“Inside the Plan to Make Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post the Everything Newspaper”

From a Washingtonian story by Andrew Beaujon headlined “Inside the Plan to Make Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post the Everything Newspaper”:

The last round of the tryouts took place over four meals this past spring at Jeff Bezos’s Washington home. Each guest of honor was a contender to become the new executive editor of the Washington Post, and their invitation to Bezos’s $23-million Kalorama mansion included a guest. They supped with Bezos and his partner, TV personality and producer Lauren Sanchez; the paper’s publisher, Fred Ryan; and his wife, Genevieve McSweeney Ryan, dining off dishes emblazoned with the Post logo and taking questions from the world’s richest man about how they might run his newspaper….

Almost nothing about the setting—or the paper’s circumstances—resembled the last time the Post had gone shopping for a new editor. In 2013, when Bezos paid the Graham family $250 million for the paper, it was bleeding money. Marty Baron, a laser-focused editor with a reputation for steering hard-hitting city coverage while pinching pennies, had been tapped by the Grahams to winnow ambitions as the business model collapsed.

But then Bezos arrived. He poured rocket fuel on Baron’s latent ambitions—investing millions to nearly double the Post’s ranks, blow out its technical capabilities, and supersize the editorial vision. The big idea, as Baron once described it: “Why are we taking all of the pain of the internet and not taking the gift that the internet had to offer?” Over the next eight years, the Post transformed itself from a dwindling hometown broadsheet to a national media company with a ballooning readership; profitability; ten Pulitzer Prizes; and more than a little swagger. Now the Post’s billionaire owner and his publisher were choosing the first editor of their era.

By this point, the guest list for the dinners had been narrowed with dozens of people, in-person interviews between Ryan and the first cut, and strategy memos from the most interesting candidates. Bezos and Ryan talked with four finalists before the boss extended them invitations to dinner. Two were internal: longtime managing editor Cameron Barr and Steven Ginsberg, who edits the national section. The other two were women leading other newsrooms: Meredith Artley, editor in chief of CNN Digital Worldwide, and Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the Associated Press.

On May 11, Ryan announced that Buzbee—whose AP career included deep-bench experience in DC—had the job. And on June 1, she became the first woman to top the masthead at the 143-year-old paper….

Buzbee inherits a paper with an audience of 80 million to 100 million per month and a newsroom that has mushroomed from fewer than 600 people to roughly 1,000. She has to navigate a charged political environment in which one half of the United States views the Post as a tool of an elite plot to overthrow democracy while the other half views the same people as a vital bulwark against totalitarianism. And she answers to a boss with extremely grand ambitions. The thinking that led to the hiring of Buzbee—leader of an outfit with little of the iconoclasm or romance of the old Post but a global presence that no single newspaper has ever managed—offers a peek at just what those ambitions are.

Yes, Buzbee’s mandate demands more marrying of technology and journalism—the ratio of journalists to engineers at the Post is now 2 to 1. But it also necessitates a new sort of expansion, one that involves not only the budget but the very concept of just what an American newspaper’s audience should be. “We want to grow,” says Ryan. “We want to grow domestically in terms of our readership across the country, and we want to grow globally with international readers. A lot of our strategy revolves around that.” After setting out to build the world’s largest online store, Jeff Bezos now wants to turn the Post into the newspaper for the world.

Buzbee’s arrival in Washington is a homecoming of sorts. During the six years she headed AP’s Washington bureau, she lived in Tenleytown with her husband, John, a Foreign Service officer….

By then, she had spent her entire career with the company. After graduating from the University of Kansas, Buzbee reported for AP from Topeka, did a stint in the DC bureau, then became Middle East editor in 2004, running operations from Cairo. Six years later, she was named chief of the Washington bureau, overseeing much of its US political coverage as well as its storied investigations team….

AP is known for rigorous reporting and unflashy writing, and its stylebook is a journalism bible….Its work is carried globally by media outlets, yet the institution is a mostly invisible force….

Buzbee’s résumé has bullet points that would catch the eye of Ryan and Bezos. She has an MBA from Georgetown. She has experience running a big, worldwide organization: AP reportedly has 3,000 employees, three times the Post’s. And she stood up AP’s so-called Nerve Center, which changed how the company distributed content to members around the world.

The center is a high-metabolism, multi-pronged news hub, a complex digital operation designed to keep AP nimble and competitive with other news organizations—monitoring social media, directing AP’s considerable resources to breaking stories, promoting its articles on social platforms—experience that would translate directly to a multifarious organization like the Post….

