This weekend, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet took a shot at his rival, Washington Post boss Marty Baron.
During an interview at South by Southwest Sunday, an audience member asked Baquet what he thought of The Washington Post’s new slogan: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
“‘I love our competition with The Washington Post,’ Baquet said. ‘I think it’s great. But I think their slogan — Marty Baron, please forgive me for saying this — sounds like the next Batman movie.'”
Asked for a response by CNN’s Brian Stelter, Baron shot back: “No apology necessary from the people of Gotham.”
This fencing, light on its surface, belies a serious competition underway between two of America’s most influential and best-resourced newspapers. In the early days of the Trump administration, The New York Times and The Washington Post have been at the forefront of some of the most important stories (with formidable competition from their TV colleagues at CNN).
As both newspapers unearth scoop after scoop and build their subscriber rolls, Americans find themselves bearing witness to a curiosity at a time of supposed diminished relevance for print journalism: an old-fashioned newspaper war.
While pundits were applauding President Trump’s joint session address earlier this month, The Post and The Times were busy digging up dueling scoops, as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted. The New York Times first published a story that the Obama administration scrambled to preserve intelligence related to Russia’s hacking in the dwindling days of Obama’s presidency. About an hour later, The Washington Post launched an article that reported Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States twice.
Both stories have stayed in the headlines in the intervening days as elected representatives and journalists tease out the connections between the Trump administration and Russia.
The battle for supremacy has transcended daily stories and is throwing off innovative ideas that make both newspapers better. After The New York Times launched its tips page, for example, The Washington Post and a spate of competitors followed suit.
Both newspapers are also spending more to cover the White House. The Washington Post and The New York Times have doubled down on investigative journalism, with The Post staffing up for a quick-strike investigative team and The Times hiring Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael LaForgia and Livingston Award-winner Ellen Gabler from regional newspapers.
Beyond investigative reporting, both are coming up with new ways to cover the presidency — The Washington Post by launching a podcast dedicated to examining the bounds of President Trump’s authority and rejiggering its beats and The New York Times by pouring $5 million into examining the effect of the Trump White House on the broader world.
Both newspapers are also taking a more active role in managing their public images. Faced with a president who is keen to take them down a peg at every opportunity, The Washington Post and The New York Times each took steps to emphasize their roles as sunshine-suppliers — The Post by minting a new slogan (“Democracy Dies in Darkness”) and The Times by launching a branding campaign in advance of the Oscars (remember that “Truth” ad?).
Neither newspaper will prevail over the other anytime soon, but readers win regardless. The Post and The Times may be jockeying with one another, but they’ve been greeted with open arms by a brigade of leakers in the federal government who all seem keen on finding the nearest sympathetic reporter. That means more revelatory stories for everyone, no matter who hits publish first.
In many ways, the early days of the fledgling Trump presidency have only thrown into sharper relief a competition that has been heating up over the last three years. As David Carr noted in 2014, The Post’s appointment of Marty Baron to the top job in 2013 and its subsequent acquisition by Jeff Bezos has given it the editorial ambition and the bankroll to make it a world-class news organization.
But, unlike years past, when the rival newspapers were fixed on comparing the size of their audiences, neither The Post nor The Times are publicly jousting for comScore supremacy. Both have their eyes and ears fixed squarely on a White House that has provided plenty of targets for investigative reporters in recent weeks.
And, despite Trump’s pronouncements that The New York Times is “failing” and The Washington Post is losing “a fortune,” both publications have the financial wherewithal to keep publishing adversarial journalism over the next four to eight years.
And that’s good for everyone — whether you hail from a red state, a blue state, Washington, D.C. or the streets of Gotham.