On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
After nearly half a century in journalism, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring.
Baron led newsrooms at The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe before coming to the Post in 2013. That same year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the newspaper. During his tenure, the Post was awarded 10 Pulitzer Prizes, including the 2014 prize for its coverage of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. The paper grew from 580 journalists to more than 1,000 and expanded its digital-only subscribers to three million. According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, it was under Baron that the Post found its footing as a truly national paper.
Baron sits down with Kojo to talk about leading the paper for the last eight years, being immortalized in the film “Spotlight” and the challenges ahead for journalism.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Marty Baron Executive Editor, The Washington Post; @PostBaron
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. After 45 years in journalism, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring. Baron came to the Post in 2013. Under his leadership, the paper has won 10 Pulitzer prizes and nearly doubled its staff. Joining me now to discuss his retirement, his years at the Post and, frankly, the future of journalism is Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post. Marty Baron, thank you for joining us.
MARTY BARONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMary Baron, why did you decide that now was the right time to retire?
BARONWell, I'm 66. I'm beyond the normal retirement age. I've been at this, as you noted, for 45 years, as a journalist, and I've been leading newsrooms for 20 years. And these are exhausting jobs, particularly in a digital era, the era of the internet, where we always have to be on duty. And so, I feel like I've been on duty 24/7, 365 and essentially every minute. And I've reached the point where I would just like to enjoy more free time and greater personal liberty.
BARONAnd it seems like a good time. We're starting a new administration in the White House, and it's just a good time for there to be a change, both in my personal life and -- in my personal life. And it just seemed like a good moment to do this. And also, the Post is really on strong footing right now, both journalistically and commercially. And so, I feel good about leaving at this moment.
NNAMDIYou came to the paper eight years ago from the Boston Globe. What drew you to the Washington Post?
BARONWell, it was the Washington Post, this journalistic institution with an amazing heritage, the institution that drove the Watergate investigation, that had a history of holding powerful institutions and powerful individuals accountable. One of the most storied journalistic institutions in the country and, in fact, in the world. And so, how could I turn down an offer to lead a newsroom like that?
NNAMDIYou've been in journalism, as you mentioned, for about 45 years. How have you seen the industry change, especially in the last 20 years when you've led newsrooms in Miami, Boston and now here?
BARONWell, look, we've seen a profound change in the way that news and information is delivered with the arrival of the internet, and particularly the spread of broadband communications. And that's made possible the mobile devices that everybody has today. It's made possible the dissemination of video on those devices and audio on those devices. And it's just changed the nature of journalism in what we and what were traditionally in newspapers have been able to do. So, now we do audio, we do video, we do interactive graphics, animations, you name it.
BARONWe try to stay true to the traditional values that we've had here at the Post, and yet we need to adapt and embrace the changes that the digital age has brought upon us, because people are just getting their information in a different way. And that calls for different forms of storytelling, as well. I wanted to take advantage of all the tools that are available to us these days, the ones that I just mentioned. And so, the nature of journalism, the nature in which we tell stories is changing.
BARONAnd so, that's been a dramatic change. It's come with a lot of financial pressures on the industry, of course. And we've had to adapt there, as well, and we've had to develop new models, new sort of economic models for our business. So, new economic models, new forms of storytelling, all of that is new.
NNAMDIShortly after you came to the Post, it was bought by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. How has his ownership affected the paper?
BARONWell, his impact has been profound. The moment after he acquired it, after the acquisition was effective, he told us that we needed to change our strategy. The strategy for the Post up till that point had been for and about Washington, meaning that we focused on our region. And he felt that that had been a good strategy for the Post perhaps for the past, but it was not a good strategy for us heading into the future, that all of the pillars of our economic model had essentially collapsed.
BARONAnd so, we had taken a lot of pain, because of the internet, but the internet had given us a gift. And the gift was national and international distribution at virtually no additional cost. And we were in a position to take advantage of that, to become national and international, in addition to doing our local coverage. And that's because we were in the nation's capital, which was an ideal base for doing that.
BARONWe had the name, The Washington Post, so Washington being something that could be leveraged to a national and international level. And we had a history and a heritage that defined who we were as an institution that established our identity. And that was shining a light in dark corners, holding powerful individuals and powerful institutions accountable, particularly those who govern this country, who are entrusted to govern this country. And so, with that, we had to figure out how to go national and international, while still providing strong coverage of our region. And that's what we went about doing.