But the news was a big surprise to staffers who’d been reading the tea leaves—and, even amid the historic nature of the hire, it sparked a wave of sore feelings.

The hands-down staff favorite had been Kevin Merida, a beloved former managing editor who spent nearly 23 years at the Post before leaving for ESPN’s The Undefeated. Recruiting him back would have made him the paper’s first Black editor….

Yet Merida didn’t even come close to scoring a dinner invite from Bezos. Friends say that rather than courting him, the Post belatedly asked Merida to put himself forward. ESPN and the Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, were wooing him aggressively at the same time, and the LAT named him executive editor on May 3, a week before the Post heralded Buzbee’s hiring.

Others were disappointed it wasn’t Ginsberg, the national editor. A Post lifer at 49, he’d worked his way up from copy aide to handling the organization’s most visible coverage, steering many of the articles on Trump Town that shocked people awake via push alerts on their phones. His team bagged half of the Post’s Baron-era Pulitzers. But he’d also never run a publication….

The thinking goes that Baron, who preceded both Ryan and Bezos at the paper, never had a clear incentive to listen to Ryan, and by shepherding Buzbee’s candidacy, Ryan not only would be known for a first, but he’d finally have an executive editor who owed him….

At any rate, it’s not all that surprising that Bezos didn’t appoint from within. Unlike the New York Times, which almost openly cultivates potential heirs apparent, recent Post editors have been newcomers. Plus, Ginsberg and 57-year-old managing editor Cameron Barr, the other internal contender, would have ascended with baggage. Both are middle-aged white men who made their bones in a newsroom where almost every major desk is headed by a man, and none of the three women with the title of managing editor got a serious look….

The final candidate—Artley, the CNN honcho—doesn’t seem to have been on the radar of anyone who tried to divine Bezos and Ryan’s search. But it’s easy to see why a tech-mogul owner would have been intrigued by an Artley candidacy. At 47, she was the youngest finalist and has sterling credentials in digital news—working on the Times’ early efforts online, overseeing the influential Online News Association, and running a news site whose traffic dwarfs the Post’s. Of course, her hiring would likely have raised hackles among newsroom types, who like to look down on TV types….

That left Buzbee. When she oversaw AP’s investigations team in Washington, it broke big stories….“Sally had our back on some really tough stories,” says Ted Bridis, who edited the desk under Buzbee. “I would have conversations with her to say, ‘Listen, we should publish this story, but there’s going to be blowback. They’re going to freeze out our reporter and not return our phone calls, and you have to be prepared for us to not be competitive on this beat until the relationship thaws.’ Every time, she was like, ‘I get it, but this is an important story and it’s worth the freeze-out.’ ”

Bridis, who worked with Buzbee for more than a decade, says she was an editor who could wrestle a thorny article to the ground in a matter of hours and a boss adept at absorbing flak from the government bigwigs subject to AP’s scrutiny. She excelled at marshaling as much of the organization’s investigative “firepower” as possible when big stories beckoned.

Something else: She held an increasingly quaint view about objectivity, frequently invoking the idea that AP had to be like Caesar’s proverbial wife. “ ‘We have to be above reproach,’ ” Bridis says. “I think it was a catechism that she lived by.”

Buzbee’s appointment is an important first, but it’s also a career-defining flex for Fred Ryan, the publisher Bezos tapped to turn the Post profitable. A onetime aide to Ronald Reagan, Ryan migrated into media in the ’90s, becoming president of Allbritton Communications, which owned WJLA-TV and seven other TV stations. In 2007, he was named CEO of Politico, the Allbritton digital offshoot that would come to upend the DC media business with its agile, aggressive political coverage.

To Bezos, Ryan was a valuable insider, a bedrock member of Washington’s elite-iest elites but also someone with a record of making disrupters and the establishment feel comfortable with one another. At Politico, he had been responsible for landing the type of huge corporate sponsorships that helped turn Allbritton’s big bet on digital news into a moneymaking enterprise, and he muscled the scrappy outlet into the top tier….

The Post was the opposite of scrappy when Ryan arrived in 2014. It had a new paywall but no digital-subscription team. Bezos, who had some experience converting people from browsers to subscribers, opened the spigot so the company could build out the tech infrastructure that would enable greater volumes of content and the pipelines for transporting it into readers’ feeds. Engineers and data scientists joined the newsroom, while a tech chief and managing editors who were focused on digital products oversaw an effort to make the Post ubiquitous.

