New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet was being grilled by his own media columnist recently during a sardonically titled talk, “Covering POTUS: A Conversation with the Failing NYT,” when someone in the audience asked: “Better slogan: ‘The truth is more important now than ever,’ or ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness?’
The former was from a brand campaign the Times kicked off during the Oscars; the latter was The Washington Post’s new motto, an old saying that had been invoked by owner Jeff Bezos in an interview last year with Marty Baron, the Post’s editor.
“I should say that I love our competition with The Washington Post, I think it’s great,” said Baquet, grinning as if he was about to do something that might get him in trouble. “But I actually think their slogan — Marty Baron, please forgive me for saying this — sounds like the next Batman movie.” Later on, Baron shot back, “No apology necessary from the people of Gotham.”
Baron and Baquet are the two most important newspaper editors in America right now, at a time when the media is tackling the most epic and consequential story of the past 40 years. Donald Trump’s presidency has revved up the competition for news organizations far and wide; big and small; print, broadcast and digital. In the process, he has sparked a resurgence of storied legacy outlets like the Times and the Post, each of which has struggled with changes in the news business while doomsayers augured its demise. As with the rest of the media, their so-called “Trump bump” has been a boon in terms of scoops and subscribers, even if it may seem a bit like a huge bubble that’s destined to deflate one of these days.
Many news organizations have been moving the needle on the Trump story in different ways — CNN, NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and BuzzFeed, among others — whether through clean news breaks or relentless inside-the-room reporting on White House palace intrigue. But when it comes to inside reports from intelligence and national security agencies, the Times and the Post, with their expanding rosters of veteran correspondents, have the greatest institutional advantages.
In particular, the investigations into whether the Trump team colluded with Russia in the 2016 election have played to the historic strengths of both newspapers. They put a focus on the kind of source-driven reporting on the FBI and CIA that the Times and the Post have long cultivated, in which senior officials leak to veteran reporters who’ve proved their reliability and capacity to protect their informants.
The result has been a resurgence of ink-stained combat that makes NYT v. WaPo the most compelling journalistic rivalry since the days of Baquet and Baron’s respective forefathers, Abe Rosenthal and Ben Bradlee. The other thing that makes the rivalry compelling is that unlike Rosenthal and Bradlee, who were cordial at most, Baron and Baquet are legit pals. Actually, according to Baquet during that recent Trump talk, at SXSW in Austin, “He is like, one of my best friends. … We have dinner occasionally, and we go to art galleries sometimes.”
People close to them confirmed that the bestie talk isn’t hot air, saying they’re known to confide and consult about personal and professional matters, and that a mutual passion for art was indeed the spark from which their friendship initially developed. Both were working at the Times back in the late ‘90s, when they became tight enough that Baron would be invited to small dinner parties at the Upper West Side apartment of Baquet and his wife, Dylan Landis.
And yet, looking back on their journeys to the ivory towers of American journalism, it’s equally clear that Baron and Baquet have been formidable competitors, if collegial ones, over the course of their professional lives. Perhaps no two editors’ careers have overlapped and shadowed one another so closely. In the past, they’ve each contended to be the top editor at The New York Times and to have all the power and influence that goes along with it. After decades of ups and downs for both men, Baquet eventually got that job, but at the same time, Baron got the glory and fame that only the most Herculanean journalistic achievements can confer. Now, their competition defines not only their careers but, to no small degree, the fate of the Trump administration. Every morning, each goes to work knowing that part of what he needs to do that day is to be better and faster than the other, while girding for the inevitable blowback from Trump’s defenders.
“This is not a personal rivalry,” said Baron in declining to be interviewed, echoing the sometimes brusque, bottom-line manner cited by admirers and detractors alike. “In fact, there’s nothing personal about this. I don’t see myself as the story here, and so I’m averse to participating in a piece might frame it that way. … These are two strong news organizations competing vigorously with each other, as they should.”
Baquet, who is regarded as the more congenial of the two — and also the one more likely to offer long-winded assessments and analysis — put it this way in Austin: “The competition between The Washington Post and The New York Times is — 20 percent of me hates it, because they beat us sometimes, but 80 percent of me thinks, this is amazing. I think having two great news organizations fight it out day in and day out, as painful as it is when they beat us, it’s terrific. Can you imagine if that wasn’t the case? Can you imagine if either one of us wasn’t in the position to cover this story the way we’re trying to cover it now? That’s an unimaginable state of affairs.”
The caveat: “I hate it when he beats me. I’m sure he hates it when I beat him.”
