What does the Washington Post newsroom want?

July 3, 2024
The Washington Post in downtown Washington on Feb. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The ambient noise of any newsroom is grumbling—about colleagues, workloads, assignments, compensation, and (these days) the ever-present fear of layoffs and potential closures.

Even by that standard it’s hard to think of a more unsettled place than the Washington Post at the moment. I worked there for nearly thirty-six years—through recessions, an ownership change, layoffs, and multiple buyouts—and I don’t recall a cocktail of anxiety, malaise, and free-floating dread like the one I sense now. The exhaustion is palpable.

The paper’s new publisher, Will Lewis, is the immediate and precipitating issue. Lewis’s tenure began on January 2 amid the promise of renewal. But the bonhomie disappeared on the night of June 2 with his shocking announcement that Post editor Sally Buzbee had resigned and was being replaced by not one but two outsiders—Robert Winnett, a deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph in Britain, described as a protégé of Lewis, and Matt Murray, who had edited the Wall Street Journal when Lewis was its publisher. 

Within days, the New York Times alleged that Lewis had pressured Buzbee not to publish a news story about his work a decade ago for Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers, then engulfed in a long-running hacking scandal. This was followed by an NPR story that alleged he had sought a similar cover-up late last year. Thereafter, Lewis retreated into near-silence as stories about his career tumbled out, including on the front page of his own newspaper. 

Most of the dozen Post journalists I’ve talked to in the past week explicitly wish for Lewis’s resignation or firing, an outcome they believe would uphold the Post’s traditional standards and principles. Buzbee wasn’t a popular figure in the newsroom, but she was earnest and hardworking, and her rough treatment by Lewis transformed her into a martyr among the staff. 

But this is, of course, about more than one person, and one moment. Continuing financial losses, unsettled editorial leadership and direction, and an aloof and inscrutable owner have added up to a distracting sense of disarray. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

If Lewis goes, it’s likely that the senior executives he’s brought on to execute the ambitious business and editorial makeover would follow him out the door. And what then? The sum of all fears is that the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, will tire of the drama, the drift, and the red ink and decide to bail. As disappointed and angry as they are about Bezos’s inaction, my former colleagues are acutely aware that his abandonment would be far worse.

If there is a hopeful sign within the ranks, it is this: journalism will save us, or at least give the newsroom some of the agency that it lacks. Indeed, the Post is presently doing something extraordinary, if perhaps underappreciated. It has assembled a loose but formidable coalition of reporters—drawn from its national and investigative staffs and the media team that I was once part of—to sort through its publisher’s past and present. The effort is spearheaded by a Post veteran, former senior managing editor Cameron Barr, who left the paper a year ago only to return on a contract earlier this year as a project editor. Barr, who is based in England now, runs his own fiefdom, walled off from Lewis and with limited input from Murray, the Lewis-appointed interim editor.

The precedents for such an internal-affairs beat are few. The Times investigated itself in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003; the Journal established a quasi-independent unit to report on Murdoch’s effort to buy the paper and its parent company in 2007 and 2008 (Barr’s autonomous status is loosely based on the way the Journal handled its editing of Murdoch’s takeover). What’s different in this case, however, is that the Post has made an open-ended commitment to the story. It’s not clear when the Post will stop reporting on Lewis. 

Reporting by the Post, the Times, and others has already prompted Winnett to withdraw from the job. And the drip, drip, drip of bad news will continue indefinitely. Which in turn intensifies some more internal dissonance: whereas Post journalists welcome the transparency and self-accountability, they also recognize that it is a ghastly sore visible to the entire world. 

But the target of greatest disappointment in the Post newsroom isn’t Lewis. It’s Bezos. There is perplexity: Why did Bezos hire Lewis in the first place? What kind of vetting occurred, given that a simple Google search would have raised plenty of red flags about him? Did Bezos ignore the danger signs, or was he unaware of them? Did Bezos agree to Lewis’s plan to demote Buzbee and replace her with Winnett, a figure similarly tainted by the apparently elastic ethical standards of British journalism?

Bezos hasn’t volunteered much (his only semipublic communiqué so far has been a 137-word email to the paper’s leadership). He remains a distant figure, inaccessible, unspeaking, apparently wedded to an untenable status quo. And what could be worse for a roomful of journalists? They have questions. And for weeks they’ve had no answers.

Paul Farhi was a reporter for the Washington Post for thirty-five years. He covered business, a presidential campaign, and the news media. He left at the end of 2023 and has been a freelance writer, contributing to The Atlantic, The Athletic, Nieman Reports, The Daily Beast, and CJR.