Which Post Would You Read?

There’s been a disproportionate amount of noise and internal strife at the WASHINGTON POST lately, enough to make it newsworthy even amongst Los Angeles-based sites that otherwise cover TV.  This nugget from THE WRAP’s Natalie Korach hit my inbox earlier this week:

Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, assured staffers Tuesday that the “journalistic standards and ethics” at the newspaper will remain the same amid its editorial leadership overhaul and ongoing scrutiny over new CEO and publisher Will Lewis’ track record overseas.

In a memo to staffers obtained by TheWrap, under the subject line “Quality Journalism,” Bezos said that he “wanted to also weigh in directly” on the situation, as negative stories continue circulating about Lewis, soon-to-be executive editor Robert Winnett and their work at The Sunday Times that in part relied on stolen phone records, among other ethical quagmires.

Bezos promised that journalistic ethics will not be compromised, adding, however, “To be sure, it can’t be business as usual at The Post.”

Nor should it be.

The POST, like virtually all legacy journalism entities that still focus on producing a daily newspaper, is financially spiraling.  SLATE’s Justin Peters tried his best to lay out a fair and balanced depiction of what has gone down most recently:

From 2013 until 2021, Bezos’ money worked synergistically with the newsroom leadership of executive editor Marty Baron to deliver both editorial and financial successes. Under Baron, the Post won 10 Pulitzer Prizes, broke many big stories, almost doubled the size of its newsroom, and saw meaningful increases in page views and subscriptions…Baron announced his retirement days after Joe Biden was sworn in as U.S. president in January 2021.

But under his replacement, former Associated Press Sally Buzbee, things went downhill.  THE POST lost $77 million in 2023, which resulted in Bezos’ recruiting of Lewis, a veteran of several News Corporation companies, to course correct.  Korach detailed how that decision was taken:

The Post has been embroiled in scandal since Will Lewis announced he would be bringing on Winnett as executive editor. Additionally, weeks before the unexpected resignation of former Post executive editor Sally Buzbee earlier this month, they clashed on the paper’s coverage of his ties to Rupert Murdoch’s Prince Harry phone hacking scandal.  On Sunday, The Washington Post uncovered that Winnett was previously tied to a man who admitted to using illegal tactics to obtain confidential information for the Sunday Times. Winnett did not respond to a detailed inquiry from the Post regarding the allegations. 

Moreover, Korach’s colleague Mike Roe devealed details of Lewis’ vision for how to turn THE POST’s fortunes around:

In an email with the subject line “Third newsroom,” the Washington Post’s embattled publisher sent a late Friday message to the media outlet’s staff in which he continued to lay out plans for the new separate, audience-focused newsroom set to be run outside of the Post’s traditional editorial structure, a Post spokesperson tells The Wrap.

“Having listened to you this week, the most common theme by far was the Third Newsroom,” Lewis wrote. “Many of you asked for more details about how we would monetize it and who would work in it. A number of you also wanted to know what the Third Newsroom means for your current roles and where certain teams (such as video and audio) would sit.”

Lewis went on to use some more branded lingo to describe the effort, explaining, “The Third Newsroom is core to our Build It Plan on a page to reach more, and make more out of the audiences we currently don’t serve — our untapped audience. You could say that it’s us matching our structure to our strategy.”

He continued, describing the Third Newsroom as “an industry defining moment for us” and reiterating his earlier description of this meaning the Post is moving “away from a one-size fits all approach to serving our customers. It will allow us to structure around the future — specializing in the skills required to meet untapped audiences where they are, with content they value.”

To professional journalists, especially those with the auspices of Buzbee, this was seen as a blasphemic slap in the face.  But even Peters reminded that under Buzbee, who came from arguably the most homogenized source of news available anywhere in this country, THE POST suffered more than merely financial regression:

The Post, meanwhile, has regressed to the mean. Star reporters such as David Fahrenthold and Eli Saslow were poached by the New York Times; layoffs and buyouts shrank the Post newsroom. Roughly simultaneously, the Post started not breaking certain stories that it should have been competing for, such as the story of Samuel Alito’s flags, and the stories about Clarence Thomas accepting gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow. Ad revenue and subscription numbers have both declined.

