The news was announced Monday at a 4:30 p.m. staff meeting. Last week, Publisher Katharine Weymouth told Ad Age, "I am in no hurry to rush Len out of here." But she did note that she was scouting successors for the day he resigns -- and said newspapers' decline has created a new prerequisite for editors, in addition to intellectual capacity and leadership ability.
"The third piece is the ability to work with the business side, without crossing church-state lines," she said last week. "To the extent that we need to effect change either in our structure or our head count, I think you need people who can do that effectively without overly demoralizing the staff or hurting the product that we put out in print or online."
Media observers have named several candidates as possible successors, including former Wall Street Journal managing editor Marcus Brauchli, New York Times deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. Two insiders, Post associate editor David Ignatius, and managing editor Phil Bennett, have also been cited by bloggers like Politico's Michael Calderone.
"Len's extraordinary news judgment, his ferocious sense of fairness, his honesty with the staff and with the stories, and his work ethic made him the great newspaper editor of his time," Donald E. Graham, chairman-CEO of the Washington Post Co., said in a release.
Ms. Weymouth added, "Len is one of a kind. He has guided The Washington Post with a steady and unerring hand. Under his leadership, our newspaper grew better each year, and our web site blossomed. Len's legacy is enormous."
Howard Kurtz, the Post's media critic, posted a full story at washingtonpost.com that coincided with the staff meeting.
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Ms. Weymouth's full memo to the staff:
Len Downie has announced that, effective Monday, Sept. 8, 2008, he will step down from his post as Executive Editor.
Len is incontrovertibly one of the great editors of our time. He has guided The Washington Post with a steady and unerring hand, and we have been fortunate to have him for the past 44 years -- 17 as Executive Editor.
Under his leadership, the quality of our coverage and our newspaper grew every year. Washingtonpost.com was born and, thanks to content provided by our newsroom, the site has brought us new readers from around the nation and the world. We have more readers for Washington Post content today than ever.
While prizes are just one of many measures of success, during Len's tenure, The Washington Post was awarded a total of 25 Pulitzer Prizes, many White House News Press Photographers Association Awards and other prestigious awards.
With Len's sound instincts and nose for talent, our newsroom if filled with an array of remarkably talented journalists who have broken important stories, from neglected children in DC's child welfare system to Walter Reed.
Len, 66, joined The Post as a summer intern in 1964 when he was 22. He became a well-known local investigative reporter in Washington, specializing in crime, courts, housing and urban affairs. At the age of 24, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his work on a series uncovering the deplorable conditions of what was then the D.C. Court of General Sessions. Other work he did as a reporter won him two Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild Front Page awards, The American Bar Association Gavel Award for legal reporting and the John Hancock Award for excellent business and financial writing.
He worked on The Post's Metro staff as a reporter and editor for 15 years and was Assistant Managing Editor for Metro news from 1974 until 1979. As Deputy Metro Editor, Len supervised The Post's Watergate coverage. He was named London correspondent in 1979 and returned to Washington in 1982 as National Editor. He became Managing Editor of newspaper in 1984 and was named Executive Editor in 1991 -- almost exactly 17 years ago.
Len is the author of four books: "Justice Denied" (1971); "Mortgage on America" (1974); "The New Muckrakers" (1976), a study of investigative reporting; and (with Robert G. Kaiser) "The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril" (2002). He was also a major contributor to "Ten Blocks from the White House: Anatomy of the Washington Riots of 1968", a Washington Post book. In 2003, "The News About the News" won the Goldsmith Award from the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Len will assume the role of a Vice President at Large at the newspaper and will remain at The Washington Post as a trusted friend and advisor. Len's first novel, "The Rules of the Game," will be published by Knopf next January.