Steve Coll has managed to find time to write ambitious pieces while serving as the Washington Post’s managing editor. Now he’s working on a book about U.S. intelligence and Osama bin Laden. Can he do that and reach his goal of building a “spectacular” Post packed with world-class enterprise reporting?
By Lucinda Fleeson
Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland. She has trained journalists in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Sri Lanka, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Her training manual for teaching investigative reporting in developing democracies has been published in 18 languages by the International Center for Journalists.
In what resembled a private coronation, the Washington Post's top editors dined in the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Amelia Island off the coast of Florida. The occasion was their annual "Pugwash" retreat, which four years ago revolved around the ascension of Steve Coll to managing editor. In the finale of a video tribute to his predecessor, Robert G. Kaiser, an image from the movie "Titanic" flashed across the screen. A boyish man with a shock of blond hair stood at the prow of the ocean liner, holding a beautiful woman, her arms outspread like an angel, the two of them flying, charmed, into the wind, afraid of nothing.
Wait. Was that actor Leonardo DiCaprio? No. Instead it was the superimposed, puckish face of Steve Coll. Not only did the youthful-appearing Coll somewhat resemble DiCaprio, but he also represented the Post's soaring hopes. As the video concluded, attendees urged Coll to a baby grand piano, where he sat down and let rip with a bluesy jazz improvisation.
Here was an editor who seemingly could do anything.
Coll had been the dark-horse candidate for the job, yet already his had been an incandescent career: Pulitzer Prize winner; foreign correspondent extraordinaire; author of four nonfiction books; editor and publisher of the Post Sunday Magazine; and now, at age 39, he was becoming managing editor of one of America's best newspapers. The bold choice designated Coll as the probable successor to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. The Post was entrusting its future to Steve Coll.
In his inaugural address at Pugwash--named after a major scientific gathering in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in 1957--Coll laid out an ambitious vision, saying that the "future of the Post depends mightily on our ability to excel at enterprise journalism--on our ability to think more creatively, to tear the skin off our subjects more often, to write better, to go deeper, to be more alive, to make more of a difference to readers."
This young, prolific, versatile editor and writer was promising to shake things up and, rather than dismissing him as a hubristic upstart, the leaders of this proud, tradition-drenched newspaper had invited him to do just that.
One of the last of the great family-owned newspapers, the Post for decades has occupied a place in American journalism as a standard-bearer, a corporate titan that has resisted corporate-style journalism. The recession has dried up many of its all-important employment classifieds and other advertising revenue, causing a partial hiring freeze for the last 18 months. Still, the Post remains a huge moneymaker, with one of the highest reader penetration rates in the nation.
But to some critics, the Post, while certainly a topflight newspaper, had become too muted, a once-vibrant publication that seemed to be losing its verve. Jack Shafer, deputy editor and media writer for the online magazine Slate, greeted Coll in July 1998, after Coll's first month on the job, with a penetrating and withering column, asserting that the Washington Post and the New York Times had swapped identities. Shafer, the author of a weekly column about the Post when he edited Washington City Paper, wrote: "One day, it seemed, the Post rollicked readers with its cheeky personality and the next suffocated them with the sort of overcast official news that made the Times famous. Meanwhile, the Times sloughed its Old Gray Lady persona for the daredevilry that was the Post franchise."
In a recent conversation, Shafer says he has seen little change in the four years that Coll has been at the helm. That's not really surprising, he says, given the monumental nature of the task. "Moving a newspaper like the Washington Post is like trying to steer the Titanic. There are all these people with Newspaper Guild jobs. You can't go in as you would a magazine and say: 'You, you, you--you're fired.' The ability to change a newspaper depends on how many people you can put in place, and how many you can get signed on to your program."
Coll readily concedes that there is more to be done. At the same time, he sees progress and thinks the paper is moving in the right direction.
On Pulitzer Day this April, there was affirmation that Coll's program was settling into place. Downie and Coll stood together and delivered newsroom speeches congratulating the two teams of Post reporters who had won the prestigious prizes. There was some disappointment at the Post's haul – two, compared with the blockbuster record of seven piled up by its nemesis, the New York Times. But it was clear that the Post's winners and five finalists reflected some of Coll's trademarks.
