Mr. Baron Goes to Washington

The Washington Post today confirmed what for weeks had been rumored: That Boston Globe editor Marty Baron would exit Morrissey Boulevard to take charge of the Washington Post - a regional newspaper with a national footprint which, for a variety of reasons, has lost much of its historic élan.

The timing of the move is tinged with a touch of Hollywood. Washington operates on a two-year cycle, just as Congress does. But the quadrennial warp and weft of the presidential election is the rhythm that matters most. The appointment of a forceful talent like Baron at this particular moment reassures the imperial egos of the scribbling class that the stars are still in the heavens.

Barack, meet Marty.

Outgoing Post Editor Marcus Brauchli, the former Wall Street Journal capo who was buttoned when Rupert Murdoch bought the Journal in 2007, never successfully made the transition from the highly specialized - and quirky - culture of the financial paper to the more general-interest and politics-centric Post.

Rounds of newsroom buy-outs and forced retirements triggered by the declining financial performance of the Post made what would have been a difficult job almost thankless for Brauchli. (And so much for the idea of those damned "salons," in which the Post planned to sell access to its editors and writers. It never came to pass -to the relief of many.)

But in Baron, Washington Post publisher Katharine Bouchage Weymouth tapped a talent who thrives on adversity.

Baron is an unusual breed of cat.

According people who have seen Baron in action, he's capable of internalizing the ever-shrinking financial resources available to running a newsroom without losing his soul - or turning into a front-office patsy.

Not many would describe Baron as conventionally inspirational. But in his own flinty, somewhat chilly way, Baron has coaxed a new standard of excellence from the staffs he lead at the Los Angeles Times business section, Miami Herald, and the Globe.

A giant corporate newspaper machine such as Gannett may have successfully mastered the business of stamping out editors like widgets. But in what's left of the quality trade, editors - like garden-grown tomatoes - don't often travel well.

Brauchli is just a case in point.

For whatever reasons, Baron has mastered the highly valued corporate skill of parachuting into a new situation and assuming command without compromising his own mojo.

Baron's own internal performance meter was calibrated during his stint at the New York Times from 1991 to 1997.

A friend of mine at the Times who recalls Baron's tenure said, "I enjoyed watching him develop. Marty went from being a glorified copy editor on steroids, to a fairly accomplished power player, managing to get both [Joseph] Lelyveld and Howell [Raines] to consider him something of a golden boy. And as people know, there was little love lost between Howell and Lelyveld. On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit. He's like a character out of Camus. Loves the sun. I think work is merely a metaphor for life in Baron's view of things."

Despite the incessant hand wringing in the profession about whether the Times lives up to its self-imposed code - or whether that code even makes sense today - when all the whining is over, the Times still represents the gold standard of American journalism.

Baron has replaced his marrow with this ethos. It filters, in the immortal words of General Jack D. Ripper, Baron's "pure bodily fluids."

Baron's DNA contains a strong dose of the strategic.

Just as other editors across the nation had to do, Baron presided over slashing the Globe's arts and entertainment coverage. In the process, however, Baron focused on writers who became Pulitzer Prize winners for criticism (Sebastian Smee for art, Wesley Morris for film, and Mark Feeney for visual culture) as well as another guy who, in addition to contributing his regular ration of inches, also writes books (Ty Burr).

Of the six Pulitzers the Globe would win while working under Baron's banner, the most interesting was the prize Gareth Cook (formerly an editor at the Phoenix) won for his explanatory writing about stem cell research, which made the arcane understandable.

Paradoxical though it may be, a sure measure of Baron's success at the Globe can be measured by protégées of his that moved on to the Times mothership: Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Savage and Michael Paulson, metropolitan editor Carolyn Ryan, and reporter Binyamin Appelbaum - to name four.

If, in 50 years' time, newspaper history has more than an academic interest, Baron will be ranked on a par with Tom Winship. Winship, a swamp Yankee (not a Brahmin), who married well (a Cabot), and whose dad just happened to be Globe editor, accomplished the seemingly impossible task of propelling Boston's comfortable snooze of a daily into the national limelight once he took over the shop.

At a glance, Baron might appear to be the anti-Winship. Or in the lingo of Jerry Seinfeld, Bizzaro Winship.

No squire-like suspenders or backslapping for Marty.

But what they shared in common was simple; a love of action.

Winship had his war, Vietnam; Baron his, Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Anthony Shadid, who would ultimately die in the employ of the Times in the early days of the Syrian uprising, was wounded while working for the Globe in the Middle East, Baron jumped on the first plane to Israel to be by Shadid's side.

Baron walked into the Globe six weeks before 9/11. In the years that followed Baron and the Globe suffered tremendous trials, budget and salary cuts, the rumors - first - that the Times would sell it, then the threat to close it.

It in no way diminishes the scope or the quality of Baron's achievement to say that he kept the bean counters quiet.

More importantly, he kept the newsroom marching.

There was no compromise on investigative work by the Spotlight Team, as the investigation into to sleazy patronage of the probation department, or the probe of judges who brush off drunk driving charges, proved.

The death of Senator Ted Kennedy yielded sterling coverage - truly (and a cliché says it accurately) a first draft of history. And also a book, Ted Kennedy: Scenes from an Epic Life.

So who takes over for Baron? And how many people will he eventually take with him to the Post?

The second is impossible to answer.

As for his successor, the newsroom is betting on one of three candidates, with the handicapping in this order: Peter Canellos, editorial page editor and former Washington bureau chief (smart, innovative, but a bit distant); Brian McGrory, metro columnist and former metro editor (hard driving, but volatile); Caleb Solomon (shrewd page-one tactician, but too much in Baron's shadow).

As a lifetime Globe reader, I'd be interested in how any one of these three might play out. But New York is playing for higher stakes.

My hunch is that some fifty-something Times veteran who is out of the running to be the next editor of the Gray Lady, but still has that unusual portfolio of talents needed to be the maestro of the daily miracle that is a newspaper gets the nod.

Before Baron was named Globe editor in 2001, there were three strong candidates in the organization: managing editor Gregg Moore, a shrewd, genial, and ruthless newsroom operator; special projects honcho Ben Bradlee, the epitome of journalistic shoe-leather and hustle; and David Shribman, Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Bureau chief.

The New York brass, however, had its own agenda, and his name was Marty Baron. I wouldn't be surprised if history replayed itself.

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