What Happened to the Washington Post?

At a December town hall at the offices of the Washington Post, just a few blocks from the White House, the paper’s publisher and C.E.O., Fred Ryan, announced that a round of layoffs would be coming early in the new year. The news came at the end of a meeting featuring what the Post’s media critic called “upbeat presentations on bold initiatives,” such as a revamped climate desk. The mood among the assembled journalists, however, was hardly upbeat. Two weeks earlier, the paper had announced the closure of its Sunday magazine, whose ten staff members were told that while they were taking severance they would be ineligible to apply for other jobs in the newsroom. Now Ryan’s talk of additional layoffs was met with a flurry of questions. “We’re not going to turn the town hall into a grievance session for the guild,” Ryan said, referring to the newsroom’s union, the Washington Post Guild. Someone responded, “It’s not a grievance session—it’s questions.” Ryan, lanky, white-haired, and besuited, abruptly strode out. A video of the confrontation, which has been viewed three million times, swiftly made the rounds. “That video was a very rare window into Fred when he gets frustrated,” Robert Allbritton, who, along with Ryan, was a co-founder of Politico, said. “I guarantee you he walked off that stage and said, ‘Oh, shit.’ ”

On Tuesday morning, Sally Buzbee, the Post’s executive editor, sent an e-mail to staff informing them that the paper was cutting twenty positions and will not fill thirty open positions. The layoffs spanned the newsroom, affecting reporters, editors, copy editors, and visual journalists, in particular hitting the copy desk, and closing KidsPost and Launcher, the paper’s online gaming vertical. “This was an unforced error made by our publisher with no clear plan or business strategy,” an e-mail that the guild sent to its members read. “Fred Ryan is punishing the newsroom’s hardworking, award-winning and nimble journalists for his failures as publisher.”

Last fall, the Times reported that the Post was set to lose money for the first time in years. But Ryan has framed the layoffs not as a cost-cutting measure but as a move to transform the paper into a more competitive entity. Part of the strategy, he told me, is to reach readers on topics beyond hard news. A “learning” Ryan said he’d had during the COVID era is that readers “want some diversions.” He pointed to the Post’s new Well+Being section as proof that the paper is trying to give the people what they want. (One recent headline read, “Ask a Doctor: Are my bowel movements normal?”) The Post’s main rival, the Times, has capitalized on this kind of life-style content; its Cooking section, podcasts, Wirecutter recommendations, and games, including Wordle and Spelling Bee, capture readers’ time and attention well beyond their daily headline scan. The Times has become a media company through investment and acquisitions, but the Washington Post remains, primarily, a news organization.

Most Post staffers who I spoke with tended to agree that the paper was in need of better strategic planning. Even unpopular moves like shuttering the Sunday print magazine—which won a National Magazine Award in 2020—were seen as defensible business decisions by some. But many felt that the layoffs, which were much smaller than the initial reporting indicated—it had been suggested that around a hundred people could lose their jobs—had been chaotically implemented and capricious. The Post was laying off employees while, at the same time, advertising for new positions. In fact, the Post sent an e-mail welcoming three new staffers as the layoffs were rolling out on Tuesday morning. Staff wondered why an internal reshuffling couldn’t have been considered.

Ryan said that hiring will focus on areas like tech, climate, and health, among others. By the end of the year, he went on, the Post will be as large as or larger than it is now. In addition to the new wellness section, he has touted the Post’s expanded climate coverage and new editorial hubs in London and Seoul. To some, these changes feel like building out newsroom infrastructure, not implementing innovative new business models. One former Post reporter said he’d left in part because he was disappointed by a lack of clarity from the paper’s leaders. “Some people would say, ‘The Washington Post is for the people. It’s not for the hoity-toity élites. Some people would say, ‘We’re out to cover power, we’re aiming at the emerging élite, we’re aiming at the young élite.’ And I sort of wondered if the real strategy wasn’t just to wait and see if Trump came back.”

