How Sally Buzbee Is Putting Her Stamp on The Washington Post

From a Vanity Fair story by Charlotte Klein headlined “‘I’m Going to be Open Even If Sometimes That’s Messy: How Sally Buzbee Is Putting Her Stamp on the Washington Post”:

On a recent July morning, roughly 250 Washington Post staffers met to discuss the state of democracy, and specifically, how the paper is covering it. The Post, which proclaimed “Democracy Dies in Darkness” as its official slogan during the Trump years, and won a Pulitzer this past spring for its January 6 coverage, recently created a nine-person Democracy team within the National desk, adding reporters in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin—swing states on the front lines of the battle over voting rights. “The Democracy team is specifically focused on the idea that what is happening is an erosion of trust and attacks on the credibility of the election system in the U.S.,” executive editor Sally Buzbee told me during a recent visit to her office.

Most of the Post staffers attending this newsroom-wide meeting did so via Zoom, while about 40 gathered in person in the paper’s K Street headquarters, where pecan and peach pie were served. The new state-based reporters updated the group about what’s happening where they live, and there were questions from all corners of the newsroom, with ideas flowing on Zoom chat and Slack. It was the first of what managing editor Steven Ginsberg expects to be a monthly occurrence. “It was an inspired discussion about the forces that are threatening our democracy, who’s behind that, who stands to lose from that, and what we as journalists can do about it,” he told me. While the idea for a distinct Democracy team preceded Buzbee, the creation and execution of the effort occurred during her first year. “It’s a perfect Sally thing,” said Ginsberg. “Bring the whole newsroom together, get everyone to be engaged on it.”

Buzbee made history a little over a year ago when she became the first female editor of the Post, which, in the 143 years prior, was led exclusively by white males, a couple of whom had been lionized on screen. There was Ben Bradlee, immortalized in All the President’s Men and The Post, as well as Buzbee’s predecessor, Marty Baron, in Spotlight. Though Buzbee, 57, came into the job with stellar journalism credentials, having spent her entire career at the Associated Press, of which she had run since 2017, she was comparatively less well known in the industry—absent from the gossipy shortlists that this outlet and others published about potential Baron successors. In June, however, Buzbee came under the national spotlight through multiple stories amid a social media meltdown at the paper; a “clusterfuck,” as one reporter described it to me at the time.

But until now, Buzbee hasn’t publicly discussed the social media tumult, or spoken in detail about her first year atop the masthead, tackling both journalistic and organizational challenges, along with where she hopes to take the Post going forward. She’s focused heavily so far on overhauling the newsroom—“a lot of deeply unsexy infrastructure work,” she admits—along with navigating international crises, from getting journalists out of Afghanistan to establishing a bureau in Kyiv to cover the war in Ukraine. On the domestic front—beyond the Republican assault on democracy—there’s been the conservative-majority Supreme Court causing upheaval in American society by overturning Roe, an unending cycle of mass shootings, and of course the pandemic, which has not only been an ongoing story to cover but shaped the Post’s newsroom, and by extension, Buzbee’s first year.

While Buzbee gets high marks from her top editors—more on them in a minute—many staffers I’ve spoken to are still trying to get a handle on the paper’s leader. She’s warm and animated but almost politician-like in her ability to talk a lot without revealing what she actually thinks. “It’s a place that is perhaps unusually attached to taking direction from the very top,” said one Post reporter. “So to not have that, I think, is very unsettling to a lot of people.” Some staffers have grumbled that it took staff infighting over Twitter to get Buzbee to prioritize new social media guidelines.

And Buzbee’s low-key style hasn’t been inspiring to some. Buzbee isn’t slick or showy, like some top editors who seem to yearn to give rousing speeches and bark orders across the newsrooms. “I’m not a very glamorous person,” she told me at one point during our conversation, adding later when I asked about interviewing for the job at owner Jeff Bezos’s palatial Kalorama mansion: “I’m a pretty unglamorous and unexciting person.”

