August 6, 2013

Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi was on vacation in the Dominican Republic last Thursday when his boss phoned. “I need you to write a story,” Farhi remembers Executive Editor Marty Baron saying. “There’s something happening here and I can’t tell you about it.”

Baron wouldn’t spill, “which of course drives me crazy,” Farhi said. He returned to the D.C. area Friday and spent the next days “coming up with scenarios” that could merit such an ominous call: The least likely, he figured, was a sale of The Washington Post.

Sunday morning, Baron called Farhi at his home, cluing him in to “the kind of holy shit story that it turned out to be today,” Farhi said by phone. The company would announce Monday that Amazon owner Jeff Bezos would buy The Washington Post. “He swore me to secrecy.”

Farhi interviewed Publisher Katharine Weymouth Sunday and began writing the story in a Word document, keeping it out of the Post’s content management system. He emailed Baron an initial draft Sunday night with spaces for interviews he’d yet to conduct with Washington Post Co. chief executive Don Graham and Jeff Bezos.

Farhi did those interviews early Monday afternoon, then filed the piece at 1:30 p.m., Baron writes in an email to Poynter. Farhi, unable to talk about his huge story with any of his colleagues, began to “walk around the newsroom,” he said, feeling a bit like he was in a dream where he knew some major event was coming — “oh, by the way, did you know the Germans are going to invade Poland,” he said by way of an example — but was unable to share the information.

He then, he said, freaked out he might get scooped. “I lived in absolute fear that this can’t hold and it won’t hold,” he said.

The finished story probably wasn’t the piece he’d write had he not been under oath, Farhi said. “I couldn’t talk to outside analysts, I couldn’t talk to people for reaction.” Moreover, “There’s a sentimental aspect to this,” he said. Colleagues cried at the staff meeting Monday afternoon where Graham made the announcement (audio here!) “You couldn’t get any of that in the initial story because you’d tip your hand.”

Farhi was astonished the story didn’t get out. “The number of people who actually knew about it appears to be a fairly substantial number,” he said. “None of them talked, none of them tweeted, none of them even suggested The Washington Post would be for sale.”

Significantly, few of the people who knew were in the newsroom. Farhi’s story was scheduled to hit at 4:35, Baron writes in his email:

That requires publishing a few minutes before. I had a conversation with one other person in the newsroom at about 3:15 today, then at 4 filled in some other editors who needed to get the work done. We met for 10 minutes and then broke to do the work so that the story, timeline, and various statements were posted immediately.

“No one else in the newsroom was officially informed,” Baron said. “Within an hour and a half of the 4:30 meeting Monday, we began to get word of some leaks. Fortunately for us, those individuals were discreet, and word did not spread through the newsroom.”

Keeping such a secret off the wires at the Post’s newsroom is an especially impressive act of corporate messaging. Consider, by contrast, the agonizing last few months of Marcus Brauchli’s tenure as executive editor, which were haunted by rumors Weymouth wanted to change horses.

Weymouth emailed Post employees at 4:15 p.m. asking them to “join me promptly at 4:30 p.m. in the Auditorium for an announcement.” The Post’s press release hit my inbox at 4:33 p.m. Perhaps the only people not talking publicly about the sale at that time were Washington Post employees, whom Graham asked for “no videos, no tweets, no posts.”

In his piece, Farhi got three interviews every media reporter in the country would dearly love to get. Farhi is clear-eyed about his role in breaking this news: “I was obviously designated by the editor of the paper to be the news — I don’t know what you want to call me, liaison, what have you. I won’t get any rewards for ferreting out the story.” Still, he said, “I’m not ashamed of what I reported.” He said he always second-guesses himself after interviews, asking whether he got as much out of Bezos as he could have, for instance. There are “a lot of unanswered questions” about Bezos’ plans. “I don’t get the sense Bezos has worked out what he’s going to do,” Farhi said. (Indeed, Bezos told Farhi, “I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan.”)

“But that’s a moving picture, too,” Farhi said. “It’ll get filled in.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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