The Washington Post's Problems Now Include Its Publisher

Will Lewis, the new publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, was put in charge of fixing its problems. Now, Lewis has become a problem himself.
Will Lewis, the new publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, was put in charge of fixing its problems. Now, Lewis has become a problem himself. The Washington Post via Getty Images

Of all the problems presently plaguing American media, more white men rank fairly low on my list of potential solutions, with white men from the land of England ranking even lower. Unfortunately, I am not the owner of The Washington Post; Jeff Bezos is, and he has chosen British media executive Will Lewis to lead the newspaper.

Lewis, who was hired as the Post’s CEO and publisher in June last year and began his tenure in January, had his first meeting with staffers in November, where he reportedly charmed them and made assurances that he valued diversity and inclusion.

“I’m very passionate about that at all sorts of levels, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but actually it’s very good for business, as well,” Lewis said. “We need to look like America and that is a really important thing.”

Several months later, the British import is backtracking on that pledge amid another controversy: creating a working environment where “morale has fallen off a cliff,” according to a recent report from CNN.

The drama began on June 2 after Lewis announced in an email the abrupt departure of Sally Buzbee, the Post’s then-executive editor, as part of a restructuring of the newsroom. In her place would be ex-Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray as interim executive editor, along with the hiring of Robert Winnett, the deputy editor of the Telegraph Media Group, in a newly created editor role following the 2024 presidential election. Both Murray and Winnett have previously worked for Lewis.

While some expected Lewis to replace Buzbee, they didn’t anticipate the change happening in the middle of an election year, as well as so many white men being handed control of the Post. This was evident in the all-hands meeting held on June 3, which staffers described as “tense,” “combative” and “extremely defensive” in a report from NOTUS.

Ashley Parker, a political correspondent for the Post, even reportedly told Lewis that “the most cynical interpretation sort of feels like you chose two of your buddies to come in and help run the Post, and we now have four white men running three newsrooms.”

Defending the changes, Lewis told staffers at one point“We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore. So I’ve had to take decisive, urgent action to set us on a different path, sourcing talent that I have worked with that are the best of the best.”

To be clear, the Post lost $77 million last year and half its site traffic since 2020. It is not difficult to grasp why Lewis would want to shake things up.

Yet, though the business model may need to change, white men are not the only people capable of managing such a transition. 

For all the ills private equity and media consolidation have wrought on the industry, in many ways, most publications helped facilitate their own demise, allowing their material to be consumed largely for free for decades on the internet and letting tech companies cobble up the advertising model.

It was always going to take new revenue streams to survive, but it’s not the fault of Post staffers that search engines are dying and Post executives failed to mirror The New York Times, its perceived main competitor, and create new revenue streams in the digital age.

So what’s the reason Lewis hired his friends? He hired them because he believes they are “the best people.” I believe he genuinely believes that — and it sounds about white.

Then there is the matter of what Lewis and Buzbee beefed about before her abrupt departure.

According to the Times, last month Lewis objected to a Post story on Prince Harry’s long-standing lawsuit against News Group Newspapers, the U.K. tabloid arm of Rupert Murdoch’s publishing company, News Corp.

Working for News Corp. at the time, Lewis had the responsibility of effectively cleaning up the chaosa period it appears he wants others to leave in the past. When Buzbee informed him that the Post planned to cover an update to the lawsuit, Lewis told her that the case involving him did not merit coverage. After she published the story anyway, Lewis told Buzbee she had a lapse in judgment. (According to a report from Semafor, Post newsletter editors were told not to include the story in their newsletters.)

As if this all didn’t look bad enough, David Folkenflik, a media correspondent for NPR, recently reported that late last year, Lewis had tried to kill his own story about the same lawsuit, claiming that Lewis repeatedly and heatedly offered to give Folkenflik an exclusive about the Post’s future if he’d bury the story.

Late last Friday, Lewis sent a lengthy memo to staffers, stating in part, “So, time for some humility from me. I need to improve how well I listen and how well I communicate so that we all agree more clearly where urgent improvements are needed and why.”

He went on to acknowledge that “trust has been lost” because of “scars from the past,” but asked staff to leave those scars behind “and start presuming the best of intent.”

Intentions don’t negate impact, which is why Lewis has alienated his staff. 

As a subscriber to the Post, I want the paper to succeed, but the person put in charge of fixing its problems has now become an issue himself. There has been a growing trend of British folks running American publications, but it sounds like more of the same to some of us darker folks in the media — nonwhite people finally put in executive positions being pushed out in favor of the familiar white guys. 

If Lewis wants to save his relationship with staffers, he should think about the messages he’s sending to future hires. Why not go after this diverse staff he claims to value so much?

Go do that while letting your reporters do their jobs in peace.