In many ways, Baron and Baquet are a study in contrast. Baquet oozes warmth and amiability, which engenders devotion in many of the reporters and editors around him, even if those traits don’t seem like the stuff that fierce, take-no-prisoners editors are made of. One former colleague said it made sense that Baquet, who was raised in a black working-class neighborhood in New Orleans, came from a family that owned a restaurant, where “making people feel welcome is part of the ethos.” This person added: “I never left a meeting with Dean where I didn’t feel happy.”
Baron is a harder nut to crack. He can come across as cold and inscrutable — at times a little scary. (“I never left a meeting with Marty where I didn’t feel a little intimidated,” said that same source, who has worked under Baron, too.) But even if Baron isn’t exactly a teddy bear, he cultivates fierce loyalty through his sheer force as a journalist, and through the support he provides, both personally and professionally, to the journalists who work for him. “If he says he’s going to do something for you, he does it,” said New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard, who worked for Baron at The Boston Globe. “He’s a mensch.” And Baquet? “Dean has an energizing charisma, and a way of inspiring people,” she said.
In conversations with two dozen people who have worked with one or both of them, or followed their careers closely, fundamental differences between the two men as editors of their respective publications came into focus.
With Baron, “you find information, and if it’s true, you publish. He’s very simple in that regard,” a person who worked for Baron said. Another former Baron colleague, who has worked with Baquet as well, described Baron’s philosophy like this: “Let’s generate more news off the news. These eight to 12 month reporting projects, I don’t think he believes they were paying dividends. So let’s get writers writing more frequently and in the newspaper more often.”
With Baquet, “the sweep of a story,” as yet another person who has worked with both men put it, is hugely important, and he’ll burrow in the weeds of a massive reporting project until it has been crafted to perfection. “He really does think like a New York Times editor,” this person said. “They are the paper of record for the sweep of history, so as competitive as they are, Dean would hold something until it’s ready.” On the other hand: “I think Marty is probably always looking over his shoulder, feeling the breath of The New York Times on his neck.”
Here’s one more individual who has worked with Baquet and Baron at different times: “Dean is more of a journalistic visionary, a journalistic renaissance man. Dean loves writing, he loves sweep, all the facets of the newspaper. Marty, on the other hand, is not a journalistic visionary. He’s more meat and potatoes. I don’t think he commissions the kinds of deep projects that Dean does. Marty’s strength is the laser focus and the ‘more, better, faster’ ethos. Marty is all about urgency, productivity. He’s a much harder-driving guy.”
Baquet and Baron are around the same age, 60 and 62. Baquet is still five years away from the mandatory retirement threshold for senior Times executives, though he may be feeling some pressure to make an early departure — as one of his recent predecessors, Bill Keller, did — to ensure a smooth transition. Not long ago, there were whispers within the newsroom that Baquet was preparing to do just that. The chatter turned out to be premature, but it fueled speculation nonetheless. (A person with knowledge of Baquet’s plans said he never considered stepping down.) Things work differently at the Post. Bradlee was nearly 70 when he retired in 1991 after 26 years, six presidential administrations and 17 Pulitzers as executive editor. With his unrelenting drive, Baron could theoretically give the job all of his time, energy and emotional bandwidth for as long as his beating heart allows.
This suggests that, whatever Baquet is able to accomplish in his remaining stretch at the Times, Baron is likely to outlast him, putting the final exclamation point on their parallel careers. Indeed, the two men have spent much of their professional lives working and excelling at the same companies, if not always at the same time, if not always for the same publication. They were both in the trenches during those dark years of the aughts, when the legacy business model began to collapse and editors found themselves grappling with ever more penurious budgets. At least three times, they’ve been in the running for the same job, once when they were leading candidates to become editor of The Miami Herald, and twice when they were both under consideration for the editorship of the Times.
Some people familiar with those instances said they remember feeling like Baquet had the upper hand, perceived to be the chosen son with Baron coming up behind him. Indeed, Baquet was the one who ultimately snatched the prize, a job many consider to be the newspaper world’s crown jewel. And he did so in dramatic fashion, essentially wresting the Times’ top masthead position from his predecessor, Jill Abramson, as tensions over Abramson’s management style flared. In the process, Baquet made history, becoming the Times’ first black executive editor in more than a century-and-a-half since its founding. For Baquet, it was the result of years of loyal service to the Sulzberger family, and the logical conclusion of his steady ascent at their Grey Lady. But Baron got a prize of his own in the Post. By the time of Baquet’s coronation in May 2014, Baron was cementing his legacy as the editor who would lead the Beltway’s paper of record through a stunning revival — a fanciful feat just a few years earlier.