Having Bezos had its perks: Amazon Prime members got free six-month subscriptions, and the Post app got nice placement on new Kindle Fire tablets….

The Silicon Valley–style mandate became iterate, iterate, iterate. “This is one of the great benefits of Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post,” Ryan says. “You can have great journalism. But if you cannot get it out to the way people are consuming today and tomorrow, that journalism is not having the impact it could have.” Bezos, he says, does a call every two weeks with product teams: “They’ll go through the flow of perhaps a new subscription process to see how that works, or a new product that will help our site load faster or be more engaging, more riveting, in the storytelling.”

Eight years later, the Post has gone from 35,000 digital subscribers to 3 million, while its average Sunday print circulation has dropped by 46 percent, to 335,000….And the paper that described itself as “For and About Washington” when Bezos bought it now collects 95 percent of its digital traffic from outside the DC area. Last year was its biggest ever for digital advertising, Ryan says, and it’s on track to beat that in 2021. Its events business also boomed unexpectedly in 2020, as the Post spun up virtual sessions with newsmakers; it now plans to make the events permanent. The company collects revenue from developing digital tools as well. It built its own content-management system, for instance, which it also sells to other publishers and corporate entities such as BP.

But to meet the ambitions of the owner, the Post has to worm into way more than Fire tablets. The price of digital ads depends on the number of people reading. And while the company made startling gains during the Trump years…the Post’s US traffic in the first six months under the comparatively boring Joe Biden tumbled, just as it has at other top news outfits….

So what do you do when the goose that laid the golden egg moves to Mar-a-Lago? One tack involves messaging. During the Trump era, while the New York Times and CNN made TV ads positioning themselves as homes to truth and facts, the Post’s branding efforts were mostly limited to slapping Bezos’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan on the masthead. This July, though, the Post announced it was establishing a chief-subscriptions-officer job to convert more readers into subscribers and installing Michael Ribero, a veteran of Sling TV and Paramount+, in the gig.

But the new Big Idea is taking shape on the editorial side: turning the Post into a go-to for global readers.

The company has spent the last few years beefing up in subject areas that transcend borders. The staff on the business desk grew by more than 50 percent, to up the focus on tech—the business, its intersection with Washington, and its place in consumers’ lives. The Post built a gender-focused vertical called The Lily, a digital play for millennial women readers. Its opinions side, which accounts for a significant amount of web traffic, started a popular franchise called Global Opinions that takes op-eds from international writers.

Prior to Trump, the Post also created a desk dubbed Morning Mix. It’s essentially the overnight team, but instead of writing up 2 am house fires, it first found its niche trawling the continents for grabby stories….

International readership now makes up a third of total traffic, Ryan says. But the clickiest content has also been some of the most difficult to produce—meaning that going beyond that number will take work. The solution is not so unlike the Nerve Center that Buzbee helped AP establish: The Post has been spending big to set up 26 foreign bureaus as well as news hubs in London and Seoul.

“That’s not just for news gathering, but that’s for news production,” Ryan says. “It puts us in this position where 24-7 we can be breaking stories, we can be editing stories, we can be alerting on stories, and we’ll have teams of journalists with a full range of skill sets, from reporters to graphic artists to eventually videographers, to be able to gather news and produce it on a 24-hour cycle instead of the limitations of Washington business hours.”

The idea for the internationally based squads is first to target elites—“government officials, journalists, people in academic institutions,” Ryan says—with investigative coverage and analysis of the world’s power centers, businesses, and politics….

The business model starts with subscriptions, Ryan says. The Post offers a no-ads deal in Europe for about $85 a year after a promo period, a bit more than half the cost of a Premium Digital subscription in the US. This isn’t a new strategy in the global media business, but it is a new direction for the Post—and thanks to Jeff Bezos’s pockets, the company is ready to spend. Ryan draws a comparison to how the company had the luxury of staffing up before the 2016 election. He and Baron wanted to cover it aggressively, but Baron needed more people. They added to the political and investigative teams till they were larger than they’d ever been. Says Ryan: “We’ll be doing more of that overseas.”

If one thing is clear in today’s still-shaky environment for big, legacy newspapers, it’s that those companies need more than investigative journalism to survive. The New York Times has gone all in on service journalism and brand extensions that help readers navigate modern life—and the strategy is working….(Soon, the Gray Lady will release a standalone subscription for Wirecutter, its consumer-tech app.)