He has fought to dissolve territorial divides long fossilized at the Post and to thrust forward young talents, even if it meant stepping on big feet. The investigative reporting prize for a series on children who died in the Washington, D.C., child protection system went to two metro desk reporters as well as a database editor. Coll had worked to keep the local story berthed at metro rather than allowing the investigative unit to hijack it, as had often happened in the past. A team headed by Bob Woodward won the prize for national reporting on developments following the September 11 attacks, but the work involved a large cast assembled from all over the building--another Coll trademark.
In Coll's four years as second-in-command, the Post has had a winning run of six Pulitzer winners and 19 finalists, including powerful stories by Katherine Boo of wretched neglect in group homes for the mentally retarded; a series documenting abuse by police in suburban Prince George's County, Maryland; and a sweeping, literary reconstruction of September 11 by David Maraniss, called by some the Post's equivalent of John Hershey's "Hiroshima" and described by Coll as "woven by David's magical, unhurried voice. He left many readers weeping."
Coll has fashioned the role of managing editor into a blend of editor and writer, band leader and musician. Taking occasional jaunts away from the office to report, he has produced opinion pieces on such subjects as nuclear proliferation, and meaty magazine stories on archaeologists in eastern Washington state and bloody revolutionaries in Sierra Leone.
In December, he signed his fifth book contract, with Random House, and is now at work on the history of the United States' intelligence operation in Afghanistan regarding Osama bin Laden. With a spring 2003 deadline looming, he grabs an hour or two in the early morning and late at night to work on the book and sometimes meets sources for afternoon interviews at a coffee shop across the street from the Post. He works most weekends, as he has done for years.
The latest book contract has left many wondering whether he is committed enough to the job of managing editor, or whether he really can find enough time and energy to do both. Coll has already quit the Post once to write a book and came close to leaving a second time for another. But Downie and others fully expect Coll to pull it all off. "The exercise of reporting and writing a book makes you a better journalist here at the Post. People flower that way," says Downie, who, with former Managing Editor Kaiser, has spent part of this year on a promotion tour touting their book, "The News About the News: Journalism in Peril."
The Post brass like talking about Coll, as if his selection was a daring, nifty choice that's working out beautifully. The Post generally promotes journalists who have punched more traditional editing and management tickets than Coll had. Already, he's mythologized. In the course of reporting this story, I heard variously that: He has a one-handicap golf game; plays in a jazz band; survives on little sleep; and is the best-read person in the building, not counting book critic Jonathan Yardley. Exaggerations, as it turns out. A one-time fine golfer who regularly broke 80, he hasn't played for a year and says that he had crept up to the mid-80s. He never had a band, but he does lose himself for an hour or two at the piano several times a week. And while he often works a second shift at home until midnight, examining a faxed version of page one and reviewing by computer screen the late stories, he and his novelist wife, Susan, describe a routine that includes seven or eight hours of sleep.
His legendary efficiency and ability to polish off gargantuan research and writing projects in record time, however, appear to be no exaggeration. "We're not even the same species," says Post writer Joel Achenbach, who describes Coll as "an artist in a world of hacks." Says one friend, "No human being could do what he's doing. But he isn't a normal human being."
Downie, the Post's executive editor since 1991, is likely to stay in the job for some time. A former Post managing editor who has spent his entire career at the paper, Downie turned 60 this May and says he has no plans for retirement anytime soon.
"I'm very much an involved, hands-on editor," says Downie. "A lot of American newspaper editors delegate everything and seem to treat it like a sinecure. I don't think much of that." Downie and Coll take turns at what they call "doing the day"--shepherding the daily paper, making decisions for page one, reading all the big stories, checking the layouts and headlines.
In 1997, Downie was married for the third time in what he describes as a transforming event. He acknowledges that, while not relinquishing control, he has felt comfortable in getting out the door earlier some nights, letting Coll be in charge – something that was uncommon in the past.
Downie and Coll each describe their roles as a partnership, with an easy, intimate working relationship that makes it difficult to discern their separate influences. Both share commitment to and experience in investigative reporting. Neither likes the Washington party scene. Staffers describe both as emotionally cool, distant. Yet there are differences. Downie has an intense interest in the federal government and local affairs; Coll spent much of his career overseas and his passions lie outside America's borders. Coll, nearly a generation younger, brings a fascination with social change wrought by the Internet and biogenetics, and has headed teams of journalists to tackle these expansive, often featurish subjects at "War and Peace" length.