When Baron was named editor of the Post in 2012, it was a plum appointment, but hardly the one it used to be. The Graham family’s pride and joy was hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars a year. Its newsroom, once north of 900, had been decimated by years of cuts, hanging in there with about 580 surviving soldiers. As the Internet continued to gobble up advertising revenue, there was no silver bullet in sight. Baron was staring at a future of slow-bleed budget cuts and buyouts of once-proud staff members. No one, perhaps least of all Baron, expected that a benevolent savior with deep pockets was about to swoop in and save the day.
Then along came Jeff Bezos, with a fat checkbook and a customer-driven digital ethos that would infiltrate every corner of the Post’s Downtown D.C. headquarters. Under Bezos, Baron has been given the resources and runway to compete with the Times by any means necessary, while seeking to supplant the Times as the nation’s most-read daily newspaper online.
Baron’s own image became a crucial part of the Post’s revival narrative. Just as Baron was ramping up the newsroom, Hollywood gave him the kind of boost that comes to a journalist only once or twice a generation. No one can overstate the effect of his canonization via “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning adaptation of the clergy sex abuse investigation Baron championed while editor of The Boston Globe. In addition to dramatizing the Globe’s achievement, “Spotlight” made a celebrity out of Baron, while also putting him on a path to becoming journalism’s favorite ambassador to the American public. The headline of an Esquire piece around the time of the film’s November 2015 premiere: “Is Martin Baron the Best News Editor of All Time?”
Baron was born and raised in Tampa, the son of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. from Israel via Paris in 1954. Time magazine and the Tampa Tribune were required reading in their household; the evening news a nightly ritual. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that their middle son showed a firm command of the adversarial relationship between authority and the Fourth Estate as early as his days as a cub reporter and editor for Berkeley Preparatory School’s student newspaper. “I remember having a lot of conflicts with the school administration,” Baron told The Jewish Press of Pinellas County last year. “We knocked heads quite a bit.”
College exported Baron to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Baron was known to submerse himself in the bowels of the campus center, putting in countless hours at the bi-weekly Brown and White, of which he became editor-in-chief during his junior year. He graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s in journalism and a master’s in business administration, having obtained permission to take graduate courses in advance of his diploma.
From there, Baron’s rise was meteoric. He cut his teeth as a reporter for The Miami Herald for a few years before heading west in 1979 to join The Los Angeles Times, where he spent 17 years climbing the ladder from business reporter to business editor to assistant managing editor. By the mid-90s, Baron had earned a strong reputation within the industry. Paul Steiger, who mentored Baron at the L.A. Times and was by then managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, tried to poach his former protege, but there was another shark in the water. As Steiger recalls, The New York Times “made a better offer.”
When Baron was hired by then-executive editor Joe Lelyveld in 1996, the plan was that he would cycle through various departments, getting to know the editors and reporters in each before settling in as the Times’ night editor, if all went well. It was through his rotation that he got to know another up-and-coming newsman, a gregarious New Orleans expat named Dean Baquet.
Baquet also was a Lelyveld hire, and when the Times brought Baron on board, he’d worked his way up to national editor, something he probably never envisioned for himself when he was working in his father’s Creole restaurant as a boy. He arrived at the Times in 1990 after chasing corrupt politicians for six years for The Chicago Tribune, where Baquet had shared a Pulitzer Prize for investigating the city council. Before that, he had spent several years at his hometown Times-Picayune, a job Baquet had lucked into when the Picayune merged with a local afternoon paper where he had started out as a summer intern. As an undergrad at Columbia University, far from being a workaholic overachiever like Baron, Baquet was an admittedly mediocre English major and soon to be college dropout. It was the siren call of his beloved New Orleans that pulled him back home to that fateful internship, as well as to his decision to forego any further academic pursuits — he’d already found his calling.
Baquet’s reputation among reporters is one of conviviality. (And the occasional temper tantrum, but that’s another story.) Colleagues from the period when he overlapped with Baron at the Times remember him as a well-liked manager who could bring ambitious stories to life on the front page. The first thing a few people pointed out when asked about his personality was his body language. He’s the type of guy who likes to put his arm around you, pat you on the back. If you’re a reporter having a really bad day in a war zone, he won’t hesitate to get on the phone to offer some soothing words of encouragement and appreciation.
Baron has been known to make the same kinds of calls. But, conversely, “not warm and fuzzy” is a phrase that has followed Baron around throughout his career. (“I may not be warm, but I am fuzzy,” he’s been known to joke, referring to his facial hair.) Perhaps it was fitting that the job of night editor — the meddlesome prune who hounds reporters with questions at the 11th hour, after their stories have already been edited to the high heavens — wasn’t exactly the type of job you take to make friends.