NNAMDIYes, the region is what we tend to focus on on this broadcast, and the Post has a team of local journalists that cover this region. Local news, however, seems more vital than ever now, especially as smaller outlets shutter due to financial hardships. What do you see are the biggest challenges facing local news?
BARONWell, the biggest challenge facing local news around the country is just that there is no clear sustainable economic model for it right now. It's interesting, because going back 20 years, many people thought that the institutions that were going to suffer the most were the national ones, because they had to face competition from Google, Facebook and outfits like that.
BARONBut it turns out that local outlets were the ones that faced the greatest challenges, because all of the sources of revenue -- particularly classified advertising and display advertising in local newspapers -- have really diminished. And, I mean, classified advertising hardly exists any longer. And so, without the money, those institutions haven't had the resources to cover their communities the way that they deserve to be covered. And so that's been a huge challenge, and it's probably the greatest challenge in journalism today.
NNAMDIAhmad in Washington, D.C. has a question along those lines. Ahmad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AHMADThank you, Kojo. Sir, when you look at the consolidation and centralization of media and you point to it as being, in large part, due to economics, do you feel, as we go forward, the threat to democracy getting even greater? I mean, we saw what happened at the Capitol and the impact of Mr. Trump on large riots. Do you see that as a real threat to democracy, as we go forward?
BARONI think the threat to democracy comes from an aspect of the internet. And that has allowed so-called media outlets to develop that basically reinforced people's preconceived notions of reality, when they are often divorced from reality -- people who live in sort of parallel information universes -- and filled with falsehoods and bizarre conspiracy theories and the like. And they turn to those media outlets for their so-called information, and they see the world through that.
BARONThe problem now is that people don't necessarily -- they want to be more affirmed than to be informed. They want their preexisting views affirmed to them. Being informed means that you will learn things that you didn't otherwise know, that your preconceived notions may be contradicted, that there may be facts that challenge what you think, that there's always something new to learn.
BARONAnd so, somehow, we have to make a shift back to being informed and not just being affirmed. And the problem with the median environment right now is that it allows the existence of a wide variety of so-called media outlets that are spreading falsehoods, that are spreading misinformation, even disinformation, and people believe it. And that's deeply concerning, because in order for us to have a democracy, we have to operate from a common set of facts.
BARONWe should have different opinions. People will have different opinions. That's the nature of a democracy. There should be a vigorous debate about how to meet the challenges of our society. But fundamentally, we have to operate from a common set of facts. And now, people are not operating from a common set of facts.
NNAMDIAhmad (word?), thank you very much for your call. I'd recognize your voice anyplace. Here now is Bert in Washington, D.C. Bert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BERTYes. I've enjoyed the Post since the '50s, and worked with Woodward on Watergate and later the CIA, and followed your great work in Boston. My question is this, and I have journalists in the family. But my question is that many stories -- which 10 years ago, I would've expected to find on the op-ed pages of the great newspapers like the Post and Times -- are now in the front news story, as the lead stories. And while I used to object to too much balance, now it seems to me that they are so heavily opinioned, I wonder if that's forced by the digital competition for eyes and readers, or what your sense of that change is.
BARONWell, I guess I would challenge the premise of that. I don't believe that that's the case. Certainly, journalistic styles change over time, and I think we're living in an era where there's been so much misrepresentation of the facts that many news organizations feel an absolute obligation to be very direct and even forceful in making clear what's true and what's not true, and using language that, in the past, we probably would've avoided, like saying lies, that something is a lie.
BARONBut, unfortunately, these days, there are people who are just flat-out lying. And so, you know, readers may interpret that as bias. Readers may interpret that as opinion, but I don't see it that way. And so, I just don't accept the premise that these are stories that are stories that are on the front page would, in a previous era, have been on the opinion page. I don't see that at all.
BARONIn fact, if you go back to the time of Watergate, you know, the Washington Post was heavily criticized. It was accused of bias against the Nixon administration. It was accused of being a partisan media enterprise. And it was viewed as the opposition. And that's what we hear today. It's the same thing that we're hearing today, or we heard, certainly, during the Trump administration. And it's remarkably -- what we heard during the Trump administration was remarkably equivalent to what the Washington Post heard during the Watergate era.