After an era in which Downie tried to foster egalitarianism in a newsroom once famed for a divisive "creative tension," Coll is seen as buffing up the star system. About 40 of the Post's 300 reporters have been hired during Coll's tenure. New stars such as David Finkel, Susan Glasser, Michael Grunwald and Hanna Rosin were all somewhat unconventional choices put into prime beats, a departure from the Post pattern of wooing Pulitzer winners and dispatching them to suburban bureaus for sometimes lengthy stints. Other Coll favorites are now poised to fly. "They're just getting their feet under them at the Post, getting traction," says Coll. "If we can continue the right kind of newspapering, we've got a batch of people coming up and we want to make sure the trajectory of what happens to them, of what they are capable of doing, allows them to soar.
"Our high-end work is extraordinarily good. I just want more of it, in smaller pieces, not only the overbuilt version, [but] to integrate that kind of work into the diarist role of the newspaper. If we keep going in this direction, in five or 10 years we'll have something really spectacular."
Steve Coll spends much of the day inside his glass-walled office along the side of the Post newsroom. When he rises to greet a visitor, his youthful appearance and wire-rim glasses lend him a slightly Harry Potteresque appearance. But his voice, full-bodied and sure, instantly suggests Coll is a heavyweight. When he talks, he describes great arcs of ideas, plans and theses, fully thought out and embellished, his fingers clenching and opening in the air, his arms flapping at his side as he gathers speed and excitement. Without a trace of self-consciousness, he repeatedly injects into conversation phrases like, "What we are about is allowing writers to do great work." He casually sprinkles his rapid-fire speech with what some refer to as Collspeak. "Immersion journalism" is what he calls a reporter living in an environment, Nellie Bly-style. Other favorites are journalistic "tool box," "career trajectory" and "social space," to describe new communities created by the Internet.
Coll's first year as ME was characterized by a flurry of lengthy memos to the staff that outlined his ideas for improvement or analyzed recent performances and that focused often on literary technique as much as reporting fireworks. After Russell Weston shot and killed two Capitol police officers in July 1998, for example, Coll wrote a 2,500-word postmortem on coverage. An excerpt: "Our challenge is to hold onto and advance insistently every single one of our conservative journalists' standards about careful reporting, accuracy, clarity, intellectual honesty and fairness--this is our franchise--our most important set of values--while at the same time freeing ourselves from retarding, graying conventions that mute our impact and make us a less essential newspaper to readers." About the use of present tense by writers Michael Powell and Saundra Torry for a second-day reconstruction, he wrote: "We're not going to want to do a lot of present tense writing on the front page, I don't think, but when the writers started down that path two hours before deadline, Bob Barnes and I swallowed once and decided it was a good choice. For my part, I was prepared to wake up this morning and regret it, but in fact I think it really helped the piece."
Early on, Coll convened grand, freewheeling, invitation-only staff brainstorming sessions, pulling reporters from the metro, national, sports, style and financial departments to discuss how best to write about broad subject areas. He was preoccupied with identifying stories that weren't getting into the paper, "the stories for which this time will be remembered in 100 years, the great sweeps of social change that are sometimes missed." These initial staff gatherings were stilted, so Coll tried relocating one to the D.C. pool hall Buffalo Billiards. "Beery discussions about how to improve the world turned out to not be the best venue," he admits.
But he didn't let go of the quest, and several series resulted, including one profiling the new Internet moguls and another on cloning dilemmas. Although the series, which became signature Coll pieces, were generally successful, some quietly dismissed them as feature fluff. Even Coll's former mentor and boss, Michael Getler, now the Post's ombudsman, raised questions in print about the value of some of the long narratives (see "Treasure Or Torture?" September). Commenting on several marathon-length series as well as "Deadlock," an eight-part series on the 36-day post-presidential election recount battle, Getler asked: "What may have been missed on the news or explanatory front by the long and intense dedication of resources to the project? And what signal does the string of projects send to the newsroom in terms of where the big effort and rewards go?"