“Contemptuous and patronizing” is how one Times veteran described Baron’s approach to the role. “It was not a job to make you popular in the newsroom, and I don’t know that I earned any popularity points at that stage of my career,” Baron said in that Esquire profile. “He made people nuts,” Baquet was quoted as saying in the same piece. Nevertheless, the two of them hit it off. “They had a mutual interest in art, and both bought art, and would send pictures of stuff they were considering buying to each other,” a former colleague recalled. “They spoke the same language,” said Martin Gottlieb, who likewise became close friends with Baquet through working together at the Times. “There is something each of them saw in the other that they liked enormously.”
In 1999, the publisher of The Miami Herald, Alberto Ibarguen, was in the market for a new editor-in-chief. It was a nationwide search, but there were two candidates who emerged as the front-runners in his eyes: Dean Baquet and Marty Baron.
One day, Baquet was on the phone with Ibarguen before heading off to Lelyveld’s country house in Connecticut for the weekend. Ibarguen said to him, facetiously, “Is this the part where Joe puts his arm around you and says, ‘Someday, my son, this could all be yours?’ ” Baquet laughed, but Ibarguen could see the writing on the wall — that was the last time they ever spoke about the job. As it turned out, Baquet wouldn’t be sticking around New York much longer anyway — in the summer of 2000, he left for California to become John Carroll’s no. 2 at Baron’s old stomping ground, The Los Angeles Times.
Baron took the Herald conversations further, flying down to Miami and dazzling Ibarguen, over a seafood dinner in South Beach, with his knowledge of core Herald subjects like real estate, Israel and Latin America. It didn’t hurt that the Spanish-speaking Baron had jump-started his career at the Herald back in 1976. “I thought, there’s absolutely no question this is the guy,” Ibarguen told me.
After just a few months on the job, a story that would divide the country landed in Baron’s lap, about a little boy named Elian Gonzalez and the polarizing custody battle between his father in Cuba and relatives in Miami. “That story had so much heat you needed someone who was gonna play it really coolly, and he did,” said Ibarguen. “Marty was the anchor and steady hand through the whole thing.” The Herald went on to win a Pulitzer in 2001 for its Elian Gonzalez coverage, and Baron was named editor of the year by Editor & Publisher. Unfortunately for Ibarguen and the Herald, the next opportunity had come knocking.
By the time Matt Storin retired from The Boston Globe after more than eight years as editor, there were four insiders with their eyes on his job. That’s why it was a big surprise to staff when, in a hastily assembled meeting on July 2, 2001, they were informed that their next boss was not a well-known internal candidate whom Storin had recommended to the Globe’s publisher, but rather … some guy named Marty Baron?
It was seen as one of the most seismic shifts in the history of the Globe, as well as a clear break from tradition in a parochial newsroom. Baron was a Jewish Floridian now in charge of a staff dominated by Northern Irish Catholics. But it was that very outsider perspective that led to the Globe’s crowning journalistic achievement.
To say that the Globe’s Catholic Church probe carried risks, not only for the Globe’s reputation and financial well-being but for Baron’s career, would be an understatement. But Baron’s instincts didn’t betray him — the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into endemic sex abuse among priests, and a conspiracy of complicity within the Catholic hierarchy, went on to become one of the most celebrated journalistic crusades of modern times. It also displayed two unmistakable Marty Baron traits: a preternatural sense of story and an almost religious faith in tenacious, straight-forward news reporting.
Baquet, meanwhile, was riding high in L.A., where he and Carroll had set off on a course that would reshape The Los Angeles Times’ masthead, expand the paper’s Washington team, fortify its overseas bureaus and aggressively champion high-profile investigative stories. Over the next five years, the L.A. Times would win 13 Pulitzers under the duo’s leadership. “There was a period where it felt like we were going to take over the world,” Baquet told M magazine. In New York, there would have been a few more steps on the ladder before Baquet got to the top. In L.A., he was the king’s right-hand man, and his stock was soaring. “With patience,” The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta wrote in 2005, “Baquet might have won the most powerful job in newspapers—the editorship of the New York Times.”
Indeed, Baquet and Baron had already been talked about for that very job. It was June 2003, and Times executive editor Howell Raines had just gone out in a mushroom cloud of ignominy over the Jayson Blair scandal. Lelyveld had come back to man the ship temporarily until publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. settled on a successor. Three names were making the rounds among the media reporters of the day: Marty Baron, Dean Baquet and former Times managing editor Bill Keller, who’d been passed over for the job when Raines got it a couple of years earlier.
In Baron’s case, the prospect of him going to the Times was being taken seriously up in Boston. People close to Baron back then told me he was taking it seriously, too. “I think he started envisioning it,” one of them said. “He talked about it in a way that made it sound real. He threw himself in.” (Baron has said privately that he never expected he would get the job.) Sulzberger met with each of them, but he was considering Baron and Keller most closely, according to people familiar with his thinking. A senior newsroom figure from back then countered, “I don’t think there was any serious competition. It was Bill Keller, and that was it.”
