The Post at a crossroads: Existential questions in a dire season for news

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For the people who work at The Washington Post — as well as the people who read it — a window into the motivations of the newspaper’s sometimes-remote owner opened briefly over a 48-hour period last October.

On a Monday night that month, Jeff Bezos played host at his Kalorama mansion to a ceremony honoring the courage of female correspondents. One of them, a Post reporter, shared her account of coming under intense artillery fire in Ukraine, fully expecting not to survive. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of the richest people in the world, was mesmerized. He later told the reporter he was moved nearly to tears.

Two days later, he sent an email to staff saying how invigorated he was to spend time with Post journalists — before turning to the health of the business.

After “a full business update, [I] wanted to make sure you know I’m as committed to the future of The Post as ever,” he wrote. “Long term it’s important that The Post return to profitability, a key signal that we’re serving readers in a way that’s important to them.”

What Bezos wants from and for The Post has remained the compelling question through a week of internal turmoil, during which his handpicked new publisher and CEO, William Lewis, abruptly replaced the newspaper’s first female executive editor and announced a reorganization of the newsroom — the exact plans for which remain unclear — in a bid to boost earnings.

Even as The Post’s staff struggled to absorb these sudden changes, reports about Lewis attempting to dissuade journalists from covering his role in a long-running British phone-hacking scandal raised new questions about whether The Post is headed for a larger shift in its values and standards, as well as its structure. Lewis denied attempting to influence The Post’s coverage.

Both Lewis and Robert Winnett, the British editor he has tapped to take over the traditional news division this fall, are veterans of the Telegraph, a London newspaper where they collaborated on a blockbuster investigation of government corruption that was lauded but also criticized by some as “checkbook journalism” because of the six-figure fee paid to a key source — a tactic more common in the United Kingdom and generally unaccepted in U.S. newsrooms.

“The big question is, are he and the editor that he’s bringing in, will they understand that they should now change — that they need to abide by American journalism standards?” said Leonard Downie, a former Post executive editor. “That’s my concern.”

While Lewis has carried on with small staff meetings this week — informing journalists on Monday that the new newsroom structure will launch in fiscal 2024’s third quarter, which starts in three weeks — the transition has unnerved current and former Post staffers, who regard it as a crucial institution covering a historic presidential election at a moment of political upheaval.

“People can say it’s too far to the left or right, and that’s irrelevant. It’s the search for truth that is relevant and important. That’s what The Post stands for,” said David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who spent decades at The Post and remains an associate editor. “It doesn’t always reach that level, but that’s the mission.”

It’s a mission that has often forced the newspaper to stand up to intense political pressure.

The Post’s coverage of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was awarded the Pulitzer gold medal for public service, journalism’s highest honor. Three years later, what was once widely acknowledged as an assault on democracy has become a highly politicized event, dismissed by Donald Trump and many Republicans as a “peaceful protest” whose participants are “political prisoners” — a warping of the truth that makes the coming election a high-wire act for the journalists covering it.

The Post’s mission “is as important this year as ever,” Maraniss added. “And a distraction like this doesn’t help at all.”

The business woes, however, are real. Despite a formidable investment from Bezos that dramatically grew and reshaped the company over his decade of ownership, The Post has not been immune to the internet-era pressures that have shattered the traditional business models for publishing.

And Lewis came in with a mandate from Bezos to move fast, according to two people familiar with their discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations.

Though The Post’s earning statements have remained cloaked during its recent years of private ownership, Lewis has said that the company lost $77 million last year — a mild improvement over a once-projected $100 million loss, stanched by a buyout program that cut roughly 10 percent of the staff.

The company has also said that it has lost half of its audience since 2020 — mirroring an industry-wide decline after years of supercharged news cycles.

The Post’s digital traffic soared with coverage of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and later amid the nation’s peak anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic and social justice demonstrations. In March 2020, it hit 139 million monthly visitors. But like many news organizations, it has seen a striking drop-off in audience since then: In November 2022, only about 58 million people visited The Post’s digital platforms. And digital subscriptions, which peaked at 3 million in January 2021, fell to 2.7 million by the end of that year and have not rebounded.

Lewis conveyed this dynamic in blunt terms during a tense meeting with staff last week: “People aren’t reading your stuff.” His quote was gleefully picked up by some of The Post’s fiercest critics on the right.