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is another who sees a sometimes troubling shift of emphasis at the Post to the long, long read. "I've always been of two minds about it," he says, citing a reconstruction of presidential decisions following September 11, by Woodward and Dan Balz. "I read each one of those stories with great interest, every day," says Kalb. "I enjoyed it immensely. But I knew as I read it that other stories had been edged out by big-byline, big-subject journalism."
But this same emphasis on projects has also led to the recent run of investigative reports on local subjects--whether because of Coll, Downie, errant local government or the rich reserve of investigative talents of the Post, it is hard to say. "Investigative reporting at the Post has been better," says William K. Marimow, editor of the Baltimore Sun, citing stories of police abuse in Prince George's County. Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, also cites the Prince George's County stories and others as "the kind of coverage where the Post not only shows a lot of intelligence about what's important, but a willingness to devote a lot of time and resources into exploiting the Freedom of Information Act the way it should be exploited by journalists, by doing some really hard and helpful journalism."
He says the Post's recent stories of great public significance are "what distinguishes newspapers from other journalism. It's long been a tradition at the Post, but that focus seems to have been even sharper in recent years."
Other outside observers, while acknowledging the Post's ability to produce extraordinary examples of investigative and enterprise journalism, say Coll has failed to deliver on his vow to instill more wow into the paper, with sharper voices, more stylish, must-read pieces, on page one and elsewhere. "I know Steve wanted to unshackle some of the writers' voices," says Erik Wemple, editor of Washington City Paper. "He had some notion of über-feature writers coming in. I'm not sure that that's really panned out."
Wemple's wife, Stephanie Mencimer, an editor of Washington Monthly, is more biting.
"When I read that he was writing a book on Afghanistan, I thought it meant he had just given up," she says with a laugh. Mencimer, who once wrote an article for the Post's Outlook section explaining why she didn't use condoms, says that the Sunday opinion section has grown "deadly dull" and would never publish that kind of stuff now. The front page, she comments, is not much better. "Hank Stuever [a Style section writer] writes great, funny stuff," she says. "But they would never let a Hank Stuever run loose on the front page. No humor is allowed on the front page.... They put a lot of their resources into their 10-part series that no one reads."
Coll describes the Post "as a work in progress, of course. Do I feel that we've gotten everywhere we want to go? Of course not...but we're going in the right direction, and we have a lot of confidence about how to make that work."
Ben Bradlee rests a shined, tasseled loafer on the chrome and glass coffee table in his office on the Post's quiet vice-presidential floor (he's vice president at large) and confesses that the change of generations of editors has been on his mind. The former Post executive editor had just returned from the funeral of one-time Boston Globe Editor Tom Winship, a Bradlee contemporary. "My generation has just about run its course," he says in a gravelly, no-baloney voice. "Another generation is in place and they're way different. They're the computer generation. And they have new ideas, and that's how it should be."
There is something Runyonesque about Bradlee, with his silver hair slicked back over a deep winter tan. Thanks to the Hollywood treatment of the Post's Watergate role, Bradlee has long embodied America's image of a tough-talking, principled editor. He stood by Woodward and Bernstein and stared down Richard Nixon and his gang while upholding the bedrock of the Constitution--a real-life drama that unfolded when Coll was a preteen.
"Steve Coll is a different animal," says Bradlee. "But this should be an exciting fact, not to be deplored. Steve's a writer. I don't think you can do both for any great length of time. Some editors can write books, but if you're born a reporter and stay a reporter, I can't see how you can stay an editor for any length of time." Sensing that he has said something that might tick somebody off, Bradlee quickly adds, "Now don't go saying that I think he should make up his mind. I'm not there yet. He's an original. That helps. What the hell, Downie just got through writing a book. Just shows that they can do more than one thing at a time. And Steve's just plain bright. Just take a goddamned look at him. He's interested in everything."
Anyway, Bradlee complains that editing is not really editing anymore. "Now there's so much process in this goddamned business--salary administration, hiring and firing. My generation tried to wing it. We edited by force of personality. Now you have discussion groups for everything. Editors were characters. Don't know if they are now."
As executive editor, Bradlee recalls that twice a day he would cruise the newsroom to talk to reporters. "If I saw two people talking, I could resist that, but if I saw three people together, I just couldn't stand it--I had to go and find out what they were talking about."
That is not Downie's style, nor is it Coll's. People say Coll almost floats through the newsroom, often with a slight smile that seems to want to break out into the open, but asserts that he is fully at home in a dialogue inside his own head.
