not quite sure what accounts for such good luck and good fortune. I have a lot of good luck and energy. I also have a real desire to do good work that matters to me. I've organized my life substantially around the question, "What will really challenge me at a personal level and seem meaningful and useful to me at another level?"

AJR: So there you are the editor of the magazine, with a wife and three kids, with fairly good control of your time. Why would you want the job of a managing editor when presumably you are going to lose a lot of control over your time?

SC: That's the right question. But there is a powerful answer, which is this place. The Post. Which is a place that almost in spite of myself over 12 or 13 years, I have become very deeply involved in as an institution, and I've come to care about it enormously. I really honestly believe it's a great and rare institution in American life, and a great newspaper and an important place. And it's also full of people who I really like and whose work I really respect and am enlivened by.

AJR: But you could have had that by continuing in the same job.

SC: Well, that's true. But it's a much broader opportunity to do the kind of work that I've so enjoyed over the last couple of years. To work at the level of the entire newsroom. That seems like such an exciting and useful project to me. The scale of this opportunity and the thrill of it and the meaning of it, all argued in the end, for doing it.

AJR: Did you have any serious hesitation?

SC: I thought a lot harder and longer about it than I suspect many people understand or might even believe. I really was determined in thinking about it to sustain all of what I have to this point accomplished, personally and professionally. This uncanny sort of sense of joy and meaning in my work. I wanted to make sure doing this project would involve taking all of that forward, and that I wasn't doing it for the sake of the title or for the sake of the office or for any other reasons that I actually don't care much about, if the truth be known.

AJR: Did you apply for it or were you asked to apply?

SC: The process is not something I want to talk about a lot. The truth is sort of someplace in between. For everybody involved in it, it arose as a form of conversation. There was no formal application process. There was no sort of deadline by which you declared yourself. There were natural circles of conversation and dialogue that led, in my case, to serious engagement with the idea until there came a point past which it was obvious I was now a contestant.

AJR: Much has been made of the fact you only have two years experience as an editor.

SC: Two and a half. Coming up on three! [Laughs.]

AJR: Okay. Other people in the newsroom with more editing experience applied for the job. So my question is what are you going to do to allay those concerns? You know people are divided about your taking the job.

SC: Well, I'm just going to be myself. I'm going to do this job with as much energy and conviction and ability as I can, and I think that's going to be good enough. In the short run, I do have two sorts of programs that I'm determined to undertake, not so much to allay people's anxieties but to help me do the job the right way.

One is to go out and meet all the people I don't know, to spend some time listening and talking to them and to take soundings about where they think the paper is and how to create paths toward its best work.

The other thing I'm going to do, and am doing, is to take a relatively large portion of my time in the first months to absorb and watch and learn from the news desk about the process and management of the daily file. There are both journalistic and mechanical aspects that I need more exposure to as an editor. I've got plenty of exposure to the news as a reporter over the last 10 years, but I have not lived the daily cycle as an editor. That certainly is a priority.

AJR: You don't start until...

SC: July. Actually this has been structured in quite a smart way because I now will have had about four months to apprentice by the time I start.

AJR: Are you going to news meetings?

SC: I am every day and quite a lot of other meetings as well. It's terrific. The only pressure on my time is that while doing that, I actually need to pay attention back here [at the magazine] and will need to for another four or five weeks. Starting the first of May I will be able to work every day as an apprentice. And I think I'll just report every day to the news desk, and sit out there and listen and watch.

AJR: So for two months, you'll be just learning the job?

SC: Yes, I'll be full time in transition for two months.

AJR: Do you think lack of experience in a big newsroom could be a plus?

SC: I don't think I would claim that. I think it might be that there will be qualities that I will bring to this work that I hope will be helpful. In ways, perhaps, that are a function of the work that I've done in the past, which has been a little bit sort of unconventional in some ways. Maybe that in itself will be helpful.

I think I would be better on day one if I had run a daily news section for a couple or three years. I don't think there's any question about that. But I still think I can do this quite comfortably without having done that.

AJR: Steve, what does Len Downie mean when he has said that you complement him in terms of your people skills?

SC: You'd probably best ask him. But I think what he would say, and what I've heard him say, is that he sees himself, and he inarguably is, a hands-on newspaperman. He's enormously effective in that role. Enormously competent and talented at it. What he's told me, and what I understand him to mean, is he is looking for a partner whose strengths don't track directly over his strengths. And complement him in the sense of being about the other stuff that a newspaper of this scale and ambition is made of, which is to say thinking over the horizon, looking at the texture of files, looking at the quality of our writing, the quality of our enterprise.

