Marty Baron, the editor of The Washington Post – and before that, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald – is packing it in. Under his leadership, those papers won 17 Pulitzer Prizes, for stories like the repatriation of the young Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez; law-breaking by the NSA; and predator priests in Boston, as seen in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”
Liev Schreiber played Baron, who instructed his reporters, “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. We’re going after the system.”
“You were made famous in that movie, ‘Spotlight’; you’re a hero,” said “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl.
“Well, my heroes are the people I work with,” Baron replied.
“I am embarrassed, yes … this is not a one-person show here,” he said.
When Stahl visited Baron at the Washington Post newsroom in February, it certainly looked like a one-person show. “I haven’t seen another person outside of you in this building today,” said Stahl. “This is completely empty. This is COVID.”
“Absolutely,” Baron said. “Everybody’s been working from home. It’s been that way pretty much since March 10th.”
Even before COVID there was a sterile look to the new, modern newsroom. Baron said, “The old newspaper offices had a lot of charm, history, dirt, grease, grunge,” he laughed. “My first newsrooms, there were Underwood manual typewriters and we worked on that. And you could hear people working. A lot of the old characters, you don’t find them anymore.”
“You’re not an old character?” Stahl asked.
“Well, I am old, and I am a character,” he laughed, “but I don’t know that I’m an ‘old character.'”
Since his friends and colleagues couldn’t celebrate the 66-year-old-character’s departure in person, they toasted (and roasted) him in a farewell tape. [Stahl joined in: “You can’t hang it up at 66, I mean, Marty, President Biden is 78!“]
When asked why he was retiring, Baron replied, “Well, I’m 66. I’ve been in this business for 45 years. It’s an exhausting profession. It’s been particularly exhausting, let’s say, over the last four to six years, and also just during the internet era, where you have to be on duty all of the time. It wears you down.”
“Wears you down more now that we have the digital age?” asked Stahl.
“People expect to know information, like, right away.”
“You have to be first?”
“We like to be first, yes.”
They’re not first in digital subscriptions (that would be The New York Times), but The Washington Post is an impressive second, with three million subscribers – more than three times as many as the paper had when Baron took over eight years ago, a few months before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the place.
Stahl asked, “What about Jeff Bezos? Is he the reason the Washington Post has increased its circulation to the extent it has?”
“Well, there’s no question that Jeff Bezos has been instrumental in our turnaround,” he said. “We needed fresh ideas, and he came in with fresh ideas.”
“And money,” Stahl interjected.
“We’ll talk about the money, but I think it’s important to …”
“The money wasn’t the most important thing?”
“No,” said Baron, “the money was not the most important thing, in my view. The most important thing was a fundamental change in our strategy. Up ’til that point, we were focused on covering the region around Washington. And so, when Jeff came, he said, ‘This strategy that you have may have been fine in the past, but it’s not fine today.’ And now, we have the opportunity to become national and international because we don’t have to distribute physical papers all over the place. We can do it digitally. Everybody, anywhere in the world, could read The Washington Post.”
Stahl said, “I didn’t realize that when he bought The Washington Post he already had a strategy. He’d studied this, he came to you with a plan?”
“There’s no question. I mean, he studies!” Baron laughed. “He does his research.”
Over the last 15 years, over 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. – that’s one in five – have gone out of business. Local news is having a hard time. It’s become a news desert out there.
Stahl asked, “Is the answer for newspapers today to get a sugar daddy?”
“Not every newspaper’s gonna get a sugar daddy, so that’s not an answer,” Baron replied. “There aren’t enough sugar daddies.”
“Should they try? Should they go courting?”
“Well, good for them, if they can find one, hey! There was an old saying in this business: ‘You know what you call a billionaire who acquired a media organization? A millionaire!'”
To turn the Post into a national and international paper, Bezos made a $250 million investment, allowing for a near-doubling of its newsroom staff, from 580 to more than a thousand, and adding internet-friendly graphics and clickable videos. Still, the biggest story in the last four years was a Washington story:
“They are truly an enemy of the people,” said President Trump. “The fake-news, enemy of the people. They really are, they are so bad.”
Stahl said, “So, let me ask what it’s been like to walk around with emblazoned on your shirt, you’re an ‘enemy of the people’?”
Baron said, “Well, the moment that Donald Trump said that was the moment that I realized that he would stop at nothing in his effort to destroy the free press in this country.”
“But as the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post, did you not feel an obligation to answer him? Defend? Tell the public, ‘That’s wrong, that’s not true’?”
“Absolutely. And we have done that.”
The usually soft-spoken Baron decided to raise his voice. In a 2018 appearance at the National Press Club, Baron said, “Democracy will not die in darkness, with the Washington Post around.”
He told Stahl, “It was important for me, personally to get out and speak about the press, talk about our role, make clear what our mission is, and why we have a free press in this country. Why the First Amendment exists!”
Last May, Baron addressed the graduating class of Harvard University, telling them:
“Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill. Here is what can move us forward: Science and medicine. Study and knowledge. Expertise and reason. In other words, fact and truth.”
In a section of the newspaper called “Fact-Checker,” the Post has documented all of the former president’s “false or misleading claims.” “There have been over 30,000 false and misleading statements, and some outright lies,” Baron said.
Baron’s office wall is plastered with thank you notes. Stahl said, “You know, in our office, we only put up the hate mail. It’s true! So, why do you put only the positive ones up?”
“Our staff has received a lot of threats, a lot of vile emails, and I think it’s important that our staff recognize that there’s a huge portion of the population that appreciates what they’re doing,” he replied.
“What about you? Have you gotten threats? Death threats?”
“I’ve gotten threats of various types, absolutely,” Baron said.
When asked how we have changed following four years of a Trump presidency and a year of a deadly pandemic, Baron said, “I think we are more realistic about the nature of our country. There’s a greater sense of vulnerability. People never really thought about a pandemic before. In the same way, I think we’re much more aware now of the vulnerability of our democratic system. I think we realize that the democracy can be threatened in ways that were unimaginable in the past.”
“And if we start thinking of ourselves as vulnerable, everything changes,” said Stahl.
“Our very nature?”
“I think that’s right,” Baron said. “But maybe that’s a good thing – maybe we should realize that these institutions are more fragile than we thought we were. And maybe it’s a wake-up call for us, as a country.”
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Story produced by Richard Buddenhagen. Editor: Remington Korper.