NEW YORK -- The Washington Post newsroom has changed dramatically in recent years, with hundreds of staffers leaving in a series of buyouts and numerous star reporters and editors decamping to established competitors, such as the New York Times, or starting their own, like Politico. Just this past week, four Post staffers left the paper's National desk for other news organizations, including Reuters, NPR and NBC News.
But there are still a few drops of institutional memory in the Post reservoir, into which executive editor Marcus Brauchli recently tried to tap, in order to squeeze out ideas for using the paper's past to improve its future. On Dec. 4, Brauchli, who arrived at the Post only three years ago, invited a half-dozen Post loyalists for lunch at his home to discuss the current state of the paper and how they might contribute more in 2012, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting.
Brauchli invited three Post veterans, Bob Woodward, David Maraniss and Rick Atkinson, who primarily write books these days (even though the former two retain "associate editor" titles). Also, national security reporter Dana Priest, chief correspondent Dan Balz and enterprise editor David Finkel were on hand that afternoon for sandwiches and chips at the Brauchli home. All six distinguished journalists have won, or shared in winning, Pulitzer Prizes.
Sources said the group didn't just talk about the glory days but also discussed concerns about the paper's quality and sagging morale. Longtime Post chronicler Harry Jaffe charged Brauchli a few months ago with having "sapped the newsroom's vitality." And one Post staffer told The Huffington Post that there's "a leadership vacuum," with management perceived as unresponsive to defections, mistakes and continued frustrations with the paper's costly new content management system.
Like any newspaper newsroom, gossip flows freely. And some details from Sunday's lunch inevitably filtered out and led to speculation that Brauchli was now relying on Post veterans -- some of whom haven't had daily interaction with the rank-and-file in years -- to help fix the newsroom's problems. (Brauchli confirmed the meeting but declined to comment on it.)
"There was no hidden agenda," Maraniss said, in an email to The Huffington Post. "We all love the newspaper and want to help it, and Marcus asked for our help in various ways: story ideas, threads of coverage, and -- for those of us who are Post alumni who mostly write books but still feel very attached to the place -- to pitch in and write or edit when we can."
Maraniss, whose long-awaited Barack Obama biography will be published in June, has recently attended meetings with the paper's politics staff, in another sign of bringing veterans a bit more into the fold.
"I intend to work with many of the younger reporters at the Post in helping shape their political stories," Maraniss added.
Still, it remains to be seen whether and to what degree Brauchli heeds the advice he's solicited from Post veterans -- along with the unsolicited advice he might get. A few days after Brauchli had lunch with the Post veterans, he received an email from Henry Allen, a former Style writer and editor who left the paper after a newsroom fistfight in late 2009.
Allen was surprised to see the Post's David Ignatius write an "Appreciations" piece about the late Washington businessman and philanthropist Joe Robert -- a Style staple feature that was quickly phased out by Brauchli in favor of straight obituaries. But now it appeared that Brauchli had changed course, leading Allen to question the editor's stewardship and whether his many changes early on actually did any good. "He broke a lot of eggs," Allen recalled telling Brauchli in the email, "but never made the omelette."
While Brauchli has focused much of his effort on the paper's digital strategy since coming aboard in 2008, the editors at the lunch did discuss whether the paper's brass has diverted attention from traditional journalistic values. Lately, it appears the Post is trying to re-emphasize the latter through a series of brown-bag lunches with veterans like Priest, Finkel, Vernon Loeb and Joel Achenbach, who are stressing narrative journalism and old-fashioned reporting.
Indeed, the Post can still produce strong, narrative journalism that also plays well online. Over the past few days, the Post has run a moving series following up on the 1988 promise made by two Washington-area businessmen to pay college tuition for the students of a fifth-grade class at Seat Pleasant Elementary school.
On Tuesday afternoon, Brauchli and managing editors Liz Spayd and Raju Narisetti told staff that the series is "a powerful reminder of what we can accomplish with narrative journalism," according to a memo obtained by The Huffington Post.
"Their work attracted nearly half a million page views yesterday and are on track to do better than that today," they wrote, "a reminder that good journalism works for us on many levels."