Washington Post Leadership Shakeup

Sally Buzzee is out and the staff is "pissed." Readers will likely notice no difference.

NYT (“Washington Post Newsroom Reels From Its Editor’s Sudden Exit“):

On Sunday night, minutes after Will Lewis, the chief executive of The Washington Post, informed employees that the newspaper’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, was being replaced, managers gathered on a conference call to hear from their boss one last time.

Ms. Buzbee told them that a new organizational structure created by Mr. Lewis — effectively splitting the Washington Post newsroom and opinion section into three smaller divisions — didn’t work for her. She added that Mr. Lewis was pushing for aggressive moves to turn around The Post, and asked editors to reserve judgment for now.

“I would have preferred to stay to help us get through this period, but it just got to the point where it wasn’t possible,” Ms. Buzbee said, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The stunning call — which some attendees described as funereal — added to the growing tension between the newsroom and Mr. Lewis, who has set about remaking The Post since he started in January.

[…]

When Mr. Lewis revealed his plan to separate The Post’s newsroom into segments, he said she could run one of them, according to a person with knowledge of the interactions. Ms. Buzbee chafed at the idea, according to two people familiar with her thinking.

The reorganization would have been an effective demotion for Ms. Buzbee, who had been in charge of all news content at The Washington Post. The structure adds a division focused on service and social media journalism under the supervision of a new editor, which would have pulled a large portion of The Post’s editorial output out from under Ms. Buzbee’s supervision.

On Sunday, Mr. Lewis told Ms. Buzbee that he was appointing another person to her job, according to a person with knowledge of the talks.

Mr. Lewis is temporarily replacing Ms. Buzbee with Matt Murray, the former editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Murray will run The Post’s newsroom as executive editor through the election, at which point he will transition to run the division focused on service and social media journalism. Mr. Lewis had been considering hiring Mr. Murray for a senior editorial role at The Post for more than a month, according to a person with knowledge of their discussions, though another person familiar with the talks said Mr. Lewis first directly approached Mr. Murray about this role a week ago.

A new editor, Robert Winnett, will take over the company’s core coverage areas after the election. For the past decade, Mr. Winnett has run news operations at The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.

David Shipley will continue to run The Post’s opinion section. All three — Mr. Winnett, Mr. Murray and Mr. Shipley — will report directly to Mr. Lewis.

A spokeswoman for The Washington Post declined to say whether Jeff Bezos, the owner of the newspaper, was aware of or approved the leadership changes announced on Sunday evening.

WaPo (“Washington Post editor and CEO clashed on reorganization before her exit“):

Barely five months after joining The Washington Post as publisher and CEO, William Lewis recently began discussing a plan with his top executives for dramatically restructuring the newsroom.

His timing, though, drew resistance from executive editor Sally Buzbee. With her team of journalists absorbed by the demands of covering a historic presidential campaign, she urged Lewis to wait until after Election Day.

Lewis didn’t want to wait. Hired by Post owner Jeff Bezos with a mandate to reverse a sharp decline in subscriptions and a $77 million deficit over the past year, he wanted to execute the new plan immediately. She also balked at the role he saw for her in the new structure — and the two agreed she should depart, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

Buzbee’s abrupt exit after three years at The Post — which even her own department heads learned about late Sunday in a companywide email from Lewis — left the newsroom reeling.

A Monday morning newsroom meeting to introduce Matt Murray, who will take on a new role as a top Post editor, turned contentious as staff members pressed Lewis about Buzbee’s departure and his plans to spin off portions of The Post’s journalism into a new division.

[…]

“I really enjoyed working with Sally,” Lewis said. “I wish it could have gone on for longer, but it couldn’t. And I don’t think it’s appropriate to take that bit of the conversation any further.”

He apologized for the manner of the announcement. The news “began to leak out, which is why we had to scramble.”

[…]

In his own remarks, Murray, who spent 29 years at the Journal, focused on the future, which he said will meld the legacy of The Post with a forward-looking approach to news.

