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The Will Lewis scandal at The Washington Post is spinning out of control

Will Sally Buzbee return? Photo (cc) 2018 by Collision Conf.

Saturday was the first time I thought that Washington Post publisher Will Lewis might survive the scandal that had erupted over his role in the Murdoch phone-hacking schedule and his subsequent attempts at intimidating people into not reporting on it. By Saturday evening, though, it was clear that not only will he have to go but so will his hand-picked executive editor, Robert Winnett.

In case you missed it, here’s the lead of the latest New York Times report (free link), this one by Justin Scheck and

The publisher and the incoming editor of The Washington Post, when they worked as journalists in London two decades ago, used fraudulently obtained phone and company records in newspaper articles, according to a former colleague, a published account of a private investigator and an analysis of newspaper archives.

Will Lewis, The Post’s publisher, assigned one of the articles in 2004 as business editor of The Sunday Times. Another was written by Robert Winnett, whom Mr. Lewis recently announced as The Post’s next executive editor.

What a disaster. And it gets worse, as Scheck and Becker recount the ways that Lewis has tried to play down his role in the scandal, including telling the BBC in 2020, “My role was to put things right, and that is what I did.” Now we know he was up to his neck in it. The Times story also reports that Lewis has been less than honest about how he handled a £110,000 payoff to a source.

Just a reminder: executive editor Sally Buzbee, who left the Post a week ago, was not fired; rather, she quit rather than accept a demotion to a new role overseeing social media and new editorial products. What are the odds of her returning triumphantly to the newsroom on Monday? No doubt that would require an apology by owner Jeff Bezos as well as some guaranteed job security. But that would seem to be Bezos’ best option at this point.

Earlier coverage.

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An insightful Times report on Jeff Bezos, Will Lewis and The Washington Post

Portrait of Jeff Bezos (cc) 2017 by thierry ehrmann

Some worthwhile insights in this New York Times story (free link) on Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post. According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, interim publisher Patty Stonesifer last fall did a thorough scrub of Will Lewis’ involvement in the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal and, according to an anonymous source, “came away satisfied with his explanation and confident that he was the right executive to run The Post.”

Lewis’ miserable attempts to manage the fallout from that scandal, which include reports that he tried to intimidate then-executive editor Sally Buzbee from reporting on it in the Post and that he told NPR media reporter David Folkenflik he could have an interview if he’d agree not to write about it, were apparently not enough to overcome Bezos’ belief that Lewis could be an effective publisher.

Bezos seems especially intrigued by Lewis’ proposal to create a “third newsroom” to include social media and new products, and the Times reports that Bezos pressed Buzbee to accept Lewis’ offer of running that shop. Buzbee declined and left the paper.

I’m intrigued by the third newsroom as well, since the Post desperately needs to find a strategy that involves more than being just like the Times only not as comprehensive. I still wonder if Lewis can overcome his self-inflicted wounds, but he has reportedly adopted a more contrite attitude in dealings with his employees. So we’ll see.

Earlier coverage.

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The Washington Post looks to local as a way of reviving its sagging fortunes

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

I was intrigued to learn that embattled Washington Post publisher Will Lewis is thinking about expanding the Post’s local coverage as he seeks a way to turn around the paper’s declining fortunes. It’s an idea I’ve suggested a couple of times (here and here), so I’m heartened to see that the Post might actually move in that direction.

In Axios D.C., Cuneyt Dil reports that the product would be known as Local Plus and would be aimed at readers who are willing to pay a premium for newsletters and “exclusive experiences,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. If Lewis decides to head down that route, he’d be embracing the Post’s roots, harking back to a time when it had the highest penetration rate in the country and had more in common with large regional papers like The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer than with The New York Times.

Of course, Lewis doesn’t have to choose since digital distribution means that the Post can continue with the national and international mission that owner Jeff Bezos set for it a decade ago.

In my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I tracked the Bezos led-transformation. Under the Graham family, from whom Bezos bought the paper in 2013, the Post was barely profitable and was accomplishing that mainly through cuts. The Grahams’ final play was to double down on local, unveiling the slogan “Of Washington, For Washington.”