"He seems so focused that I don't want to disturb the reverie," says Achenbach. One editor-colleague says, "He could spend more time with the troops. He could eat more lunches in the cafeteria. He's not perfect. Some people will tell you they think he's arrogant, that he doesn't communicate well."
Coll says he realizes that people think he's aloof. "I am self-aware enough that I work at it. I program myself to do it, get out and talk to people." It has taken him time to adjust to the public role and lack of private time as a top editor. "It's OK for people to want a lot from me," he says, "and it's OK for me to reserve a little corner of my life for me."
Bradlee was once called "an editor without an attention span, in a town with no attention span." Coll appears to be the opposite, a writer with such tremendous powers of concentration that he can collapse the time required for separate tasks, then plow through them on schedule. But he wasn't always so focused.
Growing up in the comfortable Washington, D.C., suburb of Rockville, Maryland, Coll was troubled by his parents' divorce at age 16, a trauma he says made him flee as far as possible. Picking a college was almost an afterthought. "I didn't visit any. I spent about 15 minutes with a catalog. I looked at California, and noticed that Pomona and Occidental were good colleges. Then I noticed that Occidental was 30 miles closer to the beach. That was it; I went there. What I wanted to do is go to California, and to L.A. in particular."
Coll majored in English (with a double major in history) and worked on the campus newspaper, eventually as a consulting editor. In his senior year he met his future wife, Susan Keselenko, a junior who the next year became coeditor of the Occidental.
After graduation, Coll intended to travel to Africa or Europe and considered "something Peace-Corpsish." Instead he signed on to input classified ads at an L.A. music trade magazine called Music Connection. He was promoted to edit news, such as it was, and early on produced an investigative report about the way record companies manipulate airplay. The report was noticed by an editor at Community Information Project, an independent broadcast investigative group in L.A. Coll says the group opened its story files to him to shop around as potential print articles, which he did, quickly becoming a contributing writer for California magazine. A piece on the breakup of AT&T helped win him a modest book contract.
By then, he and Susan were married, and she was accepted by George Washington University Law School. Back in Washington, Coll worked on the book and had a part-time gig for Inc. magazine. After a year, the book finished, an editor friend from California helped him get a job at the Post Style section in September 1985. He stayed for four months and quit, lured by another book deal. He had read about a court verdict on Texaco's proposed merger with Getty Oil and figured that there was a cache of depositions and other records that would open a window into the go-go Wall Street atmosphere of the '80s.
"I pitched it to my agent and got a low six-figure advance--it was more money than I could ever imagine," he recalls. "I felt like lightning struck, I should do this. I blew right through the advance, as everything costs more when you work for yourself. My [AT&T] book came out to rave reviews--er, rather, reviews that I found gratifying. I hadn't made a million, we had a child by then--it wasn't really planned – but nonetheless we had a child who now was a year old, and I began to think maybe a steady paycheck wouldn't be a bad idea."
Hired back at the Post, Coll went to New York as a business writer in 1987, producing a series of investigative reports about the Securities and Exchange Commission with reporter David A. Vise. By the time the stories won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting and resulted in another book, coauthored with Vise, Coll had arrived in New Delhi as the Post's South Asia correspondent. That three-year tour produced another book, "On the Grand Trunk Road," a narrative of a 900-mile journey by truck from New Delhi to Calcutta.
To reward him again, the Post offered a prestigious posting as Moscow correspondent. But it was a plum he walked away from, showing again a propensity to stray from the traditional journalism path. Coll considered Moscow and decided that he couldn't afford to repeat himself in another foreign beat.
Instead, he decided to leave the paper. For several years he had been attracted to Las Vegas as the ultimate symbol of postwar America, with its amalgam of Teamster pension fund money, mob control and fantasy architecture. Coll talked about his plans with Mike Getler, then the Post's foreign editor. The paper countered with the irresistible, sending Coll to London as its first-ever international projects and investigative reporter, free to roam the globe.
A trip through the Post's archives shows a dazzling array of stories from Coll's London years, as he hopped from Africa to Afghanistan, Bombay to Belfast. His writing followed the who-the-hell-cares-about-the-second-paragraph approach, which he once described as "if you can write one truly great first sentence, you can buy a whole story with it." Here are some examples of the Coll style.
