WaPo CEO’s Apology Tour Was an Answer-Free Snoozefest

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Washington Post CEO and publisher Will Lewis attempted to play clean-up this week in private, conciliatory meetings with staffers, ultimately offering few answers for them after lashing out and playing defense last week.

Multiple staffers told The Daily Beast that, in private Q&A sessions where staffers peppered him with questions about the paper’s future, Lewis directly expressed regret for his outbursts over multiple reports indicating he tried to kill stories on his alleged role in covering up the U.K. tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

He told staffers he could have been a better communicator, extending the quasi-apology he released late Friday evening.

The comments were made in several of the “Say It” sessions Lewis hosted this week for staffers to grill him on his plans to reinvigorate the Post’s business, which he said lost $77 million in a year. Last week, Lewis overhauled the newsroom by pushing out executive editor Sally Buzbee and installing his former colleagues Matt Murray and Rob Winnett to lead a restructured editorial operation. Lewis last month unveiled his “Build It” business plan, which includes a mysterious “third newsroom,” among other gambits, as a way to turn the newspaper around.

Staffers who spoke with The Daily Beast relayed that Lewis’ connection to the hacking scandal was not a hot topic, especially considering the publisher has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. Instead, these WaPo sources said, the focus was on his plans for saving the newspaper.

“We all want him to be able to talk to us and answer our questions,” one Post staffer told The Daily Beast. “No one is trying to take him down.” One staffer said the meetings were cordial, with staffers laughing at comments made by Lewis and executive editor Murray.

Lewis did not offer staffers many specific insights into how the third newsroom, dedicated to “service and social media” journalism, would function, according to staffers who spoke with The Daily Beast. He did, however, suggest the creation of new products as a way to lure readers to the main Post coverage—though he didn’t lay out what those would look like either. A Post spokesperson declined to comment.

While Lewis seemed to provide little in the way of concrete answers, he did further outline his plan for leadership structure going forward. After last week’s announcement that Winnett would take over the main newsroom from Murray after the 2024 election, Lewis said this week that the Telegraph deputy would move to Washington, D.C. in August and begin shadowing reporters in September. He would then shadow Murray in October before taking over the core newsroom in November. Murray would then transition into editing the “third” newsroom.

Lewis assured staffers that Winnett, a tabloid vet, would adhere to the Post’s rigorous editorial standards, according to multiple staffers. The commitment came after The Daily Beast reported on Winnett’s reporting methods in the U.K., which included dispatching a Sunday Times reporter to go undercover within the U.K. Cabinet Office and leak information; and the paying of a source for information while at the Telegraph. Those practices run counter to both the Post’s policies and the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.

Lewis’ reception within the newsroom has constantly shifted since Jeff Bezos installed him atop the newspaper. When he began in November, staffers reportedly found him charming and affable. But the situation has since devolved after a series of public missteps and internal outbursts. Those included Lewis labeling NPR media correspondent David Folkenfilk an “activist, not a journalist” after Folkenfilk claimed Lewis offered him an exclusive interview if he dropped a story on Lewis’ alleged role in covering up News U.K.’s phone hacking scandal.

Ultimately it’s unclear whether this week’s meetings will have been enough to turn around the newsroom’s mood. “Everyone is extremely concerned,” a Post staffer told The Daily Beast.

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