Martin Baron on the future of news and importance of investigative journalism

The former executive editor of The Washington Post spoke with Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale as part of the Fels Public Policy in Practice series.

A zoom meeting screen shows Elizabeth Vale on the left screen and former Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron on the right screen.
Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale chats with former Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, part of the Fels Public Policy in Practice series.

He’s taken on some of the most powerful institutions and people in the world, including the Roman Catholic Church, the National Security Agency, and the Trump administration, and is no stranger to being vilified and threatened, but former executive editor of The Washington Post Martin Baron says he was most concerned about his safety after the Jan. 6 riots.

“There were a number of people who were supportive of that attack on the Capitol and on democracy itself who said, ‘We don’t need to attack the Capitol; we know who we want to attack, and we know where they live,’” Baron told Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale in a virtual talk last week. “There was some suggestion that they were encouraging people to launch freelance attacks on individuals. That was my moment of most concern, to be honest.”

Baron retired as executive editor of The Washington Post in February after a career as the top editor of the Miami Herald and The Boston Globe. His newsrooms at all three outlets earned 17 Pulitzer Prizes.

He shared his thoughts on a range of topics in the chat with Vale, from the importance of investigative journalism to the future of news to what it’s like working with Jeff Bezos. The talk was the first event in this semester’s Fels Public Policy in Practice series and featured questions submitted from students, many of whom watched the virtual event in person at the Fels mansion.

Asked why investigative journalism is necessary and why it’s not sufficient to just report the news, Baron said, “It’s very important to distinguish between journalism and stenography; there’s a reason we have two different words for them. Those deeper questions are what journalism is designed to answer.”

He said finding those answers is especially important when one discovers potential serious wrongdoing on the part of powerful individuals and powerful institutions, including government. It’s a journalistic obligation to dig into those allegations, he said.

“The more powerful the institution the greater the obligation because the more damage they can do and the greater difficulty that people without power have in terms of raising their voices,” he said. “That’s the role of the press.”

He described his working relationship with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased The Post in 2013, as the two oversaw a dramatic transformation of the paper, boosting revenue, subscribers, and staff.

They changed The Post’s business strategy from focusing on the Washington region to focusing on national and international stories, and he said Bezos saw the internet as an opportunity, despite all the destruction it had brought to the news industry.

“We had taken all the pain that the internet had to offer. It demolished all the financial pillars of our business, all the advertising. But it also offered us a gift, and that was worldwide distribution at virtually no additional cost,” he said. “So why would we take all the pain and not take the advantage?”

He compared his meetings with Bezos to “attending business class once every two weeks. It was better than attending a business class, frankly,” he said. “He’s a very unconventional thinker.”

Asked why he retired at the top of his game, Baron said journalism has become exhausting and, like most retirees, he wanted to have more free time.

“We live in a digital era and people expect to receive news instantaneously. For the top editors who are held responsible for essentially everything, you have to be on duty not just 24 hours a day but basically every minute of every day. I wanted to have more flexibility.”

Questions from the audience included one asking whether he thought actor Liev Schreiber accurately depicted him in the film “Spotlight,” which is based on The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation into sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy.

“A lot of people I’ve worked with said that he captured me perfectly,” he said. “The advantages are he’s a few inches taller than me, he’s more fit, he’s better looking. So that when people hear my name, they’ll think of Liev Schreiber instead of the real Marty Baron.”

The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, did highlight the importance of investigative reporting and revealed how hard it is to do it correctly, he said.

“It showed the real importance of listening to people without power because they often have very powerful things to say,” he said.

He also thinks the film helped advance the cause of investigative reporting at news organizations.

“There had been an atrophy of investigative reporting at news outlets until then because investigations were expensive, and they took a long time with uncertain results,” he said. “I think many of them came to understand, properly, that investigative reporting is absolutely at the core of our mission, and that it has to be done, notwithstanding the enormous cost and uncertainties.”

Baron said he tries to be an optimist about the future of news, and pointed to the new outlets that have cropped up in recent years, like ProPublica, The Marshall Project and The 19th.

“They’re doing really interesting work,” he said. “Out of all that turmoil I think we as a profession will find our way.”

The biggest challenge, he said, is the continuing assault on truth.

“If we can’t share a common set of facts, if we can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact, that’s a problem for the press, but more importantly it’s a problem for society as a whole,” he said.

The Fels Public Policy in Practice series continues on Oct. 28 with Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, whose groundbreaking work unlocked the opportunity for the therapeutic use of mRNA; on Nov. 11 with Yohannes Abraham, named by President Biden as the chief of staff and executive secretary of the White House National Security Council; and on Dec. 9 with Lisa D. Cook, professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University.