At a fundraising dinner in New York last night for the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship, a Columbia University program for business journalists, there was no shortage of questions for the evening’s featured speaker, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron.
His lengthy onstage Q&A session mainly revolved around just two topics: US president Donald Trump and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the Washington Post in 2013.
Baron has led three newspapers to Pulitzer Prizes and was portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the 2015 film Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen. He spoke about the challenge of covering a White House warring with the media (Baron’s view: from the Washington Post’s side, it’s not war, it’s just work) and how Bezos helped rejuvenate the newspaper and expand its readership.
Here’s a quick rundown of his answers to some of the questions he fielded from Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett, who led the discussion.
The president, Baron noted, hurls insults at the media almost daily, referring to factually based news reports as fake news and to journalists themselves as disgusting, garbage, scum, the lowest form of humanity, and the enemy of the people. “He’s still struggling to come up with something worse than that but I’m sure he’ll find it,” Baron says.
To the extent that the insults erode trust in the press, Baron says they have a “corrosive effect on democracy.” But he said the Washington Post would continue to cover the White House “aggressively and energetically” with the purpose of serving in a watchdog function. “Keep in mind the reason there is the first amendment to the Constitution, and that is to hold government accountable,” he said.
“The whole purpose of these attacks is to destroy our credibility with the American people so that he alone—to use his own phrase, ‘he alone’” can provide information to the public, “but it’s also to intimidate us.” Baron noted the strategy had not succeed in intimidating the Post, where reporter David Farenthold has already won a Pulitzer for his reporting on Trump.
“If doctors can treat people they don’t particularly like, and lawyers can represent people they don’t particularly like, we can certainly do our job, and it isn’t life and death.”
“It’s not saying much—we’re ahead of Congress,” he joked. But “trust in the press and trust in the presidency is starting to intersect. So in that strange way, Trump has brought us closer together.”
Baron noted that the American press was also viewed negatively during the Watergate scandal, and had been frequently taken to task by Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president. Agnew resigned in 1973 after being charged with bribery, conspiracy, and tax fraud. But three years before that, he made waves referring to the mainstream media as ”nattering nabobs of negativism” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”
Baron noted, “And then it turned out that the reporting was validated and the ratings for the press rose sharply after Nixon resigned” in 1974. “I believe our reporting [on Trump] will be validated in the long run, and in fact most of it already has been validated in the short run.”
“Not that often. It’s happened a couple times,” Baron said. “And what motivates him to call you?” Tett inquired. “Stories he doesn’t like,” Baron responded. “He wouldn’t call me to say hello.”
“I don’t. No.” But he promised he was adequately briefed on the president’s social media missives by other Post staffers keeping close tabs on the tweets.
Befitting a dinner celebrating business journalism, the conversation eventually moved off Trump and shifted to Post owner Bezos. The Amazon founder—and occasional Trump punching bag—bought the paper in 2013 for $250 million.
“He does get involved, heavily involved, in the tactics and strategy of the Post,” Baron said, particularly in terms of the paper’s technology capabilities, metrics, and its revamped subscription model. “The intellectual capital [from Bezos] is at least as important as the financial capital. … We talk to him about once every two weeks on a conference call. Occasionally he’s in Washington and comes by to visits us.”
But the billionaire owner has had no input on coverage and hasn’t attempted to provide any. “Maybe Trump would if he were the owner of the Washington Post,” Baron said, but under Bezos the paper enjoys what the editor described as “complete independence.”
“The first and most fundamental thing he talked about was changing our strategy,” Baron said. At the time Bezos acquired it, the Washington Post was positioning itself as a regional paper serving Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. “He did not think the regional model was going to work and that we needed to be a national, and even an international” player, Baron said.
Bezos also encouraged the staff to stop looking at online journalism as a drain on its competitive position, and to consider the basket of opportunities the internet presented instead. “He called it ‘gifts,'” Baron said, explaining that the gifts included the internet’s ability to distribute news articles far and wide at “virtually zero marginal cost.”
Since Bezos bought the Post four years ago, Baron said, the paper has added 150 staffers to its newsrooms and hired “a lot” of engineers. It crossed the 1 million online subscribers mark and last year turned profitable “for the first time in many years.” (He declined to be more specific about numbers, despite Tett’s pressing him to be transparent.)
But Baron, whose storied career has also included stops at The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, and The Miami Herald, as well as The New York Times, acknowledged that other newspapers lack some of the foundational things that helped The Post to flourish online—namely its proximity to, and expertise in, the Washington political scene, its already nationally recognized brand, and the legacy of Watergate. With the exception of the New York Times, Baron indicated, ”All of the newspapers I’ve worked for in the past, it would be very hard to turn those into national papers.”