Len's an investigative reporter. He doesn't need help in his instincts about where deep reporting lies.... There is already, I think, a wonderful sort of fit in our conversation about the things we have in common. We are both investigative oriented. But we come at it from different directions. I think we end up having a much fuller conversation.

AJR: How do you come at it from different directions?

SC: We just have worked in completely different fields over the years. We've both done a lot of the same kind of investigative work, as it turns out. We've both done a lot of courthouse work, records work. We've both done a lot of real estate fraud work. So we have this kind of common vocabulary about certain kinds of investigative reporting.

But I have been in my career as a reporter probably more of an explanatory writer, more of a feature writer than he has been. I've spent more time thinking about and working with narrative forms of writing, complex forms of voice and various kinds of writing issues, but very much in sort of an investigative reporting context somehow.

AJR: Do you see yourself as a visionary?

SC: I think one of Len's charms is that he is very self-effacing. Len actually has a lot clearer and stronger vision than he claims, which is a charming thing about him. I think we both think a lot about the context in which we are doing this work and where the strategic challenges of the paper's future lie.

That's a big part of what that team at any newspaper has to be concerned about. Who are your readers? How are you serving them? How are you reaching them? What are your goals? What is your competition? What are your strategic challenges outside of ordinary newspaper competition? These are questions that we spent a lot of time talking about with one another over the last weeks and months, and I think we are very much in sync.

AJR: These are questions a lot of newspaper editors are asking too, and they are bringing in outside consultants to help them. Is that something you are considering?

SC: I can't imagine at the moment a project for which we would feel compelled to hire outside consultants. We do use consultants for research purposes and even for analytical purposes to do survey work and to do other kinds of information gathering to help us chart a path. But we are never going to edit by focus group around here. And we're never going to edit by survey results.

AJR: I'm wondering how you see the Post. What in particular do you think it does well?

SC: The Post is a great newsgathering organization first and foremost. It has developed both breadth and depth as its core mission. We have a metropolitan file that I think is unrivaled.

AJR: What could it do better, then?

SC: I think everybody around here is focused on how we hit the high notes more often. How we raise the level of our enterprise and our writing and our investigations to create more impact, more often. To do our best work more often. I think starting with Len, there's a real desire as a natural part of a paper's cycles of renewal to take this opportunity that's been presented to us to refocus on those traditional sort of qualities of the Post, those kind of core qualities.

AJR: Do you think the Post has gotten away from those?

SC: I don't think there's any great deficit that needs to be made up. I think there's a kind of reinvigoration and sense of renewal that is triggered not by a crisis at the newspaper. There is none. This is a really strong and successful newspaper right now, both journalistically and every other way. It's triggered by this change. Change is a natural thing at an institution. So when it occurs, you want to use it for a purpose. The purpose we all want to use it for is to make ourselves a better newspaper. When you say, "A better newspaper how?" I don't think the answer that would ring out would be newsgathering because I think there's a consensus that we are really, really strong on that right now. I think we do know how to do that. We do it really well. The Lewinsky episode is a good example.

My sense of the conversation in the newsroom is if you say, "Let's renew ourselves. How?" The place where people really want to concentrate now is impact, depth, reporting, enterprise, writing.

AJR: Writing? Is that something you think the Post needs?

SC: Yes, I think every newspaper in America could be better written. The Post is no exception. It's also something that I naturally bring to the table. It's what I read for, along with a lot of other things. It's a contribution that I think I can make to some extent. I hope to a useful extent.

AJR: When Len was once asked what he used to do as managing editor that he no longer does as executive editor, he said, "nothing." Does that concern you? What will your role be?

SC: [Laughs.] It's a question I need to answer for myself, and I'm going to take responsibility for it. It's something Len and I have talked about. I'm not worried about it. I think I can create a role in partnership with him that will be very active and very meaningful. That he'll give me plenty of room to do it. This is a newsroom full of 600 or 700 people, and there's only two people up on the top working as partners. There's plenty of work to do.

AJR: So it's been acknowledged?

SC: Yeah. It's something that we've talked about. He's more hands-on than most executive editors. On the other hand he's also such an incredibly collegial and eclectic person that I feel real comfortable being heard with him. I also just have a view that you create these things for yourself. You just go do them, and you make them work.

AJR: So it's more than a title?

SC: If you proceed from title and structure you are almost doomed to fail. You have to proceed from the work itself. If you concentrate on the journalism itself and the people themselves, and make all of that better or try in some way, it will all work out.

AJR: So would you like Len's job someday?

SC: I'm entirely agnostic about that. It's very much not a part of my decision making.

AJR: But was this a goal you ever had, to be the managing editor of the Post?

SC: Absolutely not. It was a goal that arose only months before it was fulfilled.