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Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Every Thursday I post a newsletter that’s exclusively for supporters of Media Nation. I’m especially proud of the new one — a look at how critics of Jeff Bezos’ stewardship of The Washington Post and John Henry’s ownership of the Red Sox have converged into a miasma of resentment and envy. Each newsletter also includes photography, a round-up of the week’s posts and a Song of the Week. I’m especially pleased with what I dug up this week, and I think you’ll be, too.

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Drip, drip, drip

Three new data points in the ongoing implosion of Washington Post publisher Will Lewis:

• While working for then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Lewis reportedly urged Johnson and other senior officials to “clean up” their phones — that is, to remove photos and other incriminating information that could be used against them in an investigation into violations of COVID-19 lockdown rules. Spokespeople for Lewis and Johnson deny it (The Guardian).

• We’ve been waiting for a Post legend to weigh in. Neither Bob Woodward nor Marty Baron has been heard from yet, but Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor David Maraniss has broken his silence. In a post on Facebook, Maraniss wrote: “I don’t know a single person at the Post who thinks the current situation with the publisher and supposed new editor can stand. There might be a few, but very very few. Jeff Bezos owns the Post but he is not of and for the Post or he would understand. The issue is one of integrity not resistance to change.” The “new editor” is Robert Winnett, a longtime associate of Lewis’ who is supposed to become executive editor of the Post this fall (Facebook).

• Post owner Jeff Bezos has written a message to the newsroom assuring the staff that “the journalistic standards and ethics at The Post will not change” and offering his support for Lewis — “though not explicitly,” as CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy observes. It sounds like Bezos wants to buck up Lewis while leaving open the possibility that he’ll have to go. Frankly, that point was reached days ago (CNN.com).

Earlier coverage.

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Subscription woes, public media challenges and the Post’s staff bites back

Public domain photo by cweyant

Here’s a round-up of media links for your Monday morning.

• With print dollars giving way to digital dimes and platform pennies, newspapers have been looking to online subscriptions for revenue and growth. Nationally, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have all done well, though the Post, as we know, has hit some bumps. Regional papers like The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis have succeeded, too. But Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds has been reading the new Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and finds that, among digital subscribers, “at least 60% pay less than full price.” Full-price conversion at renewal time isn’t easy, either. Keep that in mind the next time you see an email from a newspaper offering six months for $1.

• Public broadcasting this year has been slammed with layoffs both nationally and in Boston, with both WBUR and GBH News suffering significant cuts. At Editor & Publisher, nonprofit consultant Tom Davidson writes that public media outlets face three challenges: audience fragmentation, a glut in podcasts and a decline in underwriting, as advertising is known in the nonprofit world. Davidson writes: “The good old days are not coming back. Drive-time audiences are never going to return to their late-2010 peak…. Engaging different audiences requires a deep, humble understanding of their wants, needs and desires.”

• I was heartened to see a four-byline story in The Washington Post, published Sunday night, about the latest scandal involving the paper’s new executive team. The story documents a close working relationship (free link) between John Ford, “a once-aspiring actor who has since admitted to an extensive career using deception and illegal means to obtain confidential information for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper,” and Robert Winnett, who publisher Will Lewis, up to his neck in ethical challenges of his own, has named to become the Post’s executive editor later this year. The article, based on draft chapters of a book Ford wrote, includes this delicious package:

Winnett moved quickly to connect Ford with a lawyer, discussed obtaining an untraceable phone for future communications and reassured Ford that the “remarkable omerta” of British journalism would ensure his clandestine efforts would never come to light, according to draft chapters Ford wrote in 2017 and 2018 that were shared with The Post.

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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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Let’s not overlook Will Lewis’ ‘controversial’ decision to pay £110,000 to a source

Washington Post publisher Will Lewis. 2019 public domain photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although it’s been previously reported, it’s been lost amid the outrage over Washington Post publisher Will Lewis’ aggressive attempts to play down his role in the Murdochian phone-hacking scandal: 14 years ago, as editor of Britain’s Telegraph, he was involved in paying a source £110,000 for a database that contained information about dubious expenses incurred by members of Parliament. At the current exchange rate, that would equal about $140,000.

The payoff has been overlooked to some degree because British and U.S. ethical standards are different. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who mentioned the payoff last week in a larger story about the phone-hacking turmoil, put it this way: “It was hailed as a huge story, leading to resignations and reforms. But it violated a key component of major U.S. news outlets’ ethics codes against paying sources.”

That may be true, but even in the U.K. it was noteworthy enough to warrant a story in The Guardian, which in 2009 called it a “controversial payment.” Two other British papers, The Times and The Sun, both refused to pay for the information, although The Guardian did not specify whether ethical considerations had anything to do with that.

Not only was Lewis involved in the payment but so, too, was Robert Winnett, a reporter for The Telegraph back then and now its deputy editor. Lewis announced last week that Willett will become executive editor of The Washington Post this fall while interim executive editor Matt Murray will move over to head up a new operation devoted to service journalism and social media.

Correction: Matt Murray is not a Brit. I’ve updated this post and also corrected Winnett’s name.

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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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Can Lewis hang on?

The Will Lewis Resignation Watch has officially begun. David Folkenflik of NPR has devastating new details about the Washington Post publisher’s attempts to cover up his role in the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals, including offering an exclusive interview to Folkenflik last December if he’d agree to drop a story he was working on.

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