Len Downie honored for 25 years of leadership

From the Spring 2009 edition of The American Editor

Len Downie is the 2009 recipient of the ASNE Award for Editorial Leadership.

Published in the Spring 2009 edition of The American Editor.

“IN THE SECOND HALF of the twentieth century, I believe I speak for all of us in saying, we have worked with the best in the business.”

That was Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham's tribute in the newsroom last June when Leonard Downie Jr. announced his retirement after a quarter century in top leadership at the paper, first as managing editor and since 1991 as executive editor.

Sure, Graham had already noted, there were “the Pulitzers, the public service awards, the great investigations.” But the ultimate measurement of an editor's work, said Graham, “is the day-by-day quality of the paper, because every paper matters. And every story.”

Those same sentiments led to the selection of Len Downie as the recipient of the 2009 ASNE Award for Editorial Leadership. ASNE's most prestigious individual honor, the award was created in 2001 to recognize leaders who make a major difference on behalf of American newspapers. Honorees can be top editors, assignment editors or people from outside the newsroom who have championed great journalism during their careers.

Graham's appreciation for Downie was amplified by those who nominated him for the award.

“Len is not a show horse. Unimpressed by the bright lights, he remains in the office, a down-to-earth journalist who leads his staff by directing news coverage and editing stories, line by line, “ said John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, the winner of the ASNE leadership award in 2004. Carroll added: “He's never wanted to be a celebrity, but he deserves to be celebrated by us, his colleagues.”

Edward Seaton, former ASNE president and a president of the ASNE Foundation, called Downie “the model every editor aspires to emulate.”

Post Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman, himself hired as a suburban government reporter by Downie in 1976, noted that his boss and colleague “has always been quick to say how fortunate he was to work for newspaper owners who valued good journalism and were willing to pay for it.” The exemplary journalism that was led by Downie, Coleman said, was “proof that the money was well spent.”

His time as a reporter covering the 1968 race riots in the nation's capital gave Downie a deeper understanding of the city's racial divide. As a newsroom leader he worked to assure that coverage better reflected the area's diverse population. When he became managing editor, 12 percent of newsroom staffers were ethnic minorities and 34 percent were women. At his departure, the number of minorities had doubled to an all-time high of 25 percent, and 45 percent of the professionals were women.

During his leadership of the Post, there were many big stories and major prizes. Among them were 25 Pulitzers, including three gold medals for public service. In the recent past, the investigative and accountability reporting was remarkable: mistreated war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, private contractors in Iraq, the secretive world of Vice President Dick Cheney.

And there were moments that demanded, and Len delivered, toughness. For instance, when President George W. Bush pressured him not to publish information about secret U.S. prisons abroad, Len stood up for the First Amendment and the right of the people to know.

The ASNE Award for Editorial Leadership was first given in 2002. It recognizes a leader for a chapter or a career of outstanding leadership on behalf of a newspaper in the Americas.

Past recipients of the award, in addition to Carroll, are Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal; Brandy Ayers, editor and publisher of The Anniston (Ala.) Star; Zack Stalberg, former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News; co-honorees Jim Amoss, editor of The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, and Stan Tiner, executive editor of The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.; Andrew Barnes, former editor and publisher, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times; and, last year, Randell Beck, editor of the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, S.D.

As is customary, Downie's selection from a strong field of nominees was made by ASNE's current president, Charlotte Hall, and the most recent two past presidents, Gilbert Bailon and David Zeeck. A three-member subcommittee of ASNE board members reviewed all nominations and recommended finalists. Committee members were Jim Amoss, the Times-Picayune, chair, Ken Paulson of the Newseum and Diana Fuentes of the Laredo (Texas) Morning Times.

The award will formally be presented to Downie at a date to be determined soon.