Even in the early Bezos years, Post executives understood the value of local. For several years they offered two different digital products — a colorful, low-cost magazine-like app that contained no local news and that was aimed at a national audience, and a more traditional app that cost more and included all of the Post’s journalism, including local and regional coverage.

The Post’s major Bezos-era challenge has come since Donald Trump left the White House and a post-Trump-bump malaise hit multiple news outlets. The New York Times has been a notable exception, zooming to more than 10 million paid subscribers on the strength of its lifestyle offerings, including recipes, consumer advice and games. The Post, meanwhile, slid from 3 million to 2.5 million paid subscribers as of a year ago, and may have slipped more since then.

If the Post is going to start growing again, it has to find areas where it’s not competing head-to-head with the Times. I assume that’s what Lewis’ “third newsroom” comprising social media and lifestyle journalism comes in, although he hasn’t even begun to define what that will look like.

Local news, too, would be a smart move, and charging a premium for it makes a lot of sense.

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Margaret Sullivan’s advice for The Washington Post

Former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has written a sensible though surprisingly restrained column for The Guardian on how the Post can recover from its self-inflicted wounds: publisher Will Lewis promises to behave; owner Jeff Bezos makes it clear that he’s still committed to the Post and its mission of holding the powerful accountable; and a public editor is brought in “to provide transparency and accountability to readers.” Sullivan, who’s also a former public editor for The New York Times, says she’s not interested in the job herself.

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Lewis keeps digging and demands a bigger shovel

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

Embattled Washington Post publisher Will Lewis not only keeps digging but he’s demanding a bigger shovel. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, whose coverage of the Post’s meltdown has been exceptional, writes that Lewis’ response to his own paper following Thursday’s bombshell NPR story has only made things worse — much worse. Darcy writes:

At The Post, according to more than half-dozen staffers I spoke with Thursday, morale has fallen off a cliff since Lewis abruptly ousted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee on Sunday. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, truly,” one staffer confided in me Thursday, noting that The Post has hit “rough patches” before, but that the stormy atmosphere hanging over the Washington outlet is unprecedented.

In an interview with the Post, Darcy notes, Lewis labeled NPR’s respected media reporter, David Folkenflik, as “an activist not a journalist,” which is just astonishing.

Darcy also ties up another loose thread. After Folkenflik reportedly rejected Lewis’ offer last December for an interview in exchange for not writing about Lewis’ role in the Murdochian phone-hacking scandal, that first interview went instead to Dylan Byers of Puck. Darcy writes: “Byers told me Thursday night that no restrictions were placed around the interview and he would ‘have never agreed to anything like that.’”

Are Lewis’ days numbered? I think so. The Post is taking a terrible hit to its reputation, and owner Jeff Bezos has to realize that Lewis is no longer the right person to rebuild the sagging news outlet — if he ever was. Bezos might see this as a public relations problem rather than a genuine ethical quandary. Well, fine. But it’s a PR disaster that’s not going away as long as Lewis is in charge. And if Lewis goes, what happens to his handpicked editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett?

What a mess.

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Media notes: Will Lewis’ unethical ask, Biden is still old and Hub Blog is back

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Once the mishegas over the shake-up at The Washington Post dies down, we are left with a question: Is publisher Will Lewis the right person to set a new direction for Jeff Bezos’ money-losing, reader-hemorrhaging newspaper? The New York Times has some disturbing news (free link) on that front.

According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, executive editor Sally Buzbee clashed with Lewis over a story about new developments in the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal. Lewis had some involvement as an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and he reportedly told Buzbee that he didn’t want the story to run. Buzbee ran it anyway. The Times reports that the exchange was a factor, though not the decisive one, in Buzbee’s decision to leave the Post rather than accept a reduced role under Lewis’ plan to reorganize the staff into three newsrooms.

And lest we forget, Max Tani of Semafor reported a couple of weeks ago that the Post’s director of newsletter strategy, Elana Zak, sent out a missive instructing staff members “don’t distribute this story” in its newsletters. At the time, Zak’s email was attributed to some sort of internal mix-up, but the Times story casts that in a new light.