In 2014, Ryan was seated next to Jean Case, the wife of the billionaire AOL founder Steve Case, at the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, in Washington, D.C.—a black-tie event held by the members-only club, which only started admitting women in 1994—when she asked him what he wanted to do next. Ryan, who grew up in a military family in Monterey Park, California, attended the University of Southern California, where he would routinely end up on game shows that were taped near campus. After law school, he went to Washington, in 1982, as a twenty-six-year-old staffer in the Reagan White House, and later served as Reagan’s post-Presidency chief of staff. (He is the author of a book called “Wine and the White House,” a “comprehensive journey through the history of White House hospitality that explores every president’s experience of wine.”) In 1995, he left Reagan to help Robert Allbritton, who was then in his twenties, run Allbritton Communications, a consortium of local television stations that included D.C.’s Channel 7. About a decade later, Allbritton, Ryan, and the former Washington Post reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei founded Politico, meant to be a competitor to the Post’s own political section. Ryan’s Reagan connections helped the fledgling publication secure the sponsorship of a 2008 Presidential debate, which lent the site some much needed credibility.

Ryan, who had decided to leave Politico, now told Jean Case at the Alfalfa dinner that he wanted to be the next publisher of the Washington Post. Jeff Bezos had recently bought the paper from the Graham family for two hundred and fifty million dollars, half of what he would eventually spend on his superyacht. At an early town-hall meeting, Bezos had promised Post employees that he’d provide them not only the technological underpinnings needed for success but the vision, as well. He also paid homage to the Post’s grand tradition of groundbreaking work. “I watched the Watergate hearings on my elbow on the living-room floor next to my grandfather,” Bezos said. “These things make an impression.”

The Cases brokered an introduction, according to a 2014 Post report, and Ryan started the job in October of that year. Ryan didn’t want to comment on the frequency or content of his conversations with Bezos—beyond that their relationship is “extremely strong”—but people say it’s the key to his continued employment as publisher. From Reagan to the Allbrittons to Bezos, Ryan has found himself close to wealthy and powerful people throughout his career. “Fred is very good at managing up,” Allbritton said. “He’s the perfect ambassador for a multibillionaire.”

Jonathan Martin, who worked with Ryan at Politico, described him as “a warm, engaging guy, easy to be around.” He is not, however, viewed as a warm presence by many in the Post offices. “He carries himself like a big shot,” one reporter told me, noting that Ryan sometimes wears both an Apple Watch and a “fancy” one. (It’s actually a step-counter, according to a Post spokesperson.) Ryan, whose white hair was once a thick mop of blond, dresses formally and is known as an ambassador for the Post on the D.C. cocktail-party circuit.

Ryan has periodic lunches with reporters and editors, though a couple I spoke weren’t sure he knew who they were, a contrast to the approach of the former publisher and chairman, Don Graham. “He’s not a deep presence in the newsroom,” a Washington Post employee said of Ryan. As a rule, journalists tend to dislike interference from the publisher on a paper’s newsgathering side, and Ryan adheres to this norm, staff said. The criticisms appear to stem from his perceived aloofness. Ryan seems aware that, from the start, many of the Post’s staff members were skeptical of him. “I went into the center of the newsroom my first day and took every question people had,” he said. “And the first question I got was: ‘Hey, you worked in the Reagan White House—how could you work at the Washington Post?’ ”

Ryan’s proudest moment at the Post, he said, was when the reporter Jason Rezaian was freed after a year-and-a-half-long imprisonment in Iran. He has been outspoken in rebuking the Biden Administration for its renewed relationship with Saudi Arabia just a few years after the killing of the Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which is widely believed to have been carried out under the orders of the crown prince. (On the same day as the layoffs, Ryan issued a strongly-worded critique of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s crass diminishment of Khashoggi’s murder in a new book.) But day-to-day interactions with journalists have proved harder for Ryan to manage. Prior to the town hall, in December, he had received written questions about layoffs, Ryan told me. “I figured, all right, I’ll just be as real-time transparent as I possibly can and say, ‘We are working on this, we have been working on it, we’re not done, we want to get it in the first quarter of the year, we anticipate [the layoffs are] going to be single digits, percentage-wise.’ ”

At the same time, Ryan has historically had a cold relationship with the Washington Post Guild. A 2022 report by the guild’s Black Caucus, described a letter sent to Ryan in August, 2020:

Did you know that in the Accounting and Finance departments of The
Washington Post, the commercial side of the organization is referred
to as “The Plantation” because many of the workers are Black and being
overseen by White bosses? Highly educated Black employees continue to
be stuck in roles on “The Plantation” for years with no hope of
climbing up the ladder, while White employees are promoted into
unadvertised positions unrelated to their current jobs.