A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Murray said he doesn’t plan to remake The Post in the Journal’s image — and that The Post is the newspaper that made him want to work in journalism.

“I’ve been in the business long enough, and I’ve done enough things that I’m not interested at this point in managing decline,” Murray said. “I’m interested in the future and growth. … This is going to be an exciting time. We’re going to have a lot of new opportunities and new things.”

Murray will serve only temporarily as Buzbee’s replacement, Lewis has said. After Election Day, he will hand over the reins of leadership for the newsroom’s core reporting areas — including politics, investigations, business, technology, sports and features — to Robert Winnett, a British journalist who is currently the deputy editor of Telegraph Media Group.

At that point, Murray will shift over to serve as the leader of the new company division.

[…]

In one heated exchange with a Post staffer, Lewis warned that the newsroom cannot afford to be resistant to change, saying that “decisive, urgent” actions are needed for the company to survive upheaval within the media industry and a recent loss of subscribers and revenue.

“We are going to turn this thing around, but let’s not sugarcoat it. It needs turning around,” he said. “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. Right. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.”

NOTUS (“‘What the Hell Is Going On?’: Inside The Washington Post After a Surprise Newsroom Shake-Up“):

The Washington Post newsroom descended into a “shit show” Monday as reporters clashed with Post Publisher and CEO Will Lewis over the sudden departure of Sally Buzbee as executive editor and the installation of a new all-male leadership team.

Sources in the newsroom described a 45-minute all-hands meeting as “tense,” “combative” and “extremely defensive.”

“I’ve never been in a meeting like that in my life,” one attendee told NOTUS. “People are pissed. … People are like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

[…]

Washington Post staffers are concerned that Lewis is cleaning house, sources told NOTUS. They fear that he’s installing allies to consolidate power over an editorial vision they don’t have clarity on just months ahead of one of the most contentious election years in American history.

[…]

The all-hands took a quick turn when senior national correspondent Ashley Parker criticized how the news of Buzbee’s departure was shared Sunday night and asked about the new executive suite. “Now we have four white men running the newsroom,” Parker said, with the question receiving a surprise ovation, according to a source.

[…]

His explanation didn’t seem to convince the newsroom. “No one was buying what he was selling,” a source told NOTUS, describing the internal reaction. Lewis was also asked whether he had interviewed any diverse candidates or women to be the new executive editor but did not give a definitive answer, per several sources.

[…]

Lewis has billed his shake-up as a way to bring forth his vision for a “third newsroom” — what he called a “decisive decision” to harness resources to reach untapped audiences. In his email Sunday night, Lewis described the “third newsroom” as a combination of “service and social media journalism” that will run separately from the new “core news operation.”

“If we keep doing the same things in the same ways… we’re nuts,” Lewis said during the all-hands, according to a source in the room. Lewis added that it’s “dangerous to keep doing things the same way because we’re losing so much money.”

Several staffers said they don’t know what this project will actually mean for the Post. There’s been no guidance on who would staff the “third newsroom” or whether current staff would have a say or choice in how it is built, one source said.

Asked on Monday what this “third newsroom” meant for job security, Lewis was noncommittal. “Any CEO who guarantees that there won’t be job cuts is nuts,” he responded, according to a source.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Carol D. Leonnig also asked about the “series of stutter steps” the Post has had in the last 18 months — with buyouts, a new publisher and now a new executive editor — and Lewis became visibly frustrated the longer her question went on.

“You know how Trump makes scoffing faces and eyebrows? That was Lewis multiple times throughout the meeting,” one source said, pointing to Lewis’ exasperation, particularly during Leonnig’s question.

Eventually, Leonnig expressed concern that the publication’s new leadership team, meaning Lewis and Winnett, was from across the pond.

“You’ve chosen people with a very different culture from the Washington Post,” Leonnig said, according to a source, seemingly referring to the tabloid culture on Fleet Street and the journalistic practices in Britain that are fundamentally different in the United States.

[…]

The Post’s internal struggles have been bubbling to the surface for some time now. The newsroom underwent a round of buyouts and layoffs to reduce head count in the last year, cutting its Metro desk, Sunday Magazine and more. The company reportedly lost $100 million last year.

