It’s a bright, warm morning in April, and Marty Baron takes a seat at a small table in his office at The Washington Post.
Bearded and wearing a rumpled gingham button down shirt, the executive editor could be misconstrued for a high school teacher or a small town reporter, but there’s a power to his low-key yet deliberate demeanor. It’s that power that actor Liev Schreiber uncannily depicted in “Spotlight” when he played Baron, who at that time was serving as executive editor of The Boston Globe. “Spotlight,” which won an Oscar for best film, is based on The Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. (Baron does crack a smile when talking about how the actors’ clothing in the movie was much better than the real life wardrobe of his reporters. Feigning outrage, he said: “I was offended by comments I read about the journalists’ clothes in the movie. They were fine. More than fine!”)
To the masses, Baron might be known as the “real life Schreiber,” but to journalists he’s known as one of the best editors of his generation. A Florida native, he began his journalism career with stints at The Miami Herald and The Los Angeles Times. After 20 years at the L.A. Times, he moved to The New York Times in 1996, and then back to The Herald as executive editor four years later, where he led the coverage on important stories, such as the 2000 presidential election and Elián González’s return to Cuba. His next stop was Boston, where his penchant for investigative journalism led the Globe to six Pulitzers during his 11-year tenure as editor.
Baron left The Globe for The Post in 2013 and set out to reinvigorate the paper under the ownership of Amazon founder, chairman and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos. The seemingly unlikely pair have not only breathed new journalistic life into the paper with Pulitzer-winning journalism on the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance, food stamps in America, Secret Service security lapses and police violence, but have also given it digital cred. The site, which folds in some viral news, garnered 86.5 million unique views on desktop and mobile in March, marking an 18 percent jump over last year, according to comScore, which put it just 2.9 million views behind New York Times Digital.
Here, WWD speaks with Baron about the future of legacy media, working with Bezos, covering Trump and what it’s like to be mistaken for a Hollywood actor.
WWD: Can you tell me how the paper’s new slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” came about?
Marty Baron: We spent the last year trying to come up with a motto or slogan. It well predated the election, and we were trying to come up with some words that would capture the essence of our mission in a way that you might even put it on a T-shirt. We had a lot of ideas and it was all over the place. We probably had 500 ideas, I think, and we debated them endlessly. Then at some point, a decision was made.
WWD: What are the main issues you are looking to focus on at the paper?
M.B.: We’re very focused on the new administration as we would be, regardless of who occupied the White House. We have an administration that is very focused on disrupting and, to some extent, dismantling huge portions of the American government. That’s a surpassingly important story for us and we have a lot of resources dedicated to that — the politics of it but also the policy of it, and the impact that it has on people around the country. We have what we call an America team, which is fully dedicated to making sure that we spend a lot of time in the rest of the country, not just passing through but making sure we spend a lot of time there, and looking at the issues that matter most to Americans throughout this country.
But we have a lot of other things that we do. We are also a news organization for this community, for D.C. and Maryland and Virginia. We have a very large local staff. We continue to dedicate enormous resources to cover issues that matter to people who live here, who send their kids to school [here], are concerned about the local environment, who are concerned about public safety and the quality of public transportation, all that. We have a great sports staff, and our readers are keenly interested in that and particularly the teams, locally, but also issues at a national level and international level. There are a lot of things that we are focused on, arts, as well. We’re in a city that has a substantial arts community. We want to cover that extremely well and foreign is important to add. I think that the conflicts around the world, the issues that occupy the international community, have a direct impact on us as Americans. They have a huge impact on ordinary human beings around the world, and we want to cover that.
WWD: Today, a lot of media reporting focuses on Trump versus the business of media. Are you as focused on Trump for your media report or do you want to mix in business?
M.B.: We want to cover everything but Trump sucks up a lot of the oxygen, there’s no question about that, because it’s an important media story. How do we cover the president? What is he saying about us in the media? How well is the press performing at its job? All that is incredibly important. If you look at the media stories out there, the Trump administration is the most important. There are others, for example. What is happening at Fox News? The disruption that is occurring in our industry. What’s happening with cord cutting and the impact that it has on outfits on ESPN? There is a whole range of issues out there, but there’s no question that the Trump administration occupies a central position in our media coverage because it’s so important. And, because, as he has said, he claims to be in a war with the media and he’s constantly attacking us and so, the media’s performance is incredibly important.
WWD: How does covering this administration compare to covering the Obama administration in terms of treatment of the press and access? Many had been critical of Obama for lack of access.
M.B.: Absolutely. I think there’s this myth that somehow the press had this fabulous relationship with the Obama administration. That’s not true. In fact, one of my predecessors has written a report for the Committee to Protect Journalists that’s sharply critical of the Obama administration and the level of access that the media had and its leak investigations, a whole range of issues.
WWD: How do you view fake news? And what do you tell your reporters when covering Trump?
M.B.: The term fake news was originally applied to people who have deliberately put out false news stories and false information, including conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. The administration has appropriated that term and used it to describe any news story that does not conform to its own narrative. And some people have used fake news to any story that might have an error. Those two latter definitions are ridiculous. News organizations make mistakes. We’re human beings. A lot of stories get corrected. That’s not fake news; that’s not a media outlet that is deliberately disseminating false information. Stories that have no basis in fact where no reporting was done, or disseminating bizarre conspiracy theories, [are fake news]. While the president uses the term fake news and applies it to the press all the time, usually he’s just applying it to stories he doesn’t like, and that’s ridiculous, too.
WWD: Can you talk about your relationship with Jeff Bezos and how it compares with your relationship with previous owners?