Buzbee, at least, stood up to Lewis and his ethically inappropriate demand. The problem is that his handpicked new editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett, may prove to be more malleable.

A flawed WSJ story

The Wall Street Journal has published a lengthy inquiry (free link) into President Biden’s mental acuity that has inflamed liberal critics. I read it with an open mind, but the story, by Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes, is based almost entirely on the observations of partisan Republicans like former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s quoted on the record, and current Speaker Mike Johnson, who isn’t.

The article, we’re told, is based on interviews with 45 people — but apparently six of those interviews were devoted to what Johnson had told people about a meeting he had with Biden in February. The story also contradicts earlier reporting about McCarthy, who has privately praised Biden’s mental sharpness even while mocking him in public.

One of the most fair-minded, nonpartisan media observers out there is Tom Jones of Poynter Online, so I was curious as to what he would have to say about it. Here’s his take:

Is it a fairly reported story on a pertinent topic? Or is it a pointed piece based pretty much on quotes and opinions from those who don’t want to see Biden elected to a second term?

I’d go with the latter — considering the money quote is from McCarthy, another key anecdote was reported by current Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other tales suggesting Biden’s decline are flimsy, at best. (For example, he sometimes talks quietly, he uses notes, and he relies on aides.)

That “money quote” from McCarthy, by the way, is this: “I used to meet with him [Biden] when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. He’s not the same person.”

Despite Murdoch’s ownership, the Journal’s news coverage is generally superb. It was the Journal’s reporting, after all, that led to Donald Trump’s 34 felony convictions last week. You have to wonder how a slanted piece like this passed muster.

Fairly or not, the Journal has raised the stakes for Biden’s June 27 debate with Trump, who, it should be said much more often than it is, is nearly as old as Biden and whose own problems with age-related mental slips tend to play out in public rather than (allegedly) behind closed doors.

Jay Fitzgerald returns

Veteran journalist Jay Fitzgerald, one of the original Boston bloggers, has revived Hub Blog (via Contrarian Boston). It looks like Jay is mainly writing an old-fashioned link blog with a few longer posts on the turmoil at The Washington Post.

I started writing an early version of this blog in 2002, shortly after Hub Blog launched. I was actually doing it by hand — I had no idea there was this thing called blogging software that automated the process of date-stamping, archiving older posts, adding permalinks and the like until Jay asked me, “What are you using.” He led me to Blogspot, though I’ve been using WordPress since 2005.

Anyway, it’s good to have Jay back in harness.

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Post notes: Buzbee’s departure, diversity concerns and a squishy-soft profile

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2018 by Collision Conf.

I’m reading everything I can find about the still-unfolding story of what’s next at The Washington Post, and I think it makes sense to hold back until the picture comes more clearly into focus. Here, though, are a few bullet points of note:

• It sounds like Sally Buzbee could have stayed as executive editor, at least for a few months, if she’d been willing to accept the reduced role that publisher Will Lewis envisions under his three-newsrooms idea. New York Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson report that Buzbee told senior editors in advance of her departure, “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.”

• Lewis presided over a staff meeting Monday that devolved into a “shit show,” according to Matt Fuller and Tara Golshan of NOTUS. Particularly outspoken was political reporter Ashley Parker, who pointed out, “Now we have four white men running the newsroom.” Lewis responded, “I’ve got to do better.” Well, this was his chance, and now all the top jobs have been filled. NOTUS, by the way,  is part of the Allbritton Journalism Institute, begun recently by Robert Allbritton, the former publisher of Politico, part of a family whose members are ancient rivals of the Post going back to the long-gone Washington Star.

