DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Washington Post is celebrating a pair of Pulitzer Prizes this week. One is for a series on Americans who rely on food stamps. The other, a Public Service medal for stories based on the documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The Post has won the Public Service medal many times before, including for its legendary Watergate coverage. But after years of circulation declines and painful staffing cuts, this year's prizes are especially sweet. And they come amid questions about the Post's future, following its purchase by billionaire Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com.
GREENE: If the paper can remain faithful to journalism's highest values, there's someone who will play an especially big role in that. It's Marty Baron. He became executive editor at the end of 2012. And we caught up with him to talk about the Post's latest honors.
Thanks for coming on the program and congratulations.
MARTY BARON: Thank you. And thanks for having me.
GREENE: What came to mind when you got the news of these two Pulitzers?
BARON: It's just tremendously gratifying, certainly. And Eli Saslow, we have one of finest writers in the country, demonstrated in his six part series about food stamps and it was wonderful to see his work recognized. And on the NSA surveillance front, this was tremendously important work. It made me very proud to be part of that and to bring this issue to light.
GREENE: How much debate was there within the paper and in your own mind about whether to really go after that story?
BARON: Well, Bart Gelman, who had been a reporter here at The Washington Post some years ago, came to us with the story. We're certainly glad that he did. We came to the conclusion fairly quickly that this is a story that we needed to do. It carried risks for us legally and reputationally(ph), but this is an organization that in its history has taken on the most sensitive and difficult subjects and we were prepared to do that again.
GREENE: And there has been some criticism from people who think that Edward Snowden is a lawbreaker. I mean there's a congressman, Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York, who slammed Columbia University for giving Pulitzers to what he called Snowden's enablers. I mean, how do you respond to that criticism?
BARON: Well, I understand the controversy and I always welcome debate about these kinds of things. These are not easy issues. We're certainly not dismissive of national security's concerns. The throughout the story over many months, we've had many conversations, detailed conversations, sometimes difficult conversations, with the government, with intelligence officials, about what we would report and what we wouldn't report. And in many instances we held back information at their request because they would, in fact, give away certain sources and methods that were not central to the key point of these stories.
On the other hand, the question is: Does the government always get to decide what the bounds of what the press should report? Does the government get to decide that a national security will be implemented without any public debate entirely in secret - with huge weaknesses and oversight, and that on the grounds of national security, it should never be reported to the American public? We concluded otherwise. And while I understand that there's a controversy about the leaking of classified documents, sometimes that's what it takes in order to get important policy issues before the American public.
GREENE: In tough economic times, when it comes to defending the size of your reporting staff, how much of difference could winning a couple of Pulitzers make?
BARON: I hope a lot. But who knows? You know, we look at the resources that we have. We're fortunate now to - we had a wonderful owner in the past. The reputation of The Washington Post exists because of the commitment of the Graham family to this institution. But we have a terrific owner now as well in Jeff Bezos. He has already demonstrated a willingness to invest, to experiment, to try new things, to give us what he calls a runway and an opportunity to experiment over a reasonable period of time, with different models and to try new things and that's a wonderful thing to have. And I think he understands that we need resources to do the kind of journalism that is at the core of the reputation of The Washington Post. So I'm very confident.
GREENE: How does your approach to journalism mesh with his?
BARON: Well, I think we need to hold true to our traditional values. But the way that we deliver news is changing dramatically - even the way that we write news. We are today and are becoming more of a digital society. It's a different medium. It's not just a matter of being digital, but it's also being mobile. And so we need to adjust.
GREENE: In what has been some very difficult years for The Washington Post and very difficult years for newspapers, sum up, if you can, what message is being sent by these two prizes.
BARON: News organizations need to remain ambitious. They need to do the hardest stories and the most important stories and that they need to invest the resources in order to deliver those stories successfully. And that if it requires confronting powerful institutions that we're willing to do, that we're willing to take risks in service of the public interest.
GREENE: Marty Baron is the executive editor of The Washington Post. Marty, congratulations to you and your staff and thanks for joining us.
BARON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.