Surely, much of the uncertainty in the newsroom about who Buzbee is stems from staffers having little physical interaction with her this past year, as desks have been largely empty throughout a pandemic in which new variants keep derailing even the best-laid return-to-office plans. “There’s no question that was the challenge of the last year,” Buzbee said, with the qualification, “there would’ve been other challenges if not for that one, so I really hate to be whiny about it.” As we spoke she nevertheless seemed to be imagining a different start to the job. “If you walk through a bustling busy newsroom, you get so much organic feel for who’s talking to who and what the networks are and what the relationships are,” she said. It “just kind of took me longer” to figure out “the geography of the Post newsroom.”

When I recently visited the Post’s K Street headquarters, it was just after the social media drama leaving one reporter suspended and another fired. My five hours there often felt like a super-day interview as I was escorted from one senior editor’s office to another, where the top of the masthead made its case for where the paper is headed. In the newsroom, I found a smattering of people amid a sea of empty desks. There were semblances of normalcy—a baby shower for a coworker on one of the rooftop terraces, editors chatting in hallways—but the largely vacant office made me wonder whether an email promising disciplinary action for those who failed to come in at least three days a week had been an empty threat.

Buzbee reiterated to managers this past week that “everyone is expected to be in the office 3 days a week, except those employees with an official exemption,” according to Politico. Some staffers appear reluctant to return to office. “If employees have concerns about office density,” she added, “remind them that the office has fewer people on Mondays and Fridays,” she wrote. Some staffers remain concerned about coming into the office, and there were grumbles about people going maskless at the big Democracy team meeting amid the surge of yet another COVID-19 variant. One attendee tested positive the following weekend, according to two Post staffers with knowledge of the meeting.

“Look, we obviously believe in flexibility,” Buzbee told me earlier this summer. “God knows this is a fraught issue for our newsroom—for every newsroom,” she noted. “We’re trying to urge people back—you know, come experience the benefits of collaboration face-to-face—and we’re trying to do that in a prudent, reasonable way.”

Buzbee previously spent more than three decades in AP newsrooms, starting in 1988 as a reporter in Kansas. She’d risen up the ranks, from overseeing coverage of the Iraq war from Cairo to serving as Washington bureau chief during the 2012 and 2016 elections. Weeks after Donald Trump’s shocking upset, Buzbee was named executive editor of the global news agency. “I loved AP and I wasn’t really looking to leave,” said Buzbee, who was recruited to the Post by publisher Fred Ryan, a former top aide to Ronald Reagan who shifted from politics to media, later cofounding Politico.

Moving from New York back to D.C., where she had once lived with her husband, who died of cancer at 50, “was actually the hesitation I had about the job,” she said. Her eyes softened. “I every once in a while go by my old neighborhood, but I’m pretty careful about it.” Another aspect of the Post job that gave her pause was the social component, assuming a role in Washington society, and the more intense public scrutiny. “All the same things that happened at the Post happen at AP, all the cultural issues are the same, but nobody writes about it. Because it’s AP,” said Buzbee. “What I like is the work,” she added. “I’m not necessarily interested in my position or anything like that. I’m from the Midwest. I’m not a super pretentious person.” But taking on a more public-facing role, she said, is “actually good for me” in forcing “me to be out there.”

“If you’re the executive editor of The Washington Post, you have a seat at a lot of tables,” as Ryan said. A recent one was at the Library of Congress, for the unveiling of the postage stamp of the late Post publisher Katharine Graham. (“Beautiful stamp,” said Ryan.) An attendee told me Post luminaries Bob Woodward and Sally Quinn were at the dinner, as was number two House Democrat Steny Hoyer, soon-to-be-retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and former Transportation secretary Elaine Chao. Buzbee sat by the Israeli ambassador, whom she had a “fascinating conversation” with, and chatted with others: congressmen, people at other news organizations. “I don’t think anyone thinks I’m the best dressed person in town or anything like that,” Buzbee said. “But yeah, I feel comfortable. I mean, as long as the conversation is about ideas.” Ryan, for his part, thinks Buzbee has handled the power-player part of the job “beautifully.”

