Turmoil at the Post

Lewis’ actions leading to a top editor’s departure have disturbed the DC newsroom.

Will Lewis couldn’t have expected a smooth start when he was named publisher of the vaunted and beleaguered Washington Post in November 2023. 

The paper that, dating back to its publication of the Pentagon Papers, could confidently boast superior political coverage to the New York Times had fallen pitifully behind its rival in digital subscribers (currently 9.7 million at the the Times and 2.7 million at the Post). And, like many outlets, it had fallen precipitously from the heady highs of the “Trump Bump,” losing half its audience since 2020 and hemorrhaging $77 million last year. 

Still, Lewis probably didn’t expect things to get off to quite so rocky a start. The publisher, a seasoned Rupert Murdoch consigliere who previously served in the same role at the Wall Street Journal, was recently named in what British judges have permitted to be an expanding phone hacking lawsuit dating back to 2011 involving Murdoch’s News of the World. 

Media gossip has long swirled that Lewis helped News Corp sweep much of that mess under the rug, allegations he’s denied. But that taint trailed him across the pond, and led to the shocking departure last month of Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. It’s been reported that Lewis questioned Buzbee’s plan to cover the ongoing hacking case, then castigated her once the story had run. (He did not interfere with its publication.) Buzbee was already mulling her future at the outlet, and Lewis’ style helped tip the scales toward her leaving. 

Lewis’ actions leading to Buzbee’s farewell have disturbed the DC newsroom. Likewise claims by an NPR reporter that Lewis offered him a scoop in exchange for killing a story on News Corp’s travails. 

“Hiring his cronies, basically protecting his own backside by talking down stories that don’t make him look so good. These would be unknown things at The Washington Post,” one staffer told the Times. 

Part of this conflict stems from wildly different ethical standards at august US broadsheets like the Post and UK tabloids run and written by notoriously cutthroat, if not sleazy, journalists. Lewis had to explain to his new American colleagues why paying sources six-figure sums so easily flies on Fleet Street. The story could repeat itself given the British invasion of top editors at those American media giants. 

Yet this is more than a culture clash. Readers have griped about the tabloid aesthetic of the Post’s homepage as, not unlike the Times’, it more and more often highlights advice columns and video. Other longtime subscribers have clocked an increase in anonymous sources, including in a recent piece on President Biden’s growing befuddlement behind closed White House doors. 

Then there’s the matter of owner Jeff Bezos, who most describe as committed to the Post’s mission but unsurprisingly spread thin by other ventures. The past six months have made clear that billionaire owners did not save the news business as so many hoped they would back in the ‘00s. A newer question is if these deep-pocketed owners have lost the appetite to do battle with fellow members of the ruling class. 

That could be due to fatigue. Or fear of ticking off the corporate mothership in an era of consolidation. Or this recent reluctance to hold power to account could be conjecture. But between the Lewis developments, the LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong trying to kill an article about his billionaire friends’ dog attacking a jogger, and sagas like the one involving Donald Trump, Jeff Zucker and Jeffrey Bewkes during the ATT-Time Warner merger, it seems safe to say the Post and its peers have drifted from the days of Katherine Graham all but declaring war on Richard Nixon. 

More practically, the trouble at the Post underscores that in the digital news world of 2024, just one outlet, the Times, has truly soared. And while much of that success comes on the back of its journalism, the once-Grey Lady is also in a league of its own thanks to blazing two trails: introducing a paywall that people actually scaled, and perhaps even more consequently, building a suite of subscription apps for sports coverage, recipes and addictive word games. Next up at the Times is a major podcast push. 

Diversification like this may be the path forward in the news industry. The million dollar question for the Post is how many people it can convince to pay $10, $20 or $30 a month on news, cooking coverage and whatever gaming sensation becomes the next Wordle.