Marty Baron '76
The Baron of D.C.
From The Brown and White to The Washington Post, a Lehigh alum reflects on his 37-year- career in newspapers—and takes on his newest role in our nation’s capital
by Amanda MacMillan ’04
In 1972, The Washington Post embarked on a story that would shape the history of American journalism. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein dug deep to expose President Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal, prompting his eventual resignation and changing the political landscape, and the newspaper industry, forever.
Meanwhile, in the basement of Lehigh’s University Center, freshman Marty Baron was hard at work on the student newspaper. Baron would become editor-in-chief of The Brown and White his junior year and graduate in 1976 with both a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in business administration. (He’d received special permission to take graduate classes as an undergrad.) And almost four decades later, he would assume the top editorial role at The Washington Post, excited to carry on the paper’s tradition of investigative journalism and tackle the new challenges of an ever-changing industry.
Life after Lehigh
After graduating with his B.A. and MBA, Baron returned to his home state of Florida to work as a reporter for The Miami Herald. He further honed his career with reporting and editing positions at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, before returning to The Miami Herald as executive editor (the newspaper’s top editorial position) in 2000.
During Baron’s short time back in Miami, the newspaper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news related to the custody battle over young Cuban refugee Elián González. In July 2001, he headed north: The Boston Globe was calling.
Six more Pulitzers—for The Boston Globe this time—followed under Baron’s leadership over the next 11-1/2 years. Shortly after he assumed his role as editor, The Boston Globe began investigating whether the Catholic church had engaged in a pattern of reassigning priests to parishes with full knowledge that they had sexually abused children; the resulting series that ran over the next two years earned The Boston Globe’s investigative team a Pulitzer in public service for its “courageous, comprehensive coverage” on the topic.
This remains Baron’s proudest accomplishment during his time there, not only because of the justice it brought victims of abuse and the sweeping changes it helped to implement throughout the church, but also because of the broad impact it’s had on the media.
“Over the course of 2002, we probably did almost 1,000 stories on the topic,” Baron says. “We went to the court to have documents unsealed that the church had hoped to keep secret, documents that addressed the fact that the church knew these priests had abused and continued to abuse children. It forced the church to address issues that had essentially been swept under the rug for 40 or 50 years.”
At the same time, the series prompted media outlets worldwide to conduct their own investigations. “The repercussions have continued to change the way that news organizations cover sexual abuse in the church, as well as in other situations,” Baron adds. “I’m fairly sure it influenced the way the situation at Penn State was covered and how officials responded to alleged sexual abuse on the part of the coach,” Baron says, referring to the 2011 accusation and subsequent conviction of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the role that school administrators, and the late Head Coach Joe Paterno, played in the cover-up.
Mr. Baron goes to Washington
When the opportunity arose to take on a new role in the nation’s capital, Baron couldn’t pass it up. “The Washington Post had a singular role in American politics, policy and journalism,” he says. “It’s a storied institution, at the national level and in world affairs, but it’s also in a very important community.”
Baron hopes to build on The Washington Post’s rich history of investigative and national reporting, while also bringing his experience in local news to the paper’s forefront. “That includes everything from public safety and schools to arts and sports and local environment,” he says. “If all you had was coverage of politics and world affairs, it would be like having a tree without a root structure. Coverage of the Washington area is where we build the strongest connection with the people who live here.”
Another area The Washington Post plans to expand upon is online video coverage, with a new political video channel—comprised of more than 30 hours of original video each month—launching on the paper’s website before this summer. Baron says plans were already in motion when he came on board in January but that it’s something he’s behind 100 percent.
“We hope to take advantage of the Post’s strengths: We’re here in Washington, and we have a large, experienced staff that writes about national politics. But we also hope this is just the beginning of something even bigger and just an example of how much we’ve changed and continue to change.”
The Washington Post has faced significant challenges in recent years, including a decline in print advertising and a series of buyouts and layoffs that have reduced its newsroom size by more than 200 people in the past four years. But Baron says these losses have been consistent with the newspaper industry—as well as almost every facet of the economy—as a whole. He doesn’t buy into the idea that the paper needs to be rescued or revitalized, either.
“The Washington Post has an extraordinary staff; they do incredible work day in and day out, year in and year out, and the role they play is still central in this country and this community,” he says. As for economic concerns, his response is simple: “I always try to get the best possible budget I can for the newsroom; it is the product, after all. But financial pressure has been a fact of life for quite some time, and whatever budget I get is the one we’ll have to work with.”
Looking toward the future
Through it all, Baron remains committed to the content and stays involved with decisions on the stories that are covered, the journalists who are hired and the way coverage is organized, both in print and online.
Baron remains a committed part of Lehigh’s network as well. He stayed in touch with journalism professors Joseph McFadden and Robert Sullivan until their deaths in the 1990s. He’s visited the campus several times, touring the journalism department in Coppee Hall and the Rauch Business Center, both new additions since his years as a student.
After a whirlwind career transition and a hectic move from Boston to D.C. over the holidays, Baron didn’t expect much time off during his first months on the job. He looks forward to the rare Sunday when he might escape outdoors for a few hours, exploring his new city and surrounding trails by bike.
He’s optimistic about the future of The Washington Post and of the entire industry. Newspapers have had to transition, he says, from publishing once or twice daily to breaking news 24 hours a day, via print, online, video and social media. But that’s also allowed for new growth, new initiatives and new jobs for young journalism grads, as he once was.
“I see a lot of people getting out of law school who can’t get jobs, but the ones with journalism majors still can,” he says. “The people who have learned the tools and who are open to working in a variety of different media will find opportunities, and they will succeed.”