The coming years would bring headwinds for Baquet and Baron alike. In L.A., tensions were building between the newsroom and the management of the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which had acquired The Los Angeles Times from the Chandler family in 2000. Carroll and Baquet were under pressure to cut costs and share resources with other newspapers in the chain, which also included The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. Carroll quit amid the hostilities in 2005, which meant Baquet, who succeeded him, earned an EIC title for the first time in his career — a major achievement, but also a burden, since Baquet would now be the one expected to trim the ranks.
The honeymoon, if you could call it that, didn’t last long. In November 2006, in a scene that would become the stuff of journalism lore, Baquet stood on a desk and announced to an embattled newsroom that he’d been fired after refusing to make further cuts. It was a self-consciously noble act, refusing to lay off beloved colleagues, but also one that carried a hint of grandstanding. Luckily for Baquet, his decision to go out with guns blazing didn’t deter Sulzberger — Baquet rejoined his former paper as Washington bureau chief just two months later.
When asked to cut his own newsroom at the Globe, which his previous employer, the Times Company, had acquired in 1993, Baron chose a different path. He told colleagues he considered it more honorable to stay and manage the downsizing, preserving the paper’s reporting firepower to whatever extent possible, than to quit on principle. He eliminated the paper’s foreign bureaus, consolidated the print edition into four sections during the week, and trimmed judiciously from most of the other departments, while preserving the Globe’s investigative clout and salvaging some staff positions. “He’s sometimes willing to compromise,” said a former colleague. “You give him a newsroom consolidation, even if it’s hard, even if he doesn’t want to, he’ll get it done.” You might say Baron channeled his inner MBA, figuring out ways of doing more and more with less and less, a skill that endeared him to Times Company brass.
In 2011, as Keller’s tenure as executive editor was nearing an end, a familiar pair of names ended up on Sulzberger’s shortlist, as well as a new addition: Baron, Baquet and Jill Abramson, who was by then the Times’ managing editor. Sulzberger and Baron spoke about the job over breakfast — at Trump International Hotel & Tower on Columbus Circle, of all places — but alas, the internal candidates had the edge this time, and Baron had no illusions about that. In the end, Abramson became the Times’ first female executive editor, a promotion that she likened to “ascending to Valhalla.” Baquet was promoted to managing editor, while Baron stayed at the Globe for an 11th year at the helm. At 56, he had every reason to believe that the best years of his editing career were behind him.
If you had to pinpoint a single moment when it began to feel like The Washington Post was “back” as a force to be reckoned with, after years of feeling like a titan cut off at the knees, it would probably be the first week of June 2013. That was when The Guardian and the Post broke the first stories, sourced to an anonymous whistleblower who would soon go on to reveal himself as Edward Snowden, about a top secret, constitutionally questionable, domestic electronic surveillance program at the National Security Administration.
The reporter who brought the Snowden scoop in, Barton Gellman, was a Post all-star of the later Ben Bradlee and Len Downie eras, but he’d left the paper in 2010 to concentrate on magazine pieces and book-writing. Now, here he was with what could be the story of a lifetime on his hands — but one fraught with risks. He’d never met Baron and didn’t know much about him, but he’d heard good things. He called the investigations editor at home late one night and said he needed a meeting with Baron as soon as possible and that he couldn’t say why.
A few days later, Gellman snuck up the back stairs of Post headquarters to meet Baron and several others in a windowless suite two floors above the newsroom, no cell phones allowed. Gellman told them about the highly classified information Snowden had provided him, and laid out the promises and security guarantees he’d need if he were to do the story. (Among other things, he asked for a heavy safe and a steel door.) He also asked Baron “to do one thing that was a lot riskier than just agreeing to pursue a story,” Gellman told me, declining to divulge what that one thing was. The lawyer in the room turned to Baron and said, “I can’t advise you to do that.” Baron didn’t miss a beat — no call to the publisher, no “let me think about it.” Just pure instinct. “I’m doing it,” came his reply.
As with the Catholic Church, Baron stuck his neck out. He was in new waters, never having overseen a big intelligence story before. And if Snowden’s revelations ended up endangering national security or costing the lives of U.S. assets abroad, as some were cautioning, or if the Post were to get even one small aspect of the story wrong, they would be widely condemned — not to mention the very palpable risk that the government might try to compel the Post to turn over its source materials, or the possibility of a criminal proceeding. It was a pressure cooker, but they got it done in two weeks, trailing and augmenting The Guardian’s initial NSA story by just one day.
