Leonard Downie, Jr.
When The New York Times on July 16 broke the story of a 2003 State
Department memo that had become a key element in the Valerie Plame leak investigation,
the paper scored a major exclusive. But when The Washington Post hit newsstands
that very same Saturday, it had its own version of the same story. It even credited
the Times for the same-day scoop.
Welcome to life under the Washington Post-New York Times swap. As part
of a secret arrangement formed more than 10 years ago, the Post and Times send
each other copies of their next day's front pages every night. The
formal sharing began as a courtesy between Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie
Jr. and former Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld in the early 1990s and
has continued ever since.
"It seemed logical, because for years we would always try to get a copy
of each other's papers as soon as they came out," Downie tells E&P.
"It made sense to both of us to make it simpler for everybody." Lelyveld,
who left the Times in 2001, declined comment.
The Plame memo story is a good example of the swap's success. Although the
Times did not post the memo story on its Web site the previous evening, as it
often does with next-day stories, it was placed on the e-mailed, Page One image
the Post received at around 11 p.m. on July 15. When the Post's editors saw
the scoop, they assigned reporters Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei to track it down.
"We were able to match it, and got it in the [July 16] second edition,"
recalls Vince Bzdek, a Post news editor who was on duty that night. "We
wouldn't have gotten it if we did not have their front page. They had not posted
the story, because it was an exclusive."
At times during previous decades, editors at the two papers obtained the rival's
front page through third parties, or their own staffers sent along copies. But
the formal swap only began in the mid-1990s. When it started, each paper would
fax copies of its Page One layout, Downie says, adding that he does not remember
which paper proposed the idea first.
In recent years, they have moved to electronic transmissions of the front pages,
usually sent between 10:30 and 11 p.m.
This exchange is just the latest element of a Page One battle that dates back
several decades, according to those at both papers. Veterans at the Post recall
a line of taxis regularly waiting outside their building to grab the first editions
for rival papers -- most notably for the Times, back when the printing presses
were located on site. "We would have someone waiting over at the Post building,
a taxi or messenger service, to get the first paper to come off the press,"
notes Philip Taubman, the Times' Washington bureau chief and a 26-year employee.
"It would be delivered to the bureau by 11 p.m. I don't know if they made
a copy for us, or if we took it out of the box."
Post editors claim a similar effort by their New York bureau, which would arrange
a pick-up at the Times' Manhattan headquarters, where the paper was printed
before that process was shifted to several suburban plants. Associate Editor
Robert Kaiser, a former managing editor who has been at the Post since 1963,
says his paper at one time even hired a New Yorker to listen to a radio show
on WQXR, the Times-owned radio station that previewed the next day's front-page
"Some retired person we retained for a modest fee to listen and tip us
off," Kaiser says about the era preceding Web sites, e-mail, and faxes.
"I believe he lived in a retirement home."
Taubman said it was much harder back then to nail down a story that had just
run in the Post in time for the same day's edition of the Times. He recalled
a Post story by Bob Woodward in 1979 or 1980 that broke news on the intelligence
beat, which he found out about through the early edition of the paper. "I
had to chase it that night, and I had no sources," Taubman recalls. "I
found one person and he gave me some material so I could match it."
Now he notes there have been some stories that the Post did not place on its
Web site the night before, and even delayed until the later editions in an apparent
effort to deny the Times a follow-up chance. "We were never sure if they
held it back to blind us," says Taubman.
The Times-Post rivalry is unique in that it is believed to be the only one
that involves two newspapers located some 200 miles apart, but with a competition
that rivals any two-newspaper city. "This is really a peer group of two,"
explains Kaiser. The Los Angeles Times "has a place in it," he observes,
"but it is not the same because it is in a different time zone. There is
really nothing else like it."