And when one considers the rich legacy of trailblazing reporting and quality writing that is associated with THE POST, it’s hard not to see Buzbee’s concerns about the past lives of those that have been recruited as much more than clutching the pearls of an audience that, bluntly, has become increasingly irrelevant.   I was always flabbergasted at how little THE POST seemed to focus or care about the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area it was licensed to, at least in the days when I frequently traveled there.  I was encouraged to discover it, like many of my generation, because of the way it was depicted in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.  I worked with folks who knew Katherine Graham, one of the most powerful women in media of any generation.  I absolutely loved Tom Shales, their storied TV critic who authored several brilliant books about the medium in his lifetime.  Their sportswriting was top notch as well.

But that was then.  Buzbee led a regime which reduced THE POST to effectively another Associated Press.  And as far as her concerns about the allegations being attached to the News Corporation veterans?  Does anyone really think that Woodward and Bernstein did everything in what would be termed in revisionist historical terms as fully ethical?  With Graham and her shareholders reaping the rewards?

Look, I’m not about to defend everything that people who worked for Rupert Murdoch have done to get a story.  But I do know that those who did battle in far more competitive markets than Washington, such as New York and London, had to do whatever it takes to sell a paper or encourage someone to click.  And I do know that it’s been an awful long time since I was provoked to do that for anything associated with THE WASHINGTON POST.   On the other hand, a day doesn’t go by where I am not motivated, for both good reasons and bad, to interface with THE NEW YORK POST.  Blind loyalty?  Perhaps a little.  But I also know that if I want to know what’s really happening and what the voice of my hometown is, they do a damn good job of conveying it.

Peters rightly questions if the proposed strategic shift could be a repeat of what has happened with the other half of Graham’s legacy brand:

The worst-case outcome for the Build It plan is that this third newsroom turns the Post into present-day Newsweek—basically, a zombie outlet trading off its past reputation in order to fool people into consuming content that no longer meets the outlet’s former quality standards. The best-case outcome for the Build It plan is that the third newsroom does what it’s meant to do: It turns a profit, stabilizes the brand, and opens up new audiences for Post journalists’ investigative and accountability reporting.

Even more bluntly, if the folks currently employed are too high-minded, elitist or lazy to produce something worth clicking on and reading, if a citizen journalist can do a better job, why not give them the chance?  How much has TV journalism benefitted from those who make their cellphone videos of crime scenes and incideniary council meetings available?  Please don’t try and tell me when you see something that raw and telling you’re not at least intrigued.

I learned that much from the folks at News Corporation.  And if you’ve been following the political scene of late, you know all too well that, more than ever, ethics have long since regressed to the back of the line among the public’s priorities.

Maybe Bezos can afford to lose money keeping the current approach, as Peters lamented:  A man who spends $42 million to build a dumbass clock inside a mountain can afford to subsidize the Washington Post in perpetuity.  I’d merely ask:  how do you think he got that kind of FU money to begin with?  I mean, wasn’t UPS and snail mail sufficient for us at one time as well?

I’d frankly like to see what the Third Newsroom can generate in other areas that have me addicted to THE POST’s longtime rival, THE NEW YORK TIMES.  More provocative podcasts.  Sportswriting like THE ATHLETIC.  Word games.   Things people respond to and incorporate into their lives.

If Will Lewis can inject that sort of life into the POST, more power to him.  And I have a hunch Katherine Graham would have approved.

UPDATE:  Minutes after the above was published, Korach and others reported that Winnett has withdrawn as incoming editor.  Apparently even he has limits on being somewhere where he is clearly not wanted.  What was perhaps most telling from that story was the note that current editor Matt Murray will remain in place and will be tasked with executing Lewis’ plans until after the U.S. elections. 

So take from that what you will, but perhaps if said election goes a certain way the storm clouds surrounding Winnett at the moment might be seen as somewhat less disruptive than the potential tsunami that might roll back into Washington?

Mr. Murray, consider yourself on the clock.

Until next time…

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