It was a monumental revelation that would shape the debate over security vs. civil liberties in the terrorist age, as well as earning the Post and The Guardian a shared Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism. It was also a black eye to The New York Times. Snowden placed his trust in The Guardian and the Post over the Times because the Times had waited a year before publishing its 2005 scoop about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. “The Post beat us,” Abramson, who was the Times’ executive editor when the Snowden story broke, told me.
With the wind in its sails, it wasn’t long before Baron confronted another turn in the road. Four months after Snowden, Jeff Bezos reached an agreement to buy the paper from the Graham family for $250 million. For Baron, who was accustomed to making newsroom cuts on an almost annual basis, it was an unpredictable moment. The Post had lost $53.7 million in 2012, and logic suggested a new owner would simply order a fresh round of cuts.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Amazon founder would soon pour his riches into technology, engineering and, over the next several years, creating 150 net new journalism jobs as the Post reestablished itself as one of America’s preeminent national media brands. For the first time in his editing career, Baron had lots of money to spend. “It was the return of ambition,” said Steve Coll, a Post veteran and dean of the Columbia Journalism School, in March. “Marty was a great editor even before he was able to be ambitious.”
By the Time Donald Trump became a serious contender in the White House sweepstakes, the Post was ready for battle. It was during those volatile months of the 2016 campaign that the Post and the Times emerged as the dominant players of a moment that laid bare the extent to which newspapers, despite their torturous financial decline, were reasserting their role as muscular organs of accountability.
There was Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer-winning investigation into Trump’s charity, and Fahrenthold’s explosive newsbreak about the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape containing Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” remark. The Times charged hard — too hard, critics have argued — on the Hillary Clinton email controversy, as well as serving up a bombshell, based on pages obtained from Trump’s 1995 tax return, that strongly suggested Trump had used a loophole for the ultra-rich to avoid paying federal income taxes for 18 years. (A subsequent leak, confirmed by the White House, of Trump’s 2005 tax return showed that he’d paid $38 million in federal income tax that year.)
As Trump took office in January and the sheer chaos of his early administration began to unfold, the rivalry began to heat up. “We’re locked in battle with them,” a Times reporter told me. “It’s war.”
At its most dramatic, the bloodsport unfolds with explosive scoops that land neck and neck, setting social media and cable news ablaze. The week of May 14 was utterly head-spinning in that regard.
Monday: The Post reports that Trump bragged to the Russians about national security information so sensitive and classified that his administration had implored news outlets not publish it because it would get people killed. Tuesday: The Times reports that Comey had described in a memo a conversation in which Trump appeared to ask him to back off the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. (Both stories, by the way, broke their respective news outlets’ records for the most people — more than 100,000 — reading an article online simultaneously.) Wednesday: The Post reports it has obtained a recording of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying last year that he thinks Vladimir Putin pays Trump. Friday: The Times reports that Trump told Russian officials, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job.” The Post then reports that a senior White House adviser has been identified as a person of interest in the Russia probe.
ProPublica, the investigative nonprofit outlet, summed up the torrent of headlines in a single tweet. It was a GIF of the scene from “I Love Lucy” where Lucy and Ethel, having taken jobs in a candy factory, frantically wrap pieces of chocolate flying down a conveyor belt. “Live shot of @nytimes and @washingtonpost reporters,” the tweet said.
In some instances, Baron and Baquet have had to contend with withering public scrutiny of the coverage in their papers. One such moment of reckoning for Baron came in late November, when the Post published a heavily criticized story about dozens of American websites being duped by a “Russian propaganda effort” to disseminate fake news ahead of the election. “No, Russian Agents Are Not Behind Every Piece of Fake News You See,” Fortune sneered in debunking the piece. A more unequivocal misfire was delivered on December 31, when the Post published a scorching article that lost its heat after the following correction was appended: “An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far.”
At the Times, Baquet got a nasty sting from the paper’s public editor, Liz Spayd, when she channeled a criticism that was palpable in certain precincts of the Times’ giant readership of East Coast liberals, where there was consternation that the Times’ hadn’t sooner established potential ties between Trump and the Kremlin. (A headline from roughly a week before the election sticks out like a sore thumb in hindsight: “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”) Spayd, who rebuked the coverage in a January 22 column, was particularly interested in “a possible channel of communication between a Trump organization computer server and a Russian bank with ties to Vladimir Putin.” She concluded, “I believe a strong case can be made that The Times was too timid in its decisions not to publish the material it had” — or at least not before Slate ended up revealing the Alfa Bank connection in an October 31 feature (controversial in its own right) titled, “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?”