Despite some apprehension, running the Post, a storied journalistic institution that has been able to grow dramatically since Bezos’s purchase in 2013, and which boasts even more investigative reporters than the AP, was enough of a draw. (Buzbee said she “would not have been interested in this job if it wasn’t an independent newsroom.” The last time she spoke to Bezos was months ago, about what the Post was going to invest in this year.) At times during my conversation with Buzbee, her voice would abruptly get three notches louder and then return to normal. This was often when she was excited about journalism. “It was just FABULOUS! I just LOVED IT, you know?” Buzbee said of a multimedia story that came from the Post’s Seoul hub—one of two new breaking-news hubs, the other in London, that the paper is relying on to become a more 24/7 operation—about China’s crackdown on COVID. “We have empowered the people in our Seoul bureau, working with our journalists who are focused on China, to do a revelatory piece of journalism about what is happening at Shanghai at this moment in time,” she said. “That’s success.”

By her own account, Buzbee’s managing style is “empirically” different from Baron’s. “He ran the place with a great deal of authority and without having to rely on lots of other folks,” said Cameron Barr, the paper’s senior managing editor (who was also in the running for Baron’s job). “Sally wants a more inclusive, collaborative environment.” That’s reflected in the way meetings are run: the twice-daily news ones no longer have assigned seating—a change that’s partly a reaction to hybrid work but still makes for a more open environment—and Buzbee makes sure others have a chance to say their part. “She will let the silence last a little bit and inevitably someone else will talk,” said Ginsberg, who was another internal contender for executive editor. “She’s willing to ask for other people’s input and say, ‘I’m interested in learning,’” said Kat Downs Mulder, who is both chief product officer and a managing editor. “Just on a very personal note, I have three young children and, you know, Sally’s a mom,” said Mulder, who has been at the Post for more than 14 years. Buzbee’s been able to “show that there is a way of doing it that’s maybe different than the way that it’s been done in the past.”

Baron was at the peak of his powers at the Post, the third newsroom he’d run after the Miami Herald and Boston Globe,where he oversaw the paper’s blockbuster investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The Post under his leadership won 10 Pulitzers, and, fueled by the resources of one of the world’s richest people, saw rapid growth. “As Marty was preparing to retire, he wasn’t really interested in restructuring the newsroom,” managing editor Krissah Thompson said with a smile. The paper “was at a real inflection point,” said Buzbee, and needed retooling. After realizing huge swaths of the paper were reporting to one person, Buzbee expanded and restructured the masthead so that “departments can breathe a little bit more.” (In the process, the masthead became more diverse.) She also added 41 new editing positions. “There were jobs that we needed to create to enable the ambitions of departments outside of core areas,” she said.

Another mandate for Buzbee: make the rest of the paper as strong as Baron made national politics and investigations. “The Post had a great sense of urgency around the Trump years,” Buzbee said, and “I think we want that sense of urgency to be across a broader swath in the newsroom.” She created two new departments, climate and wellness, and sees technology and international news as priorities, especially as 93% of the Post’s digital readership comes from outside of Washington. “I came to the Post at the right time where it’s trying to become more of a global news organization,” said Buzbee, who created an international investigations editor role, to which national security editor Peter Finn was named in May. According to Ryan, the “newsroom has added more roles”—over 150—“since she arrived in a single year than any year in our history.”

One major defection, however, took place earlier this year when David Fahrenthold, a 20-year veteran of the paper who broke the Access Hollywood tape during the waning days of the 2016 election, decamped to the Times to become an investigative reporter covering nonprofits. According to multiple people with knowledge of the matter, Fahrenthold had an initial conversation about the nonprofits idea with Post editors but was met with a lukewarm response. He then walked it over to the Times, which jumped at the idea.

