behind the news

Who is Fred Ryan?

Bezos's choice for Washington Post publisher is notable for what he can bring to the paper, and also what he cannot
September 3, 2014

On October 1, Politico co-founder and former Reagan administration official Frederick Ryan, Jr. will take over as publisher of The Washington Post. Ryan represents Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ first major change in the leadership of the paper he bought for $250 million last year. Ryan is also, according to the Post’s own reporting, a fixture of the Georgetown party circuit who used his connections to solidify Politico’s advertising base and, with a politician’s knack for optics and promotion, fussed over the placement of the startup’s tables at the White House Correspondents dinner.

For many, the surprise of the announcement is that Bezos would pick a creature of political Washington to helm a newspaper he likes to talk about as if it were a tech startup, but it seems obvious why Bezos might be interested to hire a Washington hand to keep an eye on the power structure and advertising base surrounding his DC property.  More intriguing than Ryan’s skillset are all the things he doesn’t bring to the table.

When reporting CJR’s July cover story on the Post under Bezos, it was evident that Katharine Weymouth, despite occupying the publisher’s chair, was not the main driver behind the Post’s strategy, much of which was opposite the strategies she had implemented before Bezos bought the paper. In Ryan, Bezos seems to have found a publisher to play a similar role—a willing implementer of digital strategies of which he is not the author. His experience in media is primarily that of a deputy to Robert Allbritton as the company’s chief operating officer, and his legacy at Politico is that of an ally in the implementation of ideas conceived by others.

Politico’s name featured prominently in headlines announcing Ryan’s appointment. The idea of a Politico executive taking over The Washington Post is attractive both for its irony and for its de facto implication that Ryan was chosen for his digital chops. But that de facto explanation doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Politico is arguably the most exhaustively studied digital startup in American journalism, but Ryan’s name rarely appears in these discussions of the organization’s formation and strategy. Ryan’s fellow Politico co-founders, Jim VandeHei, John Harris, and Robert Allbritton have all gone out of their way to preach the Politico gospel. They waxed poetic with Charlie Rose, participated in numerous articles and studies about their business model, and generally did everything they could to promote the idea that Politico represented the digital way forward for American journalism (and that, by extension, competitors such as the Post were obsolete). Ryan got passing if any mention in these discussions. And it’s not just that he chose not to be the public face of the organization. In 2009, Columbia University’s Knight Case Studies Initiative produced an extensive two-part study on Politico’s origins, philosophy, strategy, and rise to prominence. The study ran more than 10,000 words and did not mention Ryan’s name once.

Besides his modest reputation as a digital leader, Ryan also lacks experience in the newspaper industry. Other than Politico and the ill-fated local startup TBD, Ryan’s only experience as a media executive at Allbritton Communications was running the television division. He’s a skilled deputy and company man with a proven track record in high stakes environments—perhaps that’s exactly what Bezos was looking for.

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I spoke with one newsroom veteran at the Post yesterday who found it encouraging that Bezos sought out a publisher “to implement rather than define a new mission.” The majority of the journalists I spoke to when reporting the July story were enthusiastic about the changes that were already occurring as the paper made dozens of hires and shifted to a digital strategy that was more national and international in focus.

The paper has a clearer idea of where it’s going journalistically than financially—though the thrust of its business model seems to be moving increasingly towards harnessing the kind of customer data that Bezos has used to drive the growth of Amazon. Ryan’s appointment doesn’t present many obvious advantages in that mission, but it also doesn’t present any barriers. It’s an appointment that ensures the Bezos era will continue at pace.

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.