• Check out this squishy-soft Post feature on the new top editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett. I don’t want to judge the Post on one article, and in fact this story on Buzbee’s departure is straightforward and reasonably tough. But I’m reminded of some of the brutally candid stories the Post produced after Jeff Bezos announced in August 2013 that he was buying the paper. As I wrote in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls”:

Indeed, within days of the announcement that he would buy the paper, the Post published an in-depth examination of Bezos and Amazon that could fairly be described as warts and all — he was described as “ruthless” and a “bully” in his dealings with competitors and a boss who was known for launching “tirades” that “humiliated colleagues.” An infamous story was repeated about Amazon stationing an ambulance outside one of its Pennsylvania warehouses during a heat wave rather than installing air conditioning…. Shel Kaphlan, Bezos’s first employee, who left Amazon after his role within the company was marginalized, was quoted as saying, “I saw him just completely destroy people on several occasions.” Kaphlan added that he felt “nauseous” at the prospect of Bezos owning the Post and the possibility that he would convert it “into a corporate libertarian mouthpiece.” If there is an example of newspaper reporters’ sucking up to the new boss, well, this was surely its opposite.

As is his custom, Bezos refused to cooperate with the team of reporters who worked on that story. But the national investigative reporter Kimberly Kindy, who was among those journalists, told me there were no repercussions from Bezos after publication. “I don’t think that we have shied away from covering him. And he certainly has invited us to,” she said.

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Jeff Bezos is reinventing The Washington Post — again. And this time he’s on his own.

Jeff Bezos. Painting (cc) 2017 by thierry ehrmann.

Having tracked the rise of The Washington Post under owner Jeff Bezos, executive editor Marty Baron and chief technologist Shailesh Prakash in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I’ve watched its dispiriting decline with sadness. On Sunday, that decline was underscored by Sally Buzbee’s departure as executive editor. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has the story.

Lest we forget, Bezos did not choose Baron and Prakash; rather, he inherited them from Graham family ownership after he bought the paper in 2013 for $250 million. And though Bezos had the good sense to keep them and give them the resources they needed, it was their vision that created a great digital, nationally focused news organization that was positioned perfectly for the rise of Trump. Maybe an early warning sign was that when Bezos did get to make a big hire, he chose Ronald Reagan apparatchik Fred Ryan as publisher. As Baron makes clear in his book “Collision of Power,” Ryan did not prove to be an inspired choice.

Since Donald Trump left office, it’s been nothing but a downhill slide for the Post, which, according to the new publisher, Will Lewis, lost $77 million last year and about half its audience since 2020. Was that entirely the fault of Buzbee, a former Associated Press executive editor who took the Post’s helm after Baron retired in early 2021? Of course not. But it all happened on her watch, so it’s not a surprise that she’s leaving.

As Poynter media reporter Tom Jones points out, it’s not 100% clear that Buzbee was fired. It’s possible that she decided she wanted nothing to do with Lewis’ recently articulated vision, which includes having “AI everywhere in our newsroom,” according to Semafor media reporter Max Tani. Ugh.

The new executive team sets off some alarm bells. Lewis is a former publisher of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal who reportedly was involved in helping Murdoch clean up his tabloids’ phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. a dozen years ago, according to David Folkenflik of NPR. Buzbee will be replaced on a temporary basis by Matt Murray, a former editor-in-chief of the Journal. After the 2024 election, Murray will slide over to a newly created position creating service and social media journalism while the main news product will be under the direction of Robert Winnett, currently deputy editor of The Telegraph Media Group, a right-wing news organization. Media critic Dan Gillmor wrote on Mastodon:

The Washington Post is about to lurch sharply to the right politically as former Murdoch apparatchik solidifies his grip on the organization. Current editor Buzbee is out, and he’s bringing in people from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph (right-wing UK news org).

I’m willing to wait and see, in part because The Wall Street Journal remains a great newspaper notwithstanding its editorial page, whose right-wing orientation precedes Murdoch’s ownership. I’m deeply concerned about what Lewis has in mind with his artificial intelligence initiative, though.

For the second time since he bought it in 2013, Jeff Bezos is faced with the challenge of reinventing The Washington Post. He succeeded spectacularly the first time, with years of growth, profitability and influence. This time, though, he’s doing it with people he chose himself — and there are caution signs all over the place.

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Reasons for optimism amid a startling run of newsroom cuts

I spoke with CNN’s Jon Passantino via email today for a story in the Reliable Sources newsletter about some causes for hope amid a startling run of newsroom cuts. Here’s what I said:

“Billionaire newspaper ownership is coming under fire lately because of [Los Angeles Times owner Patrick] Soon-Shiong’s fecklessness and because Jeff Bezos has hit a few bumps with the [Washington] Post, although I think that will prove to be temporary,” Kennedy told CNN, pointing to recent successes at The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Boston Globe newspapers.

