Despite protests to the contrary earlier this year, Leonard Downie Jr. is stepping down as executive editor Sept. 8 for a successor to be selected by still-new publisher Katharine Weymouth. She promises an announcement soon. Her choice will have a major impact on the way the Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) proceeds with online news. Downie told Howard Kurtz leaving now makes sense since "so much further change now needs to take place at the newspaper and Web site, and someone else should be tackling that."
Weymouth's February appointment as WaPo publisher and president of the Washington Post Media set off a series of ripple effects, including the departure of Caroline Little. It is not unusual for a new publisher to appoint his or her own top editor; Downie was promoted to the post by Weymouth's uncle Donald Graham, now chairman and CEO of the company, when he became publisher. But this changing of the guard also suggests a rethinking about the way print and online news are handled. Will the two currently separate newsrooms be integrated? It's a distinct possibility although I'm told no firm decision has been made yet.
Downie's attitude towards online news evolved considerably over the years. In late 2006, I was at an ONA conference a few blocks away from the newsroom when Downie admitted that many of the assumptions and worries he and others have made about online journalism "have turned out to be ill-founded." A short time later, while other major newspapers were integrating their operations, Downie gave the print editors more of a role in shaping online news coverage, but the print and online newsrooms remained separate. When I interviewed Graham and Weymouth about her mission back in February, Graham said her new job was to manage the "transition from a world we know very well to a world that's changing." Her choice of executive editor will say a lot about how that transition will be managed.
The names being bandied about include the NYT's Jonathan Landman, former WSJ managing editor Marcus Brauchli, and WaPo ME Phil Bennett. Of the outsiders, Brauchli may be the most fun name to dangle but the selection of Landman, responsible for online strategy and newsroom integration, could be a signal that a combined news effort is on the way. (Landman took part in an NYTimes.com discussion late last month that makes for interesting reading with this possibility in mind.)
By Staci D. Kramer