Several public figures — including failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate and 2024 Senate hopeful Kari Lake, former Trump adviser Richard Grenell and former White House political director Matt Schlapp — used Lewis’s comments to attack Post reporters who have written about them, tagging them on social media and calling their work irrelevant.

(A Post spokesperson said that the company “expects and welcomes scrutiny of its reporting” but that it does “not condone any attacks, including harassment, endangerment or intimidation, of our journalists and employees.”)

Lewis’s responses in that meeting — especially to staffers asking challenging questions about his business plan — rankled many in the room with the suggestion that The Post has been resistant to change.

Bezos’s purchase in 2013 inaugurated an era of expansion and experimentation. The Post’s newsroom ranks doubled, with audience-driven news teams that boosted digital traffic and were mimicked by rivals. The Post vaulted onto industry lists of “most innovative” companies, thanks to entrepreneurial efforts like a new in-house-designed software, which it licensed to others, and attempts to deliver the news in nontraditional ways, such as an illustrated version of the Mueller report. Though the specific numbers were not made public, The Post reported years of profitability during this time.

The fact that The Post was wholly owned by one of the richest men in the world was a paradigm shift for the news organization. But Bezos made clear to senior editors that they should cover him and his businesses like any other. As president, Trump repeatedly attacked Bezos, Amazon and The Post’s coverage, but Bezos never passed on any feedback to senior editors to change their approach, former Post executive editor Martin Baron has said.

“Feel free to cover Amazon any way you want,” he told Baron, according to “Collision of Power,” Baron’s 2023 memoir. “Feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.”

Those who have interacted with Bezos over the years say he sincerely believes in The Post’s mission and understands what’s at stake should it founder.

“You can’t fake that stuff, you just can’t,” said Jason Rezaian, a Post journalist who was arrested and detained by Iranian officials and imprisoned for 544 days, from 2014 to 2016. Bezos personally flew Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh, back to the United States after his release. And he spent hours learning about their ordeal, which he later recounted to Post luminaries, such as Bob Woodward and Fred Hiatt, at a dinner at Fiola Mare, “really synthesizing important aspects of our story,” Rezaian said.

The intensity of Bezos’s involvement at The Post has ebbed and flowed. When he bought the paper in 2013, he told staff he would not be involved in the day-to-day dealings. Initially, he held biweekly meetings to talk about big-picture changes and new products.

But that engagement changed over the years, especially as the pandemic and his other companies took up much of his time. After Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon, he signaled he would turn some of his attention to the rest of his portfolio. However, his space company Blue Origin and his philanthropic efforts “got the extra attention,” Baron wrote in his book. “The Post did not, even as it badly needed it.”

But by the time Baron published his account last fall, Bezos had already held one-on-one meetings with key staffers and was apprised of deep internal discontent owing to disagreements between The Post’s then-executive editor Sally Buzbee and Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO whom Bezos brought on board in 2014.

Bezos also took a close look at the books — including the projected $100 million shortfall. When Lewis was tapped to take over in November, months after Ryan stepped down, it was with the keys to the company and a charge to get it back to profitability.

Since his arrival in January, Lewis has engaged Post staffers on how to turn the business around. Last month, he unveiled some outlines of his plan, which includes new subscription tiers, such as a higher-priced offering for high-priced corporate customers.

“We want to be the best place to make journalism in order to become the most important news organization to people all around the world,” Lewis said at a meeting to discuss this plan. “That’s why we exist. That’s our mission.”

According to people familiar with their recent interactions, Bezos has been closely engaged with Lewis as the new publisher developed the plan to create a “third newsroom” — separate from the traditional news and opinion divisions — to focus on serving new audiences. The details of this new division still remain unclear to most in the newsroom.

Lewis has recruited a variety of executives he worked with in previous jobs. One is Matt Murray, the former editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, who has taken temporary ownership of Buzbee’s old job but will move to a new role overseeing Lewis’s third newsroom after the presidential election.

At that point, Winnett — currently a deputy editor at the Telegraph — is expected to come on board as editor of the traditional news division. (Lewis told a handful of staff in small Monday meetings that Winnett will start less formally in September to get to know reporters.)

