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From AJR,   June/July 2008

A Passion for News   

Online Exclusive » Len Downie’s remarkable run at the Washington Post

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

The thing I remember most is the passion.

Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, I worked for the Washington Post as deputy metro editor. That meant I worked closely with a guy named Len Downie.

Downie was the managing editor, the person who made the page one picks. When I was "running the day," as overseeing the metro report was called, one of my major missions was lobbying local stories on to the front page.

Selling those stories to Downie, who is stepping down as the Post's top editor, in September, was always an interesting mission. He had as much enthusiasm for the news as anyone I've ever met. He could get excited about almost any topic. But you had to make sure that the actual copy lived up to the pre-game rhetoric. As deadline neared, he scrutinized everything relentlessly.

One election night, I became convinced that it was a moral imperative that we have not one but two Virginia election stories out front, a hard news piece and an analysis. Len was wide open to it. But when he saw the first draft of that analysis, he was unwowed.

"What do we have to do to get that story on page one," I asked.

"Have it say what you said it was going to say," he responded.

And he was absolutely right. The premise of the story was solid, but it was hidden by the execution. We did some major repair work, and the piece ended up on the front page.

High standards. A commitment to excellence. Staying after it until you get it right. That's the Downie approach.

A former investigative reporter, Downie loves what he calls accountability reporting. It's a hallmark of his 24 years as managing editor and then executive editor of the Post. Despite the staff reductions of recent years, the Post has not wavered in its commitment to such important – and expensive - journalism. Downie deserves props for that. The six Pulitzers the Post racked up this year are an exclamation point on a remarkable run.

I was never part of Downie's inner circle. But at least in my experience he didn't let personal connections get in the way of important decisions.

Take the Walker spy case, a huge story in 1985 involving two brothers and one of their sons, all in the military, who were spying for the Russians (and doesn't that scenario seem like a lifetime ago?). The saga began with an arrest in Maryland, so it was a metro story. We were all over it. But as the story mushroomed and its enormous ramifications became clear, the national desk – quite properly – made a run for it. I battled to keep it for metro. The top national editor at the time was Bob Kaiser. Downie and Kaiser had started their Post careers as interns the same summer, and they were friends. Yet Downie let metro keep the story.

And he would let you make your case. Once I called him at home at midnight to argue – unsuccessfully-- against his decision to knock a metro story off page one. He didn't seem to mind at all. Weeks later, out of the blue, he mentioned that maybe that story should have stayed out front.

In my 16-and-a-half years at AJR, I've seen Downie in action from another perspective. Journalists, who make their living interviewing people, are not always, shall we say, enthusiastic about being interviewed. One of the worst was former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, who once had his people respond to an interview request with the regal pronouncement that the great man had "decided not to participate in this story."

But Downie always takes the call, no matter how uncomfortable the situation. You don't get dazzling eloquence. But you get the straightforward, no frills, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust answers that are so typical of the man.

This is no time for another media canonization – OK, I was a Tim Russert fan, but give me a break – and Downie has hardly been perfect.

He's not exactly a charismatic leader. He has an unfortunate penchant for wanting too much information up high in a story, giving rise to the term "lead-packing." He's a remarkably hands-on top editor as opposed to a visionary one.

And, as he has said, he was slow to adapt to the Web, although he certainly has plenty of company in the newspaper business. But one person who was close to the Post's online education has an interesting take: Once the light bulb went off, even though he wasn't really a Web guy, Downie pushed for the Post to fully commit as a leader who realized this was something critically important. When I first heard that Downie, the ultimate newspaperman, had used the expression "platform agnostic," I knew the world had changed forever.

So who's next? In the next few weeks Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth will name Downie's successor. It's a daunting task, a lot harder than picking an editor would have been, say, 10 years ago. You still need the news chops. You also need someone who can rally and inspire the troops in a dispiriting time of downsizing – the Post has had three major buyouts in recent years. And you need someone who is new-media savvy and nimble and imaginative, someone to help plot a great news organization's future in a time of stunning transformation.

There really aren't any roadmaps for that.