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about the Trump administration, and thank you for your call, Bert, because you served as the Post executive director -- the executive editor for the second half of President Obama's presidency and for Donald Trump's presidency. Trump regularly disparaged the Post, calling it fake news and an enemy of the people. How did the Trump presidency impact the Post's work and affect the way we think about journalism?
BARONWell, I think that, you know, we came under a degree of attack that we had not really faced before. There's an assumption that somehow, we had a cozy relationship with the Obama administration. We, at the Post, did not. For years, we asked for an interview with Obama and were denied. And the administration gave interviews to outlets that were perceived to be friendly to that administration. And I think that's because the Obama administration knew that if we had an interview with the President, we would ask tough questions, as we always do.
BARONBut, you know, we saw attacks from the Trump administration that we had not seen before, a real effort to essentially demolish the mainstream press in this country, an effort to have the public perceive us as the enemies, as garbage, as scum. To use the language that he used, as the opposition party, as traitors. Those are all words that Donald Trump used to characterize the press. So, we were not accustomed to that, of course. And I'm not sure that we were entirely prepared for it, although we experienced some of it during his campaign for the presidency.
BARONSo, I think that just reinforcing us the idea that we just need to keep doing our job without regard to the pressure that we're under, without regard to the attacks, and that we needed to hold the government to account. We needed to find out who was responsible for the policies, who was going to be affected by those policies. That, you know, if the norms of the democracy were being violated and if the laws were being violated, that we needed to make that clear.
BARONAnd I'm not sure that it changed us in any fundamental way, but it did reinforce in us the need to stick to our mission, to understand why we have a free press in this country. And the reason that we have a free press in this country -- and it was really defined by James Madison, who was the principal author of the First Amendment -- and the idea was to hold government to account.
BARONThat's why we have a free press in this country, and that's what we needed to do. And it was clear during the Trump administration -- and it's clear today, during the Biden administration -- that we have that as our mission, and we will stick to that mission, regardless of the pressure that we experience.
NNAMDIThe debate over journalistic objectivity has come to the forefront during the Trump presidency. And after the George Floyd protests this summer, journalists, including former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, have charged that what passed for objectivity is often subjective decision-making by white reporters and editors. You have defended journalistic objectivity. How do you define it?
BARONWell, I define objectivity the way that it was defined when the idea was first developed 100 years ago by Walter Lippman, who was a famous American journalist, one of the most influential of all time. And his view was that we recognize that each individual has preconceptions, has their own life experiences. And that they come into -- they may come into a story influenced by their own life experiences, their own preconceptions, and that it's really important that we try, as hard as possible, to set those aside, to approach stories with an open mind, to do our research as thoroughly as possible, as rigorously as possible, as scientifically as possible, and then find out what's really going on, find out what the facts are. And then when we've done all that, when we're confident that we've done our work appropriately, thoroughly, rigorously, that we then tell the public what we've actually learned, what we've discovered, and tell it to them in a direct, unflinching way.
BARONUnfortunately, these days, people are interpreting objectivity meaning balance, that everything's 50/50, that it's equivalent to something that's called bothsidesism. It's not that. It's not neutrality. It's not bothsidesism. It's not balance. It's not any of that. It is recognizing that we, as individuals, every one of us, comes to a story with preconceptions and life experiences, and that we need to sort of recognize what they are and try to be as open minded as possible and do our research in as rigorous a way as we possibly can.
NNAMDIWhat, therefore, is the argument for having a diverse newsroom where people of color, LGBTQ people and women bring their humanity into the newsroom? What would be the purpose of diversity, if not to affect coverage?
BARONWell, that is the purpose. The purpose is to bring different experiences. As I said, you know, each of us comes to a story with our different experiences. And so, it's important that we not only have one experience in the newsroom, that we not only have people, you know, who have grown up a certain way, that we have people who come from all corners of the United States who have all different life experiences, who are diverse, and can then share those perspectives with other people so that it actually opens our eyes and our ears to what we might not otherwise see, to stories that we might not recognize, so that we do pursue those stories.
BARONBecause if we only had, let's say, a newsroom that was white and male, we wouldn't see the stories that we ought to be pursuing. And it's important that we have people in our newsroom, that we have a very diverse newsroom, so that we compensate for the deficiencies in our own experience. That's why. That's critical, absolutely critical for our coverage.