Two individuals with knowledge of the matter said Baquet was initially hot on the server story, but as the national security team dug into it, they threw up red flags, advising Baquet that their reporting didn’t support a definitive link. Baquet, for his part, rebuked Spayd’s rebuke, telling the Post, “It was a fairly ridiculous conclusion. … We reported the hell out of this, as did other news organizations, and we could prove nothing more than that there was some packets of information from a bank to Trump Tower.” Spayd, a former Washington Post managing editor who only briefly overlapped with Baron, ended up leaving the Times in June, after just a year on the job, when the paper eliminated the public editor’s position after 16 years; Baquet declined to comment on whether he was in favor of eliminating the position, or whether Sulzberger, to whom the public editor reported, consulted him on the decision.
Around the same time, Baquet was cooking up a massive reporting project about Comey’s curveball decision — less than two weeks before the election — to notify lawmakers about a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. The day after Comey sent his letter to congress, Baquet began asking for the “definitive” story on the matter, assigning heavyweights Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau. Baquet kept after them for months, telling them to dig deeper and deeper and to show how the Clinton decision ended up becoming weaved into the Russia narrative — no matter if they risked losing some of the juice to competitors.
Newsweek, for one, scooped the Times on Comey’s unsuccessful attempt — through a proposed Times op-ed, no less — to reveal Russia’s meddling several months before the election. And Vanity Fair published a big Comey feature in the magazine’s March issue. But on Sunday, April 23, two weeks before Trump’s termination of the embattled FBI director, the Comey epic that Baquet had envisioned six months earlier arrived in the form of a four-byline front-page blockbuster that is sure to be remembered as one of the Times’ most ambitious news features of 2017: “Comey Tried to Shield the F.B.I. From Politics. Then He Shaped an Election.” If Baquet’s M.O. is “the sweep,” this was a perfect example.
True to Baron’s reputation for cranking out blockbuster news with a laser-like efficiency, some of the Post’s big hits lately have felt more iterative and urgent. Fahrenthold’s Trump Foundation probe, which Baron first suggested when he and Fahrenthold happened to be waiting for the elevator together one day, was so effective because it unfolded as a series of scoops in real time. More recent enterprise projects, like an examination of the taxpayer burden of protecting Trump and his family, or a series exploring the many facets of Steve Bannon, have been similarly incremental. Baron also spearheaded the creation of a “rapid response investigations team,” announced in January, that is “expected to move quickly, mine digital sources of information, and dig deeply as breaking news provides targets of journalistic opportunity.”
“As a reader, it feels like the Post is being distinctive in breaking news,” said ABC News political director Rick Klein, who follows both newspapers obsessively (and who worked under Baron at the Globe). “The Times, to me, they still win on the big picture, what the big things mean.” That was about as close as I could get to someone being willing to pick a horse on the record, until I asked Gellman, who prefaced his assessment by emphasizing that he hasn’t been an employee of the Post for seven years and has no skin in the game: “I think the Post has the edge right now.”
In terms of manpower, though, the Times still has the upper hand. Over the past 10 years, even through repeated downsizings, its newsroom headcount has remained relatively stable, with excised print jobs freeing up room for new digital roles. Today, the Times employs around 1,300 journalists. That includes 75 full-time international correspondents — more than ever before — in 30 foreign bureaus, plus an additional 14 national bureaus and four local bureaus in the New York region. The Post, meanwhile, has an army of around 750, with 17 foreign bureaus and an extensive freelancer network around the U.S. Baron got the green light to make dozens of hires in 2017, and a Post spokeswoman said the newsroom is projected to hit 800 by year’s end.
The Times is in the midst of another round of buyouts, this time targeting its traditionally print-oriented copy editors, in order to free up money to hire dozens more journalists in other areas. But it is also celebrating a Trump-fueled subscription surge over the past six months, including a record-shattering addition of 308,000 digital-only news subscribers between January and March, bringing the total count, seven years after the introduction of a paid online model, north of 2.2 million. With print advertising still plummeting, digital subscriptions are now the company’s most vital strategic pillar, as the Times courts new readers overseas and among millennials, with an ambitious goal of $800 million in total digital revenue by 2020, compared to around $442 million last year.
The Post, which began charging for web access in 2013, has a long ways to go before catching up with the Times in this area, but digital circulation revenue is becoming a bigger part of the picture. A person with knowledge of company finances said the Post now has more than 900,000 digital-only subscribers at three monthly access levels — $3.99, $9.99 and $14.99 — with the majority of its customers registered at the higher two tiers. Based on those numbers, digital subscriptions could theoretically be in the ballpark of $100 million at this point. (In 2016, digital circulation at the Times was $232.8 million.)
