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New CEO of 'The Washington Post' puts former colleagues in power

Will Lewis became publisher and CEO of<em> The Washington Post</em> in January. On Sunday, he ousted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee and replaced her with a former colleague temporarily. In November, another former colleague will permanently take the helm of the newsroom.
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Will Lewis became publisher and CEO of The Washington Post in January. On Sunday, he ousted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee and replaced her with a former colleague temporarily. In November, another former colleague will permanently take the helm of the newsroom.

The publisher of The Washington Post introduced the paper’s new top editor — for the next few months — on Monday to a deeply skeptical staff that peppered him with questions about strategy, timing, and cronyism.

Will Lewis, who became the Post’s publisher and chief executive in January, forced out Executive Editor Sally Buzbee Sunday night, effective immediately. In internal memos and press releases, Lewis unveiled a new, bifurcated structure for the newsroom to be led by former colleagues from the Telegraph in the U.K. and The Wall Street Journal.

At a turbulent staff meeting Monday, Lewis said it would be “nuts” to continue doing business as it has been done. He pointed to the losses the paper has endured of late — $77 million last year, by his account, leading to layoffs of nearly 13% of staff during 2023.

“We are going to turn this thing around, but let’s not sugarcoat it: it needs turning around,” Lewis said. “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience is halved. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.” While praising the integrity of the Post’s news reporting, Lewis also ripped the paper’s handling of social media.

Tapping a former colleague as executive editor

Former Journal Editor-in-chief Matt Murray will lead the Washington Post newsroom through the general election in November, and then shift to run new editorial ventures at the paper.

That new division — called the “third newsroom” after news and editorial pages — is to focus on new revenue streams such as micropayments (such as for individual articles), the paper’s coverage of climate and wellness, and new forms of journalism, such as video narratives on social media. He will retain the title of executive editor.

As publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Lewis elevated Murray to lead that newspaper in 2018. Murray left last year after clashing with Lewis’ replacement, arguing, among other things, over strategizing to win new audiences.

A second ex-colleague takes over in November

Rob Winnett, now the deputy editor at the Telegraph Media Group in London, will succeed Murray as newsroom leader after the election. Winnett was a key player in the controversial scoop about British MPs’ financial improprieties that helped Lewis make his name as the Daily Telegraph’s editor in chief 15 years ago. The two men previously also worked at the Sunday Times in the U.K.

The Parliamentary expenses scandal encompassed lawmakers from all major British parties and was widely hailed as a major coup. Lewis was named U.K. journalist of the year in 2010; Winnett, who brought the story to Lewis, won honors as the British political reporter of the year. That said, the Telegraph paid £110,000 for the files containing the details — a payment that would have been barred by ethics codes at major U.S. news organizations, including the Post.

Winnett was barely mentioned at Monday’s staff meeting; Murray, considered a respected leader at the Journal, had few chances to make his mark. Post staff instead expressed dismay with the vast changes in how the paper is to be run and what it says about Lewis’ leadership and vision.

Post journalists wary of new direction

Gone was the soothing, smooth presence during Lewis’ first meeting with colleagues last fall after his own appointment became public. Lewis instead frequently sounded defensive and combative. At one point, he characterized a reporter’s question as “posturing.” At several others, he sought to cut the meeting short. It ran for about 40 minutes.

“The cynical interpretation is that it sort of feels like you chose two of your buddies,” senior political correspondent Ashley Parker said. She said he had previously spoken “movingly” about the need for diversity.

“And now we have four white men running three newsrooms,” Parker said, including Lewis, Murray, Winnett and the opinion section editor, David Shipley, in her count.

Lewis said he heard the newsroom’s calls for diversity “loud and clear, and that’s on me.” But he also urged staffers to work with him.

In February, Lewis had hired another former colleague as a senior executive from his days working for Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers; the Washington Post’s new chief growth officer Karl Wells worked under Lewis at the Wall Street Journal’s corporate parent, Dow Jones, and for its corporate cousin, the British tabloid The Sun.

Toward the end, he conceded the meeting did not go as smoothly as hoped, promising a follow-up “if it was a fail.”

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.