NNAMDIHere's Troy, in Baltimore. Troy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TROYHi. My question is, do you think that the newspaper is a dying entity, as digital media is around, that the newspaper will actually be phased out, eventually?
BARONWell, I do think the physical newspaper is probably going to disappear at some point. I mean, there might be some remnants of it. There will be magazines of some sort. There might be, I don't know, a weekend edition of a paper. But the reality is that we live in a digital era. Most people are getting their information on digital devices. Most of those devices are mobile devices, a phone, and they're getting it through social media, as well.
BARONAnd so, that's just the way that we're living. That's the way people live their lives. The idea that, you know, the primary source of information would be a physical paper delivered to your home at 6:00 in the morning or earlier, is just -- that's a thing of the past, and it's unsustainable. And it's not the way people live their lives. It's very costly for us to produce, and it represents the past. It does not represent the future.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. We can't talk about investigative journalism without talking about "Spotlight," the 2015 movie that follows the Boston Globe "Spotlight" investigative team as it reports on a child sex abuse scandal and coverup at the Boston archdiocese. The story unfolded, of course, when you were the executive editor of the Boston Globe. Liev Schreiber plays you in the movie. Let's take a listen to part of Schreiber's speech at the end of the film, when he's addressing the "Spotlight" team.
LIEV SCHREIBERI can't speak to what happened before I arrived, but all of you have done some very good reporting, here, reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.
NNAMDIThat was Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron in the film, "Spotlight." What did you think of his performance, and what was it like seeing this story on screen?
BARONWell, I think he did a fabulous job. I think that whole movie captured what we were experiencing at the Boston Globe. It captured the general outlines of the investigation that we pursued. For me, it was -- I mean, I never expected to see myself in a movie. I never expected this movie ever to be made. It didn't seem to have the qualities that one sees in movies these days. No action scenes, no romance, no superheroes, no special effects.
BARONBut I think it was important that it was made. I'm glad that it was made. I'm glad it was well received, because I think that it showed what investigative journalism is all about, why it's important that we pursue it. It showed how difficult it is to execute properly. It showed the need to hold powerful institutions and powerful people to account. It showed the need to listen to people who don't have power, because they have powerful things to say.
BARONAnd I think it had a profound impact on how institutions deal with allegations of sexual abuse. So, other institutions have now learned from our investigation of the Catholic Church, and they don't want to be the next Catholic Church that's discovered to have covered up abuse over decades.
NNAMDIHere's Kathryn in Arlington, Virginia. Kathryn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHRYNOh, hi. Hello.
NNAMDIYes, Kathryn, you're on the air.
KATHRYNHi. Okay, okay. I've never called before, 22-year listener.
KATHRYNI wanted to say, I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a small town. And the newspaper was so essential to me, being able to read stuff that my mother, you know, wouldn't want me to read necessarily. Hello?
NNAMDIYes, we're still hearing you.
KATHRYNOkay. And - I'm sorry. And I wanted to say how important -- I worked in a taxi company here for, like, 12 years. And we used to get the Express every morning. I would...
NNAMDIWe don't have a great deal of time left, Kathryn. But I think what you want to say is that the physical newspaper is important to you and it should not go away.
NNAMDIHow would you respond in 30 seconds, Marty Baron?
BARONWell, you know, look. I've mourned what's happened to the physical newspaper, but I also realize that people can get their information in other ways. Most people have a computer of some sort. They have a phone, which is a powerful computer in and of itself. And people can get information from those devices, as well. It's the same information.
BARONWhat's really important is that we have strong news organizations, that they cover their communities throughout the country, cover everyone in those communities. And what's not so important is whether it comes on a piece of paper or whether it's delivered on a device.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time. Marty Baron is the executive editor of The Post, retiring at the end of this month. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you in your retirement.
BARONThank you very much. I appreciate it. Thanks for your interest.
NNAMDIOur conversation with Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron was produced by Cydney Grannan. Our segment about efforts to restore local control over police to the city of Baltimore was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, the coronavirus caused a healthcare crisis of almost unimaginable proportions, but the pandemic threatens our health in other ways, as many people put off medical treatment for everything from broken bones to cancer. We discuss the causes and consequences of delaying care. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.