But the most impressive growth of the Bezos era has been in web traffic, where the Post has beaten the Times on occasion, surpassing them for the first time ever in October 2015. (In May, the Post had 80.7 million online visitors in the U.S., versus the Times’ 94.1 million, according to Comscore. When Bezos arrived, the Post had roughly 30 million.) Digital advertising this year, according to the person with knowledge of company finances, is projected to be at least $120 million, up from roughly $100 million in 2016. (Digital ad revenue at the Times in 2016 was $208.8 million.) Since the Post, as opposed to the Times, is a private company and does not make its finances public, it wouldn’t hurt to take these subscription and revenue numbers with a grain of salt. But also keep in mind that, unlike the Times, the Post doesn’t have stock market pressure or shareholders breathing down its neck. Bezos, who became the world’s second-richest person in March, with a net worth of $75.6 billion, could theoretically bankroll the place in perpetuity, even if he didn’t care about making it a sound business.
To achieve the type of broad, national online audience that big advertisers want to buy against, the Post’s newsroom has had to vastly increase its output. On top of the bread-and-butter reporting it has been doing for decades, that now includes an army of blogs, like the popular Morning Mix, which scours the web to pick up juicy stories from around the U.S. and the world; a robust social media presence that makes it hard not to want to click on articles like a D.C. cop dance-off or the pope blessing a disabled boy; and a contributor platform called PostEverything in which outside writers offer up hot takes and personal essays. One phrase several people who spoke with me for this story used, matter-of-factly, to describe the Post these days is, “high-low approach.” Baron bristles at criticism that the Post is doing cheap content in the pursuit of eyeballs. “I know what’s generated the traffic,” he told New York magazine last year, “and it isn’t clickbait.”
Nor is that what Baron will be remembered for. Far from it, in the two years since “Spotlight” made him a nationally recognized name, Baron has established himself as journalism’s foremost defender, portraying without irony or equivocation the work of mainstream journalists as a constitutionally mandated corrective on excessive power.
“I hear people say this all the time, that he is the editor of our time,” said another one of the people who’ve worked with both Baron and Baquet. “I like Dean and I respect him, but I think Marty is seen as the preeminent editor of our era.”
Here he is posing with his theatrical doppleganger Liev Schreiber at the 2016 Academy Awards, where “Spotlight” won the Oscar for Best Picture. Here he is eight months later raising his glass with Christopher Buckley, Jeff Bezos and Graydon Carter at Carter’s Waverly Inn, where Baron accepted Vanity Fair’s second annual Hitchens Prize. Here’s Baron following in the footsteps of former presidents, world dignitaries and media barons (like Arthur Sulzberger Jr.) to deliver the prestigious Landon Lecture at Kansas State University on April 6. And here, later that month, being quoted by Bob Woodward during the Watergate legend’s White House Correspondents Dinner speech.
“This is a time we are compelled to fight for free expression and a free press — rights granted us under the Constitution, yes, but also the very qualities that have long set us apart from other nations,” Baron declared in accepting the Hitchens Prize, adding that “the ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work.”
On May 22, Baron was in New York at the Harvard Club, where he was both the guest speaker and the recipient of a First Amendment Award at the Deadline Club’s annual dinner. The following night, Baron ventured a bit farther uptown for yet another speech and award, this time presented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, at The Pierre overlooking Central Park.
The place was crawling with prestigious figures from the journalism world, including, of course, Dean Baquet. Around 7 p.m., during cocktail hour, Baron and Baquet were side-by-side, gabbing with HuffPost editor in chief Lydia Polgreen and Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. Baron turned to Sullivan and cracked, “Just because they” — meaning the Times — “wrote something nice about us, doesn’t mean you have to write something nice about them.” They all laughed. Before long, the dinner bells rang out and Baron and Baquet headed to separate tables inside an opulent ballroom across the hall.
There were numerous speeches and awards, but Baron was the grand finale. He was introduced by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, the co-writers of “Spotlight,” who warmly roasted their subject’s dead-serious demeanor while praising him as “relentlessly accurate and highly efficient,” with “the simplicity of a master craftsman.” Bringing it back to the Post’s recent work covering the 45th president, Singer concluded, “Little did we know back in 2012, it wasn’t just a good day for the Post. It was a good day for all of us.”
Baron appeared onstage in a black suit with a light purple tie, his silver beard neatly trimmed. Baquet was sitting a couple tables away, where he’d been joshing with Times colleagues. The following week, Baquet would be back onstage at another media conference, once again responding to questions about his competition with Baron. But there was none of that tonight.
Baron embraced the filmmakers, stepped up to the lectern and removed his wire-rim glasses. Then he addressed the crowd of several hundred for about 10 minutes. Bringing the curtain down, Baron concluded, “I can think of no greater honor than to have spent my life as a journalist, and more than anything, it is an honor to be a journalist in these times.” He walked back to his seat and got a standing ovation.