From Northern Ireland: "A maxim of ordinary life in Northern Ireland holds that it's best not to open your front door to unannounced visitors wearing ski masks."
From Accra, Ghana: "In dreadlocks and sunglasses, revolutionary-turned-environmental activist Jonny Nash Laryea leads a morning march through the narrow red clay alleys of Nima, this Western African capital's largest shantytown, where more than 200,000 urban migrants live crammed together in cacophonous, energetic squalor."
And from London: "Britain's Prince Charles, a beleaguered man who would be king, has managed in a single day to confess to adultery on national television and pilot a royal jet nose down into a Hebridean peat bog."
But beyond the vibrant word choice and compelling narratives, what particularly impressed many editors was Coll's smooth navigation through the undercurrents of Post foreign staff egos. "Look and see how many double bylines there are," says Eugene Robinson, now the Post's assistant managing editor/Style, who was London bureau chief at the time. "His mandate was to go into territory covered by other correspondents and pluck off some of the biggest and juiciest stories. I was really impressed with the way he was able to do that and not make other correspondents feel they were big-footed or shoved out of the way."
While abroad, he contributed significantly to the Post's Persian Gulf War coverage and developed what at the time was an arcane specialty--covering South Asia and Afghanistan, developing an expertise that now is invaluable.
During his six years in India and London, Coll figures that he lived in hotel rooms 50 to 60 percent of the time--his wife remembers it as more like 70 to 80 percent. Susan Coll held the fort at home. She dropped out of law school for their first child, which she describes as "a very painful decision." She arrived in India pregnant and with two toddlers, yet managed to carve out time to write a first, as yet unpublished novel. Last year her novel "Karlmarx.com: A Love Story" was published to good reviews that praised its comic account of a single woman coping with a caddish lover and dotcom failure.
In 1995, an old friend, Bob Thompson, decided to step down as editor of the Post's Sunday Magazine. Thompson suggested Coll go after the job. He did.
Downie remembers Coll's presentation as a showstopper. "He brought with him a stack of magazines and went through them one by one, discussing where the magazine had been and where it could go," says Downie. "It was a brilliant performance and it blew me away." Not only did Coll win appointment as the magazine's editor, but Donald Graham, the Post's publisher at the time, proposed to make him the magazine's publisher as well. "It was an arrangement that was unique to Steve," Downie says. "I don't know anyone else who could do it."
At the magazine, Coll showed skill at wooing advertising clients and reduced by two-thirds the magazine's perennially deep losses, principally by substituting a cheaper paper for expensive magazine stock. He won a fan club of writers who enjoyed his deft editing. "I'll never forget something he did that I've never known any other editor to do," says Achenbach, who described how he would turn in a story in the evening and find four voicemail messages the next morning. "All four would be from Steve, all would max out the recording message time of three minutes. So here would be this 12-minute monologue from Steve that would tell me exactly what the story needed to become better."
Coll won't identify the first person to suggest in 1997 that he consider a run for ME, except to say that it was a higher-up famous for acting as a covert intermediary for management. Startled, Coll tucked the thought away. Several months later, Bob Woodward raised the idea again, just as Coll arched into a practice swing on the back nine of the South River Golf Club in Edgewater, Maryland. With club in midair, Coll remembers the moment as a test of zen concentration as to whether he could finish the stroke, much less the game. "He shot an 81 that day," recalls Woodward, who describes his own performance that afternoon as miserable.
Once it became clear that he was being invited in, Coll began to campaign. The other chief challengers were formidable, particularly as they had more experience running large staffs: David Ignatius, then AME for business; Karen DeYoung, AME for foreign affairs; Rick Atkinson, head of the investigative unit.
After Coll got the nod, the other contenders found prestigious things to do, mostly out of the building. Ignatius became editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, co-owned by the Post Co. and the New York Times Co.; Atkinson started a lengthy book leave; DeYoung turned to writing big-picture State Department and foreign affairs stories.
Coll thinks one of his top selling points was that he was a mouthpiece for what he describes as "an ongoing underground conversation that was occurring all over the building, about the paper's core values, its best work, and figuring out how to get more of it from more people and to bring it to the center of the paper."