One Sunday afternoon last summer, Griff Witte, then a National correspondent, stopped by the Post to pick up body armor for a trip out to Kenosha, where racial-justice protests turned deadly. “There was literally one person in the newsroom and it was Sally,” he recalled in an interview. He walked over to say hello and “assure her that, you know, the person she had seen out of the corner of her eye wandering around this empty newsroom”—with body armor—“was not some weird stalker.” He thought it’d be a two-minute interaction; they ended up chatting for nearly an hour. Buzbee “really seemed to enjoy the fact that there was another human in the newsroom who she could speak with,” said Witte.

Witte, who was named Democracy editor in April, spent years overseas covering “functioning democracies and authoritarian regimes and a lot of things in between,” as he put it. Witte said Democracy coverage focuses on the rules of the game, the referees, and the institutions that for so long “were unremarked upon because no one was trying to tear them down or discredit them.” January 6 was a highly visible instance of how this is no longer the case; local officials making decisions about voting roles is more obscure. “Americans deserve to know about that as they make their choices.”

The creation of the Democracy team drew praise from media critic and former Post writer Dan Froomkin, along with concern that “despite the obvious target—Republicans trying to establish permanent minority rule—there is always the danger that the team members will fall back on the hoary algorithms of both-sides political coverage, and will try to be ‘balanced’ in their approach to an utterly asymmetrical situation.” (Indeed, from the Trump-incited insurrection and Republicans trying to overturn Biden’s victory, to state lawmakers restricting voting and potentially subverting future elections, one party is clearly undermining America’s electoral process.)

Notably, in my discussions about the Democracy team with Buzbee and Witte, both deflected when asked whether threats to democracy are coming more from Republicans than Democrats. “I mean, if it’s Republicans who are doing it, if it’s Democrats who are doing it, it’s our job to call that out,” Buzbee said. “We are not partisan,” Buzbee added. “We are trying to report what is accurately happening in the country. The reality of the situation is that the election system is very decentralized and there’s a lot of people who impact it,” she said, and the Post is “absolutely determined to be the place to come to understand that story.”

“I think there’s a tendency to think that threats to democracy began with Trump, and that’s clearly not the case,” said Witte. “Democracy has been vulnerable” and “showing signs of wear and tear for a long time now.”

While Buzbee has been busy tending to restructuring and keeping up with a relentless news cycle, a series of social media blowups upended the newsroom. One ended in the suspension of a reporter, Dave Weigel, for retweeting a sexist joke, and termination of another, Felicia Sonmez, following her public criticism of colleagues and the paper.

There were social media flare-ups during Baron’s tenure, with the former executive editor threatening to fire then reporter Wesley Lowery over his public comments on race and the media and suspending Sonmez after she resurfaced sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant shortly after his death. (The latter prompted collective outrage—more than 200 journalists signed a letter on her behalf—and Sonmez was reinstated.)

“There was never really any resolution, and then the pandemic came,” said Metro reporter Katie Mettler, who has been cochair of the Post Guild for more than three years. “Conversations that needed to happen just kept getting kicked down the road, and fell at Sally’s feet when she became editor.” On some of the issues most important to Guild leadership and staff, including pay equity, diversity and retention, and mental health, Buzbee has been receptive and taken some steps to act. But these are “issues staff had been talking about ad nauseam for years and trying to get management to buy into and address,” Mettler notes. “We’ve done numerous studies. We’ve sent numerous letters about how things can change.”

Buzbee told me that her “essential feeling” toward social media is, “We want people to be able to join conversations, but we don’t want them to veer over into outright opinion because that’s gonna turn readers off from us.” But, she added, “I also understand that in a place where people have felt that there were only certain people who were invited to the conversation, then the critical thing that I have to do is make sure that people from a wider variety of backgrounds feel that they’re in that conversation, feel that they have an actual place at the table. And there’s obviously still work to be done with that.” Gaining the trust of the newsroom, she said, is “an ongoing process.” Rewriting social media guidelines only became urgent after this spring’s blowup. “The fact is the leader of the newsroom let this fester for her first year,” said one reporter.