“It’s a business; the Post is losing a lot of money, so he’s gotta make some money, and these are very good moves,” said Sally Quinn, a veteran columnist at The Washington Post, supportive of the changes. “The vision is to upgrade the content and have it appeal to new and different readers and make the newspaper swagger.”

One would think that the advantage of being owned by a mega-billionaire (Jeff Bezos is worth some $195 billion) is the ability to absorb modest losses. While $77 million is an unfathomably large annual deficit for a normal business, Bezos could earn that much in four days if he put his money in a passbook savings account.*

To the extent he wants the Post to be a profitable concern, though, it needs to do something different. Whether this “third newsroom” is that thing, I haven’t the foggiest. (The Politician’s Syllogism comes to mind.)

Offhand, though, I’m inclined to size with Buzbee that massive shakeup five months before a pivotable election is unwise. One would think that the election itself would provide a significant boost to Post revenues organically. But I have no idea what the internal dynamics of the Post are; Lewis may well have been under direct pressure from Bezos to get moving.

Keeping secrets in an elite newsrooms is, one imagines, next to impossible. So, as soon as Buzbee decided she could not accept what amounted to a demotion—and who could blame her?—the news spread almost immediately. Lewis was then left with the unenviable position of a lame announcement on Sunday evening followed by the contentious meeting Monday morning.

The replacement of the paper’s first woman chief executive with a group of white guys is not the best look. But Lewis has a right to pick his own team and it’s hardly unusual to go with people you’ve worked with successfully at other places. The two of the hires are British doesn’t strike me as the least bit problematic. The Post is a bit more parochial than the Times but they’re both global newspapers. And, whatever might be said of the Wall Street Journal in the wake of the acquisition by Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp years go, it didn’t get turned into a tabloid; there’s no reason to think that’s about to happen with the Post.

Indeed, for all the internal drama, I strongly suspect the readership will detect little difference in the paper. It has been my de facto local newspaper for close to a quarter-century now and, had I not read about it, I wold have been unaware that Buzbee had replaced Marty Baron.

_______________
*Yes, I realize most of his worth is in stocks rather than liquid.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Moosebreath says:

    “And, whatever might be said of the Wall Street Journal in the wake of the acquisition by Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp years go, it didn’t get turned into a tabloid; there’s no reason to think that’s about to happen with the Post.”

    The WSJ news stayed pretty reasonable. The WSJ opinion sections turned into conspiracy laden dreck. There’s plenty of reason to worry this will now happen to the Post.

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  2. DrDaveT says:

    Jeff Bezos needs to decide whether the purpose of The Post is to make money, or to shine light into the darkness. It probably can’t do both in the current media market.

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  3. Chip Daniels says:

    Even in the Golden Age of newspapers lets say in the post WWII era, hard news was never profitable.
    If ranked by profitability, even the marquee papers like NYT and WaPo were primarily comics, classified, sports and celebrity gossip, with hard news as a loss leader.

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  4. Mister Bluster says:

    Don’t know if you have cited it before. This is the first time that I have noticed NOTUS in one of your posts.
    I am inspired by the picture of the
    United States Capitol in the capital of the United States, Washington DC so I signed up for the NOTUS newsletter.

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  5. Jen says:

    The replacement of the paper’s first woman chief executive with a group of white guys is not the best look.

    No, it is not. And kudos to her for not sticking around to become a punching bag.

    And, whatever might be said of the Wall Street Journal in the wake of the acquisition by Rupert Murdock’s NewsCorp years go, it didn’t get turned into a tabloid; there’s no reason to think that’s about to happen with the Post.

    It’s already been said by @Moosebreath, but I’ll reiterate–the WSJ opinion section is a flaming garbage pile, and the problem with that is that many, many Americans cannot discern between news and opinion. So. That’s not good.

    I absolutely detest some elements of British journalism and will be watching closely to see which path WaPo chooses. Guardian and BBC–fine. Dreck like Daily Mail or The Sun? No thanks.