The Los Angeles Times, which has soul-searched in recent years, is eyeing a related approach with Merida now at its helm. The paper “can become irresistible,” he told CNN’s Brian Stelter recently, if it finds ways to become “central to your lives.”…

The Bezos Way is a bit different, imagining that the Post might eventually become the world’s most read newspaper—a kind of “everything store” for information. Will it work? “I think there’s a challenge built into that strategy,” says Rick Edmonds, a longtime media-business analyst at the Poynter Institute. The Post is entering into a crowded market overseas, with competitors like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, the Economist, and the Financial Times all fighting for the top-tier readers, and organizations like Reuters and, yes, AP—which now makes 40 percent of its revenue outside the US—aiming at the middle of the market. Politico has already built a lasting franchise covering EU news from Brussels.

The Post will have to convince people in its target markets to take it in addition to, if not in place of, the New York Times, which is better known outside the US. But, Edmonds says, the Post does have two great advantages: Bezos’s money and the sensibility it’s developed for re-reporting and amplifying around-the-world stories through channels like Morning Mix. “They’re tuned,” he notes, “to what makes a really good story.”

In its August earnings call, the Times noted the latent opportunity: “at least 100 million people who are expected to pay for English-language journalism and a unique moment in which daily habits are up for grabs.” For the Post, though, which hasn’t made the same kind of play for non-news audiences, the Trump slump sounds a cautionary note….

Buzbee took up residence in the newsroom in June, working from the K Street office most days—one of the few people to do so before phase one of its Covid reopening began on July 6. Two weeks into her tenure, a now-famous Baron-ism, uttered in response to one of Trump’s attacks on the paper—“We’re not at war . . . we’re at work”—was being mounted on a wall near the national desk….

Baron led, in part, by stressing traditional journalism values—going to work, not war. Prizing objectivity above all else. But to some corners of the newsroom today—when any reporter can become a celebrity via Twitter and other social media—that approach feels distressingly out of date. The complexifier here, as Bezos might say, is that reporters with big social-media followings can help inject Post stories into the mainstream, and get even more attention by going on TV to talk about their work. Unfortunately, once you convince journalists they’re interesting, they tend not to shut up.

These struggles have been epic at the Post, where most of its social-media policy was written in 2011—an eternity ago in digital years….And the newsroom is nervous about how Buzbee will handle it.

There’s little model for a social-media policy that doesn’t have unintended consequences. Ban journalists from tweeting about stuff that’s not on their beat?…

Also complexifying: the intersection between the handwringing over social media and the generational changes wracking newsrooms. Baron clashed repeatedly with former star reporter Wesley Lowery over his Twitter account, but those fights were animated less by the content of Lowery’s posts than by what they represented: a debate between journalists who came of age believing their job was to avoid any tinge of bias in their work and often younger, more digitally inclined people who view the polite old rules of engagement as a formula for not calling out powerful malefactors….

At the Post, the conundrum reverberates in all corners. During his editor search for Buzbee, Ryan asked several candidates about how they’d keep the newsroom under control….Two people I talked to suspect that Ryan believes the paper has veered too far to the left and that appointing the chief of a newswire would be a course correction.

Those who come to the Post from other publications often describe their surprise at how top-down its culture can be. The mythology of the place—Watergate! The Pentagon Papers!…For all the veneration of Ben Bradlee, it’s worth considering that he once put the kibosh on hiring a reporter because “nothing clanks when he walks.”…

Many in the Post ranks have hopes that Buzbee ushers in a culture that feels fairer and more humane. Her first big move came in late July when she named assistant national editor Lori Montgomery to be editor of the business desk. Before, only one other big department (features) had a woman at the helm.

Shortly afterward, Buzbee told staffers in a town hall that the paper will finally update its social-media policy, a process she plans to begin this fall. She said she hoped for a “collaborative” effort and a road map that reflects the Post’s standards of “accuracy, fairness, and lack of bias but that also balances that with our reporters’ very reasonable desire to interact with our audiences and with the world in authentic ways.”

Buzbee’s rollout to staff via Zoom back in June frustrated a good number of people who found her vague and given to platitudes. Since then, though, she’s been on a listening tour of the newsroom, and the early reviews are mostly positive—the word “disarming” comes up a lot….

Andrew Beaujon joined The Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018.


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