“There are reasons to be optimistic given the hundreds of independent local news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years,” he said. “The challenge is that coverage at the hyperlocal level is hit or miss, as some communities are well-served and others — especially in rural areas and in urban communities of color — tend to be overlooked.”

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How the NY Times over-interprets its reporting about billionaire media owners

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The New York Times has published a story (free link) that calls into question the rise of billionaires who own news organizations, noting that The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos, the Los Angeles Times under Patrick Soon-Shiong and Time magazine under Marc Benioff are all losing money. True enough. My problem with the story is that reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson try too hard to impose an ubertake when in fact there’s important background with each of those examples. Mullin and Robertson write:

All three newsrooms greeted their new owners with cautious optimism that their business acumen and tech know-how would help figure out the perplexing question of how to make money as a digital publication.

But it increasingly appears that the billionaires are struggling just like nearly everyone else. Time, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all lost millions of dollars last year, people with knowledge of the companies’ finances have said, after considerable investment from their owners and intensive efforts to drum up new revenue streams.

The role of wealthy newspaper owners is something of ongoing interest to me. My last book, “The Return of the Moguls” (2018), focused on the Post, The Boston Globe and the Orange County Register in Southern California, owned by a rich Boston-area businessman named Aaron Kushner. At the time the book came out, the Post was flying high, the Globe was muddling along and the Register was failing; it eventually fell into the hands of the slash-and-burn hedge fund Alden Globe Capital. The Post’s and the Globe’s fortunes have since moved in opposite directions.

Here are the particulars that get glossed over in Mullin and Robertson’s attempt to impose an overarching framework:

• Bezos, who bought the Post in 2013, made deep investments in technology and built up the staff. The result was years of growth and profits, which only came sputtering to a halt after Donald Trump left the White House. Former executive editor Marty Baron, in his book “Collision of Power,” suggests that, over time, a disciplined approach to hiring became more lax. In other words, the Post got ahead of itself and is now in the midst of a reset. A new publisher, William Lewis, begins work this month, and we’ll see if he can articulate a strategy that amounts to more than “just like the Times only not as comprehensive.”

• Benioff bought a dog and, predictably, it’s going “woof woof.” Time was the largest of the Big Three newsweeklies, along with Newsweek and U.S. World & News Report; it’s also the only one of the three that still exists in a somewhat recognizable form. Newsweeklies succeeded because, pre-internet, you couldn’t get great national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal delivered to your doorstep. Not only is there no discernible reason for them to exist anymore, but the leading newsweekly these days, at least in terms of cachet, is The Economist.

• Not all billionaire owners are in it for the right reasons, and Soon-Shiong has proven to be an uncertain leader. Does he care about the Los Angeles Times or not? He’s built it up; now he’s tearing it down. He recently pushed out his executive editor, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country, and he’s done some truly awful things such as delivering Tribune Publishing’s papers to Alden Global Capital and more recently selling The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden.

So what does that tell us about billionaire owners? Not much. As Mullin and Robertson acknowledge, some are doing just fine, including The Boston Globe under John and Linda Henry and The Atlantic under Laurene Powell Jobs. They could have also mentioned the Star Tribune of Minneapolis under Glen Taylor or, for that matter, The New York Times, a publicly traded company that is nevertheless under the tight control of the Sulzberger family. I don’t think the Sulzbergers are billionaires, but they are not poor.

At the moment, it seems that the only two viable models for large regional dailies is individual ownership by wealthy people who are willing to invest in future profitability and nonprofit ownership, either in the form of a nonprofit organization owning a for-profit paper, as with The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, or a paper that goes fully nonprofit, as with The Salt Lake Tribune and The Baltimore Banner. The Banner is a digital startup that nevertheless is attempting to position itself as a comprehensive replacement for The Baltimore Sun. The Sun, in turn, was one of the Tribune papers that Soon-Shiong helped gift-wrap for Alden, and just this past week was sold to right-wing television executive David Smith.

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