At The Washington Post, Marty Baron’s Exit Is Now a Question of “When, Not If”

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Marty Baron Tout

On Sunday morning, Marty Baron appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources to talk about The Washington Post’s subscription growth and the paper’s plans for expansion in 2021. But host Brian Stelter also wanted to know about Baron’s personal plans. After a wildly successful seven-year-plus run as executive editor of the 143-year-old Beltway institution, was Baron, now 66, ready to retire? “I can only share three letters: TBD,” Baron replied. “So I don’t really have any update for you.”

Within the Post, however, any ambiguity about whether or not Baron will depart sometime in the New Year seems to have dissolved. “The way he talks about it at this point is when, not if,” one insider said. Sources have been telling me lately that Baron has indicated to colleagues he doesn’t plan on stepping down before his staff can return to the newsroom. (Baron, for one, has been riding out the pandemic between his home in Washington and a second home out of state.) On that note, the Post’s remote-work setup is “unlikely” to end before June 1, according to an update last month from publisher Fred Ryan. But in either case I’m told that a search for a new executive editor has not officially begun, and that Baron and Ryan have agreed that when the time comes, Baron would give a substantial window of notice to allow for an extensive recruitment process. (Baron declined to comment.)

That of course hasn’t stopped media people from speculating with abandon. (There are few things about which journalists love to speculate more than editor successions.) Last week, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith tweeted that Kevin Merida, a former longtime Post editor who is now an executive at ESPN, is “seen by many…as the leading candidate” for the editorships of both the Post and the Los Angeles Times, where Norman Pearlstine is making his exit. “I’ve heard names mentioned, including that one, but purely as gossip,” another Post source said. “I don’t know how serious any of it is.”

As far as potential internal candidates go, sources tell me that Steven Ginsberg, who began at the Post as a news aide in 1994 and worked his way up, is seen as the strongest contender. As national editor since 2017, Ginsberg has overseen all of the big enterprise and investigative projects related to Donald Trump, and he has a considerable fount of support. “If it’s not Steven Ginsberg then it won’t be an inside person,” one of my sources predicted.

Whoever succeeds Baron will inherit a newsroom where issues of race and gender equity have come to the fore, as they have at media organizations throughout the industry. People both inside the Post and out will be looking for the short list to include candidates of color, like Merida, and women. Whenever the search does begin in earnest, it will be led by Ryan. But one presumes there will also be significant input from the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, whose investment since he bought the paper from the Graham family in 2013 has enabled the Post to come roaring back as a journalistic powerhouse under Baron’s editorial leadership.

Last week, Ryan told staff in a year-end memo that digital subscriptions increased by nearly 50% in 2020, bringing the Post’s total worldwide digital circulation to about 3 million. More than 150 new positions are to be added in 2021, he said, pushing the newsroom north of 1,000, the largest in the Post’s history. In a separate staff memo the following day, Baron announced those jobs would include new breaking-news hubs in Europe and Asia and new foreign bureaus in Sydney and Bogota, as well as expansions to the audience and visual-journalism teams.

All of this holiday cheer was clearly the peg for Baron’s Reliable Sources segment. But Stelter also asked for a postmortem of the Post’s coverage of the Trump era. “I believe we did our job. We did our job…under the First Amendment, that’s why we have a First Amendment in this country. That’s what James Madison talked about, which is essentially holding government accountable,” Baron said. “That’s what we have done over the last four years. That’s what we’ll do in the next four years as well.”

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