Inside and outside the Post, Coll's decision to write a fifth book has variously triggered disbelief and awe. Marimow says it's a trick he'd like to learn. "When I was managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, I could barely manage to write book reviews," says Marimow. Slate's Shafer says: "I don't know how he can do it. I couldn't do my job and write a book about Afghanistan."
By focusing on the history of American intelligence operations in Afghanistan, Coll says he is able to do most of the research in Washington. In February he made a two-week trip to Saudi Arabia--and managed to lead the paper one day with an interview with Crown Prince Abdullah. For now, he plans to take no book leave, adding: "If I do, it wouldn't be longer than six or eight weeks, and only after I work it out with Len, and only if the news is reasonably quiet."
Coll showed his ability to juggle when, while managing editor, he researched and wrote a Post Magazine cover story on the rebels in Sierra Leone. Glenn Frankel, the magazine's editor, was impressed by Coll's discipline. "I've never really seen anything like it before," Frankel says. "He had spent a few weeks on the Internet and talking to a few people, then came to me and laid out a plan about how it could be done. He mapped how he was going to go to Sierra Leone for two weeks, then came back from reporting and wrote it, in three days." Coll was the first Western journalist to travel to the interior of the country and interview the guerrilla leaders accused of mutilation and murder.
Coll concedes that book projects are "not something I can do all the time." Yet the importance to him is palpable: "I haven't felt that I've written the book that I'm capable of doing, but which I hope to be doing now." He says, however, that he is comfortable with his role as an editor. "I have much less need for bylines and direct authorship than 10 years ago, less a gnawing need to see my name in print. But I still care about telling stories, wrestling with complexities. In this job I can do that in a meaningful way across an enormous canvas, while leading and advancing an institution I really care about."
Coll sees attracting and keeping top talent as a major part of his job. Staffers who receive his attention and star-building treatment are naturally among the most loyal of fans. (This is the only story I've ever worked on when people begged to go off the record so they wouldn't appear to be sucking up.)
National enterprise reporter Hanna Rosin says Coll is doing a great job of trying to talk her out of quitting to write for national magazines, although she hasn't made a decision. "He would make it sound like you were Mark Twain and you are writing about America," Rosin says. "He does have a sense of your personal psychology and your ambitions for yourself."
"I don't think there is anybody in any section of the paper who doesn't swear by him," says metro columnist Marc Fisher. "He's the rare editor who sees himself from a reporter's perspective because he considers himself one of them. If you need more time or want to try something different, he's not only open to it, but encouraging. He tells you to go for it." He and others praise the Coll influence on the Post, and only wish for more, faster.
Those who don't feel the Coll heat, however, complain, only on the deepest of deep background, that he is inaccessible and unappreciative of those in the trenches who put out the paper with long hours and little glory. Particularly early on, some say, he seemed to concentrate on a favored clique. Coll says he became aware of that perception and worked to widen his reach to include more writers.
There have been fewer of the ambitious Coll-style takeouts in the last year as the paper has knuckled down to more traditional hard news coverage following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Pulitzer Day brought back old bugaboos that have long haunted the Post: Is the Washington Post essentially a very good local paper that happens to be located in the nation's capital, or is it a paper that is national in scope?
The New York Times has worked aggressively to establish itself nationally, with new printing plants being built all over the country. While Don Graham and other business-side leaders at the Post have long stated that the paper will never aspire to be distributed nationally, the Internet has changed the battlefield. Already, the Post's Web site, washingtonpost.com, attracts 4 to 5 million unique visitors a month, and the shape and direction of its digital news, says Coll, is "absolutely critical to the future of the paper."
Decisions regarding the expansion of digital news on the Web site and in future as-yet-unknown forms will affect how the Post stacks up against the Times and other national papers. That will also have a significant impact on Coll, who acknowledges that his mission to hire and retain major talent will grow increasingly difficult if the Times asserts itself as the undisputed top dog. In recent years, the Post has seen a steady stream of talent travel north to Manhattan.
Those are challenges involving strategic responses to sweeping, irrevocable changes in the news industry. But for my money, I'd rather watch Steve Coll's high-wire act, balancing between the pull of a solitary writer's life and his ringmaster role as the Post's second-in-command and heir apparent. Let's see if he makes his book deadline next year.###