Those guild employees raised concerns with Ryan about how the H.R. department addressed diversity issues, and grew distrustful of him after he failed to reply to their letter himself; instead, according to the guild, he twice forwarded their complaints to the director of H.R.

Last summer, Ryan began to clash with the guild over the company’s post-pandemic return-to-office plan. He reportedly wanted to issue disciplinary letters to staff who flouted a three-day-a-week in-office policy. (A Post spokesperson denied this, saying that such letters would have been the purview of the paper’s H.R. department. During a September, 2022, town hall, Ryan was confronted by Valerie Strauss, an education reporter, who asked if staff could be fired if they didn’t come to the newsroom. According to Politico, Ryan said he “wasn’t going to get into a debate” and abruptly ended the exchange. More than sixty people joined the guild in the aftermath of this past December’s town hall, including a group of prominent Post reporters, such as Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey. Ryan met with a number of the more high-profile staffers personally to hear their concerns.

For most of Ryan’s tenure as publisher, Marty Baron was the paper’s executive editor. A living journalism legend—Liev Schreiber portrayed him in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight”—Baron was also something of a “brilliant totalitarian dictator,” in the words of one person who worked with him. The paper won eleven Pulitzer Prizes for stories published during his tenure. Its digital subscriptions tripled, to nearly three million, and its annual revenue grew from ten million to more than two hundred million dollars. Post staff say Baron tended to win out in disagreements with Ryan, which could get loud. When Baron retired in early 2021, internal candidates like Steven Ginsberg—who left the Post and is now the executive editor of the Athletic—and the senior managing editor Cameron Barr lost out. Instead, Ryan chose Buzbee, who was then the executive editor of the Associated Press. Within the paper, there is a belief that, in Buzbee, Ryan saw someone who had less history and fewer personal connections at the paper, someone with whom he might have a fresh start, someone who’d be more open to his ideas.

Ryan told me that he has “enormous respect” for Buzbee. “I think we have a good, cordial relationship,” he said. ​​But, at the December town hall, Buzbee was noticeably quiet. A Post reporter told me, “There was certainly a belief of, like, ‘Oh, this guy has decided this is his fiefdom and he’s gonna rule it.” Another Post staffer said Buzbee has, in the aftermath of the December town hall, started to subtly make her disagreements with Ryan clear in meetings, particularly around the decision not to fold magazine staff into other parts of the paper. “Sally will say, ‘I was not given the authority’ to rehire people,” the staffer said. “Anyone who’s smart reads between the lines and says, ‘Oh, Fred flipped out and said you’re not allowed to rehire these people.’ ” After the town hall, Semafor reported that Buzbee openly talked to reporters about quitting. A small number of Post staffers confirmed that Buzbee did broach the topic of quitting, but more in the spirit of, if people felt she wasn’t doing enough to protect them, they should let her know. Buzbee has told a small circle of people that in private she has long been firm with Ryan about her disagreements with his decisions.

Last week, Bezos visited the Post offices for the first time since 2019, when he gave Baron a bicycle for Baron’s sixty-fifth birthday. Bezos spent a long time in Ryan’s office, met with staff, attended a morning editorial meeting, where he was mostly silent, and was later spotted out at a D.C. hot spot with his girlfriend. The former Post reporter said that Bezos’s purchase of the paper had done away with the pervasive sense of doom that had hovered over the Post for so many years. “Whenever he showed up, people found inspiration,” he said. “Bezos obviously didn’t know our names, but he gave us optimism and hope and a vision of a greater future.” Bezos, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, is not, sources say, thinking of selling the paper. But recent events may have prompted him to reëvaluate his level of involvement.

Of course, industry-wide, the much talked-about “Trump bump” has been followed by a downturn in page views and advertising sales across the media sector. The Times has benefitted from its acquisitions and investments in the life-style space. Bezos’s Post invested in technology systems that are more behind the scenes. Arc XP, which started as an internal publishing system and is now sold to outside companies, was viewed as a moderate success, though it’s not profitable and, recently, executives at the paper approached Bezos about selling or spinning it off, according to the Wall Street Journal. Originally, it was seen as a product that could be sold to local or international news organizations. The executive behind it, Shailesh Prakash, left the paper this fall; he and Ryan reportedly disagreed about strategic decisions involving Arc XP.

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