Lewis last week called Winnett “a world class editor … a brilliant investigative journalist,” whom he promised “will restore an even greater degree of investigative rigor to our organization.”

The publisher turned to an obscure-on-these-shores Britishism to predict that “I think really naughty days lie ahead with Rob here as well.”

The two had worked together on the Telegraph’s 2009 project exposing lawmakers’ widespread misuse of public funds for personal expenses, a blockbuster series that led to the resignations of several high-ranking British government figures. Lewis, who was the Telegraph’s top editor at the time, later explained in a judicial inquiry that the newspaper paid 150,000 British pounds for the information.

More recently, in his first meeting with Post staff members in November, Lewis described the payment as money to assist with the legal risks incurred by the sources who shared the data with the Telegraph. “I agreed to put money in escrow for legal protections. So you could work it out if I paid for the story or not,” he said. “Does that mean I think they should pay for stories? No. Does it mean that we’re bringing that to bear here? No.”

That episode, among other aspects of Lewis’s Fleet Street origins, resurfaced after he tapped a relative unknown in American media circles to oversee The Post’s core newsroom — Winnett, his former protégé from the Telegraph and the Sunday Times before that.

“Nobody knows this guy,” said Maraniss, who has been fielding calls from Post journalists worried about the direction of the newsroom. “A lot of people are shaken,” he said, “to the extent that there could be a talent drain after the elections.”

Then came the reports last week of Lewis’s own dealings with the press. The publisher has denied the accounts of him clashing with Buzbee before The Post published stories about his involvement in the corporate cleanup of a phone-hacking scandal when he worked for Rupert Murdoch’s News International a decade ago.

Many in the newsroom were shocked by the accounts, which suggested a breach of the traditional lines that keep corporate media bosses from influencing the decisions of news editors.

Lewis also called award-winning NPR media reporter David Folkenflik — who wrote that Lewis tried to persuade him to kill a story about the case in exchange for an exclusive interview — “an activist, not a journalist.”

One former senior editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said the drama of the past week underscored the need for clarity.

“It’s important to kind of take care of your newsroom,” this person added. “You can’t convey panic when everyone else is in panic. We can’t convey there’s a fire. Somebody has to lead the place.”

Lewis’s rounds of meetings this week are a reflection of his desire to keep his plan moving forward.

“He realizes more than anybody that things went awry and he is determined to turn things around,” said Sally Quinn, a former Post writer and the widow of former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who has remained close with current and former Post leaders. (She declined to say whether she has been talking with Lewis.)

Late last week, Lewis sent an email to staff requesting that they “assume best intentions” as the organization moves forward. He called in Patty Stonesifer — the Bezos confidante who preceded him as interim publisher and led the search that resulted in his hiring — who spent Friday speaking with editors around the newsroom. And as he met with small groups of staffers on Monday, Lewis expressed “deep regrets” for his “testy” responses during the staff meeting the previous week.

The Post has endured other moments of crisis. Before Bezos’s purchase, the paper went through years of culling through buyouts. At one point under the ownership of the Graham family, The Post’s parent company rebranded itself as “an education and media company” — a nod to the fact that the entire business was significantly subsidized by the Grahams’ ownership of the moneymaking Kaplan test-prep and vocation-school businesses, an industry that fell under some uncomfortable government scrutiny. (The Grahams sold The Post to Bezos in 2013 for $250 million.)

“I do think that when you’re in the middle of it, you think it’s going to be the end of it,” said Liz Spayd, a former Post managing editor, referring to previous crises at The Post and across the media industry. But she said a future without The Post seems inconceivable, given the role it has played in modern American history.

“One way or another, they move on, and I do think this will happen in this case. It’s just a question of who is the one who is going to be moving it on — under what leadership.”

Back in October, Post reporter Siobhán O’Grady made a point of thanking Bezos for his support at the ceremony he hosted for the International Women’s Media Foundation.

It was the story she and colleague Anastacia Galouchka told — about crouching behind a Ukrainian tank, certain they were about to die in a Russian artillery strike — that had so moved The Post’s owner.

She noted that he had done so much to help keep her and the other correspondents in Ukraine safe: They now had a proper bureau, an armored car and staff security advisers.

“I hope your support continues forever,” O’Grady recalled telling him.

“I should be the one thanking you,” he replied.

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