Blue Pencil Hop: Leonard Downie of the Washington Post
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog attended the annual Blue Pencil Dinner in Low Rotunda last night to see how the other half lives. Our impression follows.
At 8:30 on Saturday night, the staff, alums, and distinguished guests of the Columbia Daily Spectator traipsed into Low Library in their finery for an evening of hobnobbing and a speech by Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post. A dinner (if networking can be called dining) preceded the event.
Editor-in-chief emeritus John Davisson C’08 began the evening with a speech about Spec in the last year, during which he referred to the newspaper’s critics and fans who have both lauded the paper and called its reporters “pedestrian hacks” and “accomplices to the destruction of mankind.”
But things seem to be looking up for the campus rag. In Spring of 2007, the Spec had 1.7 million page views and in the Fall of ’07 it had 7.96 million, which could be attributed to the website redesign or the presence of an Iranian dictator on campus soil– it’s a toss up. The paper’s circulation holds steady at 10,000 a day, and Spec has recently agreed to host Wiki CU after Bwog declined the offer.
Davisson celebrated the paper’s accomplishments: its coverage of Ahmadinejad’s visit, its new blog trio, and its weekly magazine The Eye, which he called “the edgiest magazine on campus.”
After a few more speeches and awards, it was finally time for Downie. The executive editor, who graduated from Ohio State University, has been head honcho of the WP for 17 years. Before that, he was a Deputy Metro Editor and helped oversee the paper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal. Last night, standing before the audience with a large statue of the Buddha’s head benevolently looking down on him, he looked and sounded like an editor from The Wire’s Baltimore Sun newsroom delivering a State of the Media address. A rarity among newsmen, he also didn’t instinctively cringe at the word “media” and used it liberally throughout the evening.
He sounded the call for public service and accountability reporting; he gave a long list of the WP‘s many successes in the last year (e.g. the Walter Reed Hospital story); he tactfully acknowledged that newsrooms are shrinking and journalism is becoming a harder, tougher, meaner business; and he concluded with an adage: “As they say in the sneaker ads: Just Do It.”
But for those who are doing it, or hope to do it, Downie’s insistence that newspapers and accountability journalism aren’t dying–“Our ambition is to do better with less,” he said–wasn’t fully convincing. During the Q&A, former Spec EIC Nick Summers, C’05, a writer for Newsweek, asked whether Downie wasn’t being a bit blithe, considering the Post is going through another round of early retirement offers (read: layoffs) next month. Collars got tight and necks reddened as Summers finished his question.
Meanwhile, James Romoser C’05 and a writer for the Winston-Salem Journal, asked how smaller papers could possibly deal with shrinking newsrooms and the “better with less” attitude. Downie admitted that this was difficult and moved on.
Downie’s media summary was spot on but it was, well, old news. Telling a room full of 20-somethings that the Internet is important and journalism is rough is (pardon the cliche) like bringing coals to Newcastle. Perhaps it would have served the Spec‘s staff better to have invited someone relevant to their lives, as several staffers noted after the event. Downie has the prestige of the WP, and he made quite a bit of money for Spec last night in gifts from alums, but he was reared in the golden age of journalism. As the corporate face of a large paper, he looks at a young Speccie and sees someone he can hire to replace the old guard at less than half the price. Might I suggest Mike Allen, the Politico‘s chief political correspondent? Or Dahlia Lithwick–a senior editor at Slate? Or Sewell Chan, who runs The City Room blog for the Times? Or really just someone who’s never actually used a blue pencil to edit a piece.