‘Daily Beast’ New D.C. Chief Quits — After Only Five Weeks

The Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief has quit just five weeks after being hired, Hot Source has learned, leaving the site without a political editor just months before the election. His departure comes as most unionized journalists at the publication are preparing to flee at the end of next week after taking generous buyouts.

Martin Pengelly joined The Daily Beast last month from The Guardian, where he had served for 20 years. The well-regarded editor had become known as “the books guy” thanks to his almost uncanny ability to snag copies of buzzy books before their publication dates. Pengelly resigned from his new post late last week, but chief content and creative officer Joanna Coles and publisher and CEO Ben Sherwood (known to staffers as “Boanna”) begged him to keep the news from colleagues and continue working until next Friday, when nearly two dozen staffers who accepted the buyout are expected to leave the publication. Hot Source has learned there will be several layoffs of non-guild employees as well as staff on the Beast’s business side at the end of next week.

Multiple people familiar with the situation say Pengelly had been reluctantly lured from his comfortable perch at The Guardian by the promise of leading a revamped political operation during a momentous election. But he soon found himself butting heads with Coles over some of her more outlandish ideas, which included assigning Pengelly a story to consult “medical experts” to examine footage of President Biden and determine if he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. “Boanna” had been trying to recruit another high-profile Guardian journalist, Hugo Lowell, to join the Beast to cover Trump world, but he pulled out of negotiations with the pair last weekend. Coles and Sherwood have also been trying to bring aboard Mary Ann Akers, who is married to ​​the journalist Michael Isikoff, and was previously congressional editor at The Messenger, to help staff up the D.C. bureau. Pengelly, Lowell and Akers declined to comment.

In just over two months since taking over, Coles’ ideas have polarized staff. She first got reporters offside by sticking up an ad on her Instagram for a “Senior Lauren Sanchez Correspondent” to cover the trials and tribulations of Jeff Bezos’ fiancée. Among her more recent controversial assignments, staffers say, have been an influx of listicles such as one headlined “Joe Biden Didn’t Poop Himself but These Celebs Did,” billed as “a definitive list of the oversharing celebrity pant-soilers.” The piece was assigned to an intern who was working their last day at The Daily Beast and declined to have their byline on the story.

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Since Coles and Sherwood took over, the site has produced several deeply reported yarns including an agenda-setting profile of RFK Jr.’s running mate Nicole Shanahan and a deep dive into Will Lewis’ hunger for power. But other, more bizarre, ideas were mercifully killed before they made it onto the site. After Train bassist Charlie Colin was found dead after falling in the shower, Coles wanted to assign a story instructing readers how to avoid falling in the shower. When Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock died following complications with cancer, Sherwood had expressed interest in a story asking if it was McDonald’s that killed him.

Among the heavy hitters who put in for the buyout and were accepted by the company is veteran New York reporter Michael Daly, who was one of Tina Brown’s first hires when she founded The Daily Beast (where Hot Source worked from 2018-2024), and senior columnist Matt Lewis, who has been one of the site’s sole conservative voices. “It’s a tough industry right now,” Lewis told Hot Source. “It’s like if you make it to the show, you’ve been blessed, and you don’t want to leave, but after seven years it seemed like a good time to call it a day.” Daly and Lewis, along with anyone who was accepted for a buyout, has until Friday to rescind. 

If none of those change their minds, it will leave the site with two breaking news reporters, two political reporters, an entertainment writer and a handful of others to staff its photo and social desks. “None of us know how we are supposed to do the news with no staff,” one Beast journalist told Hot Source. But Coles and Sherwood plan to reset the site as an “intelligent tabloid” as they impose financial discipline on a publication that was losing around $5 million a year under the former leadership. 

When the buyouts were initially offered to staffers, five applied. The day it was announced editor in chief Tracy Connor would be leaving the publication, seven more people put in for the buyout. After five days working under new executive editor Hugh Dougherty, another 13 people applied, bringing the tally to 25 out of the 35 members of the union. Coles is looking to make new hires and has even proposed a male grooming column tentatively titled “Taming the Beast.”

“From day one, our strategy has been to build on the strengths of The Beast while making it more relevant and current. We have a new executive editor to help achieve our goal. At the same time, we negotiated a generous buyout plan to reshape the newsroom for the future,” a spokesperson for The Daily Beast, representing Sherwood and Coles, emailed Hot Source. “We anticipated a large number of employees would accept our offer and we have plans and resources to ensure that the Beast can deliver what readers expect — quality journalism with bite and flair. We are confident that our new editorial and business strategy will empower the Beast to meet the challenge of this hugely significant year for news.”

HOT SOURCE You can't keep a lid on it
HOT SOURCE You can't keep a lid on it

This story first appeared in “Hot Source,” THR’s scoop-filled new weekly newsletter about media, Hollywood and politics by special correspondent Lachlan Cartwright. Subscribe here.

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