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From AJR,   June/July 2007

Moving Boldly   

Online Exclusive Katharine Weymouth quickly makes her mark as the Washington Post's publisher.

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

It's an audacious start for a new, young publisher.

Just five months after moving into the job, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth completed the newspaper's generation shift at the top by naming Marcus Brauchli the paper's new executive editor.

Early on, Weymouth signaled that she planned to ease the long-serving and highly respected Leonard Downie Jr. out of the Post's top editing job. This was remarkable in itself in that Downie, 66, is such a creature of the paper, a Post lifer who began his career there as an intern and essentially never left. He became managing editor in 1984 and succeeded the great Ben Bradlee in the top newsroom job seven years later definitely part of the Post family.

But Weymouth, 42, clearly recognized that for all Downie's strengths the paper just won six Pulitzers under his direction she needed a different kind of partner to bring about the kind of transformational change that is essential at the Post and all other traditional media companies. And she was going to make a move, no matter how uncomfortable that must have been.

Then she did something else remarkable: She went outside the company to find that partner. Brauchli, 47, is the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who was unceremoniously kicked to the curb by new owner Rupert Murdoch and his minions.

You don't have to have worked at the Post to know how amazing going outside is, but it helps.

Back in 1984 I left the Miami Herald to join the Post as deputy metro editor. An excellent job, sure, but not exactly lofty and yet it was the highest- ranking outside hire the Post had made in quite some time.

I vividly remember Downie explaining to me that getting one of the coveted assistant managing editor jobs took plenty of seasoning in the ways of the Post. You had to become part of "the fabric of the place." It's not that the gates never part, he said; it's just that they part quite slowly.

Imagine how much saturation you would need to run the place.

Of course, if you're going to insist on being part of a culture, you could do a lot worse than the Post's. It has long been synonymous with topflight, deeply reported accountability journalism. It may have been too easy in the past to take that for granted. But as you survey the current media landscape, you appreciate it all the more.

But it's not enough in today's fast-changing world, not even at the Post, which has it better than many other media companies thanks in part to its profitable Kaplan education unit.

So Weymouth went outside, bringing in someone who would look at the Post with "fresh eyes." I don't know Brauchli, but he has an excellent reputation and sterling credentials. His one misstep was his take-the-money-and-run departure from the Journal, which deeply disappointed many of his colleagues.

One plus for Brauchli is that he oversaw the merger of the Journal's print and online operations in his year at the top there. That is a huge challenge facing the Post now, one Weymouth is clearly eager to take on.

While washingtonpost.com is an excellent Web site, both the paper and the online operation suffer from an absurdly outdated structure. The paper and washingtonpost.com have separate managements. (Weymouth is the first Post publisher in charge of both.) They're not even in the same place: The newspaper is in downtown Washington, the Web site across the river in Virginia. This seems like an arrangement from the days when newsroom veterans thought of the Web as some trendy, probably evanescent, flavor-of-the-month gadget and newspapers were worried about "scooping themselves" on their Web sites a time that seems as remote as the French and Indian War.

If newspaper companies are to survive, they need to act decisively and to free themselves from the shackles of the past. That doesn't mean jettisoning standards or mindlessly eviscerating the newsroom. But it does mean being willing, even eager, to look at things in new ways.

I'd say Weymouth is off to a pretty impressive start.