But she doesn’t deny the Post’s internal laundry being strewn out in public was a “painful episode” and said her takeaway was “the importance of communication, which I already knew, but I need to double down on.” (Ryan dismissed the controversy as “amplified noise” and suggested the outrage at the Post was “small pockets of resistance.”)

The other controversy involved the apparent demotion of a beloved Style editor, David Malitz, who’d been implicated in a controversy involving technology reporter Taylor Lorenz, a hire Buzbee was personally involved in. Inside the Style section, there’s a feeling that a promotion Malitz had been offered was unfairly rescinded after Lorenz, explaining an incorrect line in a story, said it had been inserted by an editor (Malitz). This opened the floodgates for members of Style who’d evidently felt neglected by Buzbee during her first year and were now even more skeptical about her leadership. The meeting Buzbee had in an attempt to address the section’s concerns arguably could not have gone worse. “‘I frankly don’t read you’ is the vibe you got out of her,” as one disillusioned Post reporter who attended put it. “We know we’re second-class citizens but to see it kind of confirmed that way was just so disappointing to all of us.”

“There’s no question that I sort of awkwardly did this,” Buzbee told me of her handling of the meeting, but “I’m gonna be open even if sometimes that’s messy.” Buzbee admitted the Style section “wasn’t something I’d focused on yet” because “there was still a lot of work to be done.” She insisted that didn’t mean a lack of interest, though stumbled when asked what work she’s been liking from the section.

The Style episode underscores a conundrum Buzbee finds herself in, which is that she is at once tasked with overseeing the Post’s growth strategy and catering to a newsroom that, at times, seems to be judging her based on expectations from past leadership. (Baron read everything and was known to send emails at all hours of the day and night, colloquially referred to as “Martygrams,” pointing out a grammatical error or typo.) Staff who feel they don’t yet know Buzbee acknowledge that’s not entirely her fault, given the circumstances, but that she hasn’t done a great job of communicating either.

And as Buzbee told me, “There was enormous hunger for communication.” It’s unclear when that became apparent, as in Buzbee’s first year, she held only a handful of Zoom town halls for the newsroom—one when she started, and then three in January. (Post spokesperson Kris Coratti Kelly noted Buzbee did “an uncountable number” of large-scale and whole department meetings in the last year.) I’m told she’s getting better at returning emails, a gripe that some staff had earlier in her tenure.

“She’s the editor of The Washington Post, she’s busy,” said New York Times reporter Adam Goldman, who worked for both Buzbee at AP and Baron at the Post. “If I really wanted to get Sally’s attention and I sent an email and didn’t hear back from her, I’d go to her office and knock on her door. Isn’t that what any good reporter does? If somebody doesn’t call me back I will frequently go to their house.” The flip side of that is “great newsroom leaders are also generals,” Goldman said, who need to be “encouraging reporters and making sure that the reporters doing good work are being noticed by the editors.”

“Most of the best conversations I’ve had in my career have been with Sally because she fully listens and engages,” said Devlin Barrett, a Post reporter who worked with her at AP. But often during her first year, Buzbee’s “best tool as a leader, as a manager, wasn’t usable in a way it’d be in any other setting. And in some instances, the first times she’s meeting some people face-to-face is when they’re really mad about something.”

Deputy National editor Phil Rucker spoke favorably of Buzbee’s news judgment up close, recalling the executive editor standing in the middle of the largely empty newsroom, alternating between looking down at her phone for a wire alert on the Supreme Court’s highly anticipated abortion decision, and up at the TV screens, for networks breaking into coverage. Buzbee was “calm and decisive” as she made sure the Post’s alert with the news was sent speedily—beating The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—and with precision. “Her physically standing there was a reminder to everybody in the newsroom that speed matters and breaking news matters,” Rucker said. The moment “sent a signal to those of us who saw it.”

Charlotte Klein is a staff writer at Vanity Fair’s Hive.

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