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  6. gVOR10 says:

    One must wonder who these “ new and different readers” are planned to be. GVOR’s Second Law is that if someone won’t explain what they’re doing, and why, it’s prudent to assume the worst. And these new people seem Murdoch adjacent. As someone elsewhere observed, “Democracy dies in darkness” may be not a motto but a business plan.

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  7. Dave Schuler says:

    James, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the WaPo’s historic function as the weathervane of the prevailing wisdom in DC and the political implications of the WaPo’s declining revenue in that context. That’s in significant contrast to the NYT whose revenue has grown as it has become more ideologically progressive.

    Is the DC prevailing wisdom falling from favor?

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  8. Paul L. says:

    I hope the WashPo keeps Taylor Lorenz.

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  9. Andy says:

    $77 million isn’t a trivial figure. A 50% audience drop in only three years is not trivial. I’m not surprised there is a leadership change – whether leadership can solve the WaPo’s fundamental solvency is another question.

    Sure, Bezos can afford to lose $77 million in a single year, but the trend is not going in the right direction, and this is not a single-year problem.

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  10. Kathy says:

    @Andy:

    To quote the late Charles Foster Kane, when speaking about his newspaper: You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years.

    Kane was not worried about money, but about building the newspaper he wanted. Granted this did not turn out well at all, and his life became a Greek tragedy (I blame the screenwriter). But this was the old kind of 1% oligarch, the one who used money to achieve some purpose; not one who wanted to make money at all costs.

    I don’t know why Lex Bezos bought the Post (nor what other people who bought the Post also bought), but he certainly can afford to lose lots of money on it to attempt to make it what eh wants. Unless what he wants is to make more money off it for some reason.

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  11. JKB says:

    @Andy:

    Bezos might be able to afford a money losing enterprise like the Washington Post. But apparently, even with DC awash with the Biden stimulus dollars, the DC denizens won’t buy a subscription.

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  12. Lounsbury says:

    @Kathy: It is not that hard to understand if one gives some proper business reflection.

    Bezos desired to have an influential newspaper – and while making money is not per se needed by him – if his rationale is to be influential in a mass way in that market, and his paper is losing subscribers, a coherent numeric proxy for reach and influence (and being the builder of Amazon, he will be a person driven by coherent numeric KPIs), is not saying he is achieving that goal.

    Profitability may not be in any way necessary for him, but a numeric KPI strongly indicating shrinking reach rather than expanding reach certainly would not encourage me to be happy about losing money and also not achieving my goals.

    Not taking any view on the actual events, nor timing – but it is really not hard to understand the logic of a reaction to shrinking subscriber numbers outside of the mere issue of financial loss.

    But then I am vulgar financial person wont to see things in numbered terms.

    And I did miss Andy’s post, which higlights indeed the drop, which of course highlights the reach and influence question.

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  13. Gavin says:

    Even though DC is awash in Biden stimulus dollars, Melania Trump still wants nothing to do with Donald Trump. Donald has been by himself for weeks and doesn’t appear to be in a relationship at all. But of course Republicans don’t care — all that gum-flapping about The Party of Family Values has always been public posturing intended to be casually discarded when it’s inconvenient.

    I don’t understand what people who do access journalism want – or thought was going to happen. Of course they’re losing subscribers.. WaPo does very little actual journalism other than be someone’s mouthpiece. Sure, being a PR department has a role, but not a role that someone else is willing to pay money to find out. Repeat after me: Both sides are not equal.
    Yes, they’d have to relearn how to conduct an adversarial interview… it’s not called a job because it’s easy. Of course, what’s likely to happen is just a change of some titles and a managerial structure or two..

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  14. Raoul says:

    After today’s report (Friday 6/7)- the new editor has been involved in at least clear violations of journalism ethics, and the three are very serious ethical breaches (in fact one may be criminal)- things don’t augur very well for the WP. For the record: I will will cancel my subscription if I notice changes that reduce the reputation of the newspaper. My feeling is that the new editor is misreading its audience.

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