Martin Baron is one of those. The announcement of his retirement, effective Feb. 28, 2021, as executive editor of The Washington Post, has already become the stuff of major headlines. No doubt it also has started a round of conversations about who might replace him — and, perhaps more to the point, how. His career pushes past the boundaries of storied. Even without the economic upheaval of the news industry, he would have ranked as one of its most influential leaders; as someone who partnered with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to revitalize The Post, and then guide it through some of history’s most demanding news events, he will be someone taught at journalism schools for decades to come.
None of it, by the way, required his spot-on portrayal by Liev Shreiber in “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about the Pulitzer-winning project by the Boston Globe’s investigative team that broke open the Catholic Church clergy sex abuse scandal. But if that’s how good journalism gets noticed, fine by me.
What brings the Baron retirement to this site is a line from his retirement letter to the staff and then posted on Facebook. It’s printed in entirety below, and worth reading as a sharply written history of the past few decades of what journalism was called to do. There are actually many lines that stand out, but this one especially shines:
We start with more questions than answers, inclined more to curiosity and inquiry than to certitude. We always have more to learn. We must listen generously to all. We owe the public rigorous, thorough and honorable reporting and then an honest, unflinching account of what we discover.
Print that out and tack it to your computer terminal or tuck it in your wallet. Following that advice will never steer you wrong. Remembering it when you get tired or discouraged will restore your faith for another day of the good fight.
Baron’s Jan. 26, 2021, retirement letter to the staff of The Washington Post:
Almost two years ago, I told department heads that I was committed to staying at The Post through the presidential election. I left open what might happen beyond that. Today I am letting you know that I will retire on February 28.
I have worked in journalism without stop for nearly 45 years, leading magnificent news staffs in Miami, then Boston and now Washington, D.C., for 21. The stories over those years were epic: the Bush-Gore race in 2000 and the Supreme Court ruling that blocked a Florida recount; the election of the country’s first Black president; last year’s tense, barrier-breaking presidential election, followed by a horrifying attack on the Capitol and American democracy itself; the impeachment, twice, of a president, with one trial so far; the Elián Gonzalez saga in Miami; the deadly terrorism of 9/11; nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy; the Snowden leaks and NSA surveillance; a worldwide pandemic; the Great Recession and last year’s economic collapse; the largest social-justice protests since the civil rights movement; devastating natural disasters; one grim mass shooting after the next; the escalating threat of climate change; and, on the bright side, the first World Series victory for the Red Sox in 86 years. That’s the short list.
The experience has been deeply meaningful, enriched by colleagues who made me a better professional and a better person. At age 66, I feel ready to move on.
Working at The Washington Post allows each of us to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves. Such is the honor of being a journalist, perhaps nowhere more so than in a newsroom like ours. I came here eight years ago with a reverence for The Post’s heritage of courage and independence and feeling an inviolable obligation to uphold its values. With all the energy I possess, I have tried to ensure that we remain faithful to all this institution has long stood for, with an emphasis on our duty to seek the truth and tell it.
This news staff has delivered the finest journalism, shedding light where it was much needed and holding to account the powerful, especially those entrusted to govern this country. I am proud to have joined you in ambitious, high-impact work that is essential to a democracy. You stood up time and again against vilification and vile threats. You stood firm against cynical, never-ending assaults on objective fact.
The past 12 months have highlighted the depth of your dedication to our readers. Professional and personal burdens have added up under the strain of pandemic, economic crisis, racial injustice, a tense presidential election and a lawless mob’s violent insurrection on January 6 this year. Yet your determination to carry out our responsibilities only strengthened. This most difficult year was also the most inspiring.
I am grateful for so much: cherished friendships, your talent and commitment, your good humor and dry wit even in moments of maximum stress, the counsel of senior news leaders and many others, the constant help and forbearance of a wonderful executive assistant, an invaluable collaboration with our business and engineering colleagues, many millions of astute readers who hold us to high standards, those in the public who allow us to tell their stories, my selection for this position by members of the family that built The Washington Post and their ongoing support, and the consistent backing of today’s publisher and owner for this newsroom’s mission and its people as they led The Post to a wondrous turnaround. Again, that’s the short list.
The Post is well positioned for the future. We have now created a truly national and international news organization. We lead in coverage of politics and national policy. We have a bigger politics team, more investigative journalists and more foreign correspondents than ever. We have significantly increased our reporting presence across the country. We have broadened our coverage in areas such as technology, economic policy, climate change, gender and race, arts, travel, media, food and even esports. We have been a pioneer in storytelling techniques, drawing upon impressive skills in data analysis, audio, video, graphics, design, photography and audience engagement. We are on the cusp of becoming a fully 24-hour operation, with journalists always on duty to deliver stories quickly and smartly. A culture of perpetual innovation has taken hold, attuned to how people receive information and deploying technology to better serve them. You won 10 Pulitzers in these eight years, in addition to numerous other high honors.
The Post’s readership is many times greater than it was when I started here, with a digital reach that places us in the top tier of American news organizations. The number of digital-only subscribers is now about 3 million, having risen by nearly a million last year alone. Our staff, which once endured excruciating annual cuts, has catapulted from 580 journalists to a budgeted 1,010 this year, providing professional opportunities when they became more scarce elsewhere. The newsroom of 2021 will be the biggest in history, an investment that signals overwhelming confidence in our prospects. In sum, The Post has come a long way in a short time.
Serving the public with the best journalism comes from working closely together. That spirit of collaboration and good will is necessary for success. So is a shared ethic: We start with more questions than answers, inclined more to curiosity and inquiry than to certitude. We always have more to learn. We must listen generously to all. We owe the public rigorous, thorough and honorable reporting and then an honest, unflinching account of what we discover.
Please don’t lose sight of how hard our gains as a commercial enterprise were to achieve. They would be easy to lose. In 2013, when our outlook was dire, we were given a second chance. We took it, engineering a turnaround with focus and creativity. Keep at it. Third chances are rare, particularly in a field that savagely punishes complacency and hubris. The practice of quality journalism requires a sustainable business. And the reverse is equally true: There can be no business without journalism of the highest caliber that the public values and will support.
You routinely remind me that much remains to do. You’re right. We aspire to greater breadth, depth and distinctiveness in our work. We can improve how we practice our craft. We can do more and better in pursuing our digital destiny. We must cover all communities with deeper understanding. We need a wider diversity of life experiences and backgrounds represented in our newsroom and reflected in our coverage. On all these fronts we’ve made progress, but more is needed.
From the moment I arrived at The Post, I have sought to make an enduring contribution while giving back to a profession that has meant so much to me and that serves to safeguard democracy. It has been my honor to work alongside hundreds of journalists who make The Post an indispensable institution.
I look forward to the superb journalism that is in The Post’s future and to staying in touch.