M.B.: For the most part, in the past, they’ve been corporate owners. Here you have somebody who owns 100 percent of the company. Also, you have somebody who is an incredible entrepreneur, a pioneer in so many different ways. It’s easier this way. Decisions get made more quickly. He also brings his own knowledge of technology and consumer behavior. He’s not only bringing financial capital to The Post, he’s bringing intellectual capital to The Post. The intellectual capital is at least as important as the financial capital. They are both important. He has good ideas. He’s open to our ideas. He’s very committed to our mission as a news organization and he has a longer-term perspective than most owners in our business these days. He said at the beginning that he would like to give us runway, meaning time for us to experiment, and to see how these experiments play out. I’ve heard him talk about what things will be like in 20 years. I never heard that before from a publisher or an owner.
WWD: What does he think it will be like?
M.B.: At one time he was asked about our use of metrics and how that might affect what we are doing, what our coverage might be like. He talked a little bit about metrics and he said, “Some people might say that we wouldn’t do the deep reporting, that we wouldn’t do the investigative reporting that is so much a part of who we are because the metrics might show that it doesn’t pay for itself.” He said, “If somebody showed me a study like that, I wouldn’t believe them because 20 years from now, if we abandoned investigative reporting, we would live to regret that. People would feel that we had not performed our core mission. We have to do that.” As he put it, “Principles trump metrics.” And, he used the word “trump” before Trump became president.
WWD: That’s so rare because outlets are chasing clicks.
M.B.: It’s important. He always keeps in mind: Who are we? Who are we as an organization? What is our mission? Some people call it our brand. I personally call it our identity and our soul. Other people talk about it as our mission. It’s always central to what we’re trying to do here. We are not going to do anything that would undermine our mission, our core identity, our brand, whatever you want to call it.
WWD: What’s your take on native and sponsored content?
M.B.: It seems to be a necessity these days. I’m fine with it as long as it’s properly identified and that it’s not confusing to readers. I do not want them to think it’s a product of our newsroom.
WWD: How does investigative reporting live in today’s fast-paced digital environment?
M.B.: I think there’s huge support for it right now. The people who are subscribing clearly want us to do investigative reporting. They want us to hold powerful individuals and powerful institutions to account, including their government — at the federal level, state level, local level — they want us to do it all. That’s something they are willing to pay for. I think there’s a direct connection between investigative reporting and subscriptions. I think what you’re seeing in a number of news organizations is that they are investing more in investigative reporting because they know readers will support that with subscriptions. We are adding eight people to our investigative team. We are creating a rapid response investigative team to do investigative stories more quickly, using a lot of the digital tools that are available to us now. We hugely value the longer, deeper investigations as well, but we want to supplement that with quicker investigations that can have an impact almost immediately.
WWD: How do you put together an investigative unit? What do you look for in those reporters?
M.B.: You want people who are skeptical. You want people who do not accept things at face value. You want people who are incredibly curious. You want people who have sort of an instinct for where there might be wrongdoing; if they see it, they want to investigate it. You want people who are thorough, meticulous, careful but dogged, people who know how to mine the various sources of information that are out there, people who are not afraid to go out and interview people they need to interview no matter how sensitive the subject. And you want people who are not intimidated by powerful individuals.
WWD: We’re in a time of cost cutting and consolidations in media. I know you have an MBA. What’s wrong with the media business today? Where’s it going?
M.B.: Look, we’ve just gone through a big disruption, so the people who are in traditional news organizations have really felt the effects of that. Some people mourned what we lost in the process and then some people despaired. I mourned for a while myself, but I got over it in the same way that if you’re mourning the loss of a close friend or family member, at some point, you’ve got to move on and live a fulfilling life. I think that’s what we need to do as an industry and say, “OK, that was a wonderful time, but let’s move on and figure out how do we fulfill our mission in the new environment, which is a digital environment.”
There are a lot of new media organizations that are springing up. That is a sign of real vibrancy in our industry. Sure, legacy news organizations are struggling to figure out a business model in the current environment, but other people are starting new businesses, finding new ways of communicating, being innovative on a wide range of fronts. It means that we, and legacy news organizations, need to do that, too. We need to be more innovative than the upstarts, than the newcomers to our industry. That’s what we’re trying to do here at The Post. I think we’ve had a lot of success at that, that’s why on numerous occasions we were identified as one of the most innovative media companies in the country and in the world. I think that technology is playing a much more important role in our business. We have to be leaders in technology. We can’t be laggards in technology anymore. It’s really important that people on the news side have a very close relationship with people on the tech side. The way we tell stories is changing; it relies on technology. We need to use technology to think about the presentation of our stories, about the workflows in the newsroom, things like that.
WWD: Since “Spotlight,” do people come up to you and say, “Oh, you’re the guy Liev Schreiber played?’
MB: It has happened. It’s usually in Washington where people are more attuned to the media than in other places. It’s totally weird. I was once with my brother and his wife at the arboretum here and I’d just gotten out of the car. Some guy was on a bicycle and he stopped and said: “Are you Marty Baron?” My brother was looking at me, like, “This is ridiculous.”
WWD: Have you always wanted to be an editor or do you miss chasing those stories as a reporter?
M.B.: I don’t know about always, but I always had in mind that I might want to be an editor. I was editor of my high school paper. I was editor of my college paper. I really enjoyed that role where you can have a broader impact on the organization rather than on just one story. But I became an editor well before I anticipated becoming one. It just happened. I was reporting in New York for The L.A. Times and they asked me to come back in the summers to help with the editing. I guess they liked the job that I did. When there was a temporary opening for the business editor, they asked me to do that for a while, and then they asked me to do that permanently.
WWD: What do you do outside of the newsroom?
M.B.: Cycling, generally.
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