The Media Today

The challenge facing Sally Buzbee at the Washington Post

May 12, 2021

Since January, when Marty Baron announced his retirement as editor of the Washington Post, the media beat has hummed with speculation about his replacement: Would it be an internal candidate? Or one of a bevy of editors from the New York Times? Or Ben Smith? So it was impressive yesterday when the Post appointed someone who hadn’t appeared in the guessing game: Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of the Associated Press. Online, the unexpectedness of the hire sparked a mini-debate as to whether media reporting is bad or not; Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez asked why we had “to suffer through so many think pieces that ended up being way off?” Management at the Post certainly maintained a high wall of secrecy around the process, blinding not just outside media reporters but the paper’s own staffers, some of whom, the Daily Beast reported recently, were irked by their lack of insight. At one point, the paper’s union wrote to Fred Ryan, the publisher, requesting input into the decision. “Given the confidential and sensitive nature of the executive editor search,” he replied, “we do not plan to broadly address the search process with employees.” Maybe not so impressive after all.

The news of Buzbee’s hire was broken, in the end, by Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post. (“I was just telling @farhip that I’m looking forward to finding out who the next executive editor of the Washington Post will be via the bot in our Slack telling us that his story about it published,” Elahe Izadi, Farhi’s colleague on the media desk, tweeted. “That’s how I found out.”) Ryan told Farhi that he valued Buzbee’s experience atop an international news organization given that the Post is in the process of expanding overseas, with plans for new “hubs” in London and Seoul and bureaus in Sydney and Bogotá; Ryan also told staff, in a memo, that he “looked carefully for someone who shares our values of diversity and inclusion, and who is committed to prioritizing them in our news coverage as well as our hiring and promotion.” The decision won plaudits from journalists with ties to the Post and the AP: Laura Helmuth, a former Post staffer who now leads Scientific American, wrote that she was “so happy (and frankly, relieved) for my former colleagues”; Julie Pace, the AP’s Washington bureau chief, made the case that “there is simply no better newsroom leader and mentor than Sally,” and hailed her, too, as a “role model” for moms working in journalism. “This is normally the part where everyone fires off kiss ass tweets to the new boss,” Devlin Barrett, a Post reporter who formerly worked at the AP, tweeted, “but honestly, even knowing what it makes me look like? Sally is a… tremendous editor.”

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Buzbee, who is fifty-five, will be the first woman ever to lead the Post. Farhi noted on Twitter that six of the paper’s ten most senior editors are now women, as are the heads of other major news organizations such as ABC News, MSNBC, Reuters, and the Financial Times. (There are many more examples, as the replies to Farhi’s tweet attest.) “The fact that this is not a big deal is kind of a big deal,” he wrote. Many observers praised the path-breaking nature of Buzbee’s appointment, though some also pointed out that Buzbee—like many other senior women in journalism—is white, and that there is much diversity work still to be done. Responding to Farhi’s tweet, Wesley Lowery, a former Post reporter who vocally criticized Baron’s leadership, called Buzbee’s hire “unquestionably a big deal,” though he wrote elsewhere that “the overqualified black candidate not even getting a serious call about the job, only for it to go to a white lady and be framed as a win for diversity is the entire story of newsroom diversity efforts.” (He was referring to Kevin Merida, a former Post editor who was reportedly not courted aggressively to succeed Baron, despite his strong credentials and enduring popularity among the paper’s staff. Last week, Merida was named executive editor of the LA Times.)

In addition to the secrecy of the Post’s search, Buzbee’s name may have been absent from the post-Baron media chatter because the AP is often absent from general media chatter—as it noted in its own story on Buzbee’s departure, the AP is “both ubiquitous and somewhat invisible, since it sells its journalism to thousands of outlets that use it on their websites, front pages and broadcasts.” This is an oversight—the AP is one of the biggest news organizations in the world, and it routinely does important work with an impressive range of scale; as Fenit Nirappil, a former AP reporter who is now at the Post, put it yesterday, the AP “doesn’t get enough love in this industry” given that it’s “a massive global multimedia operation adept at ambitious and reader friendly work while championing state-level accountability reporting.” It is also very traditional in its tone, a fact that didn’t always serve its day-to-day coverage of the Trump era all that well. “Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization,” whereas Baron “succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and ‘swagger,’” Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, wrote yesterday. “Will Buzbee be able to adapt?” A similar question sprung to my mind—except I’d note that Baron failed to establish consistent rules as to how much of a voice his reporters were allowed to develop, especially on social media. Buzbee has only ever worked for the AP. It’ll be interesting to see how much of its culture comes with her to the Post.

Buzbee’s past statements about journalism offer cause for optimism—she told CJR in 2017 that some journalists don’t understand what “a dangerous weapon polling is,” and argued ahead of the early stages of the 2020 primary campaign that reporters should ignore horserace polls altogether—as well as reason for skepticism: when CNN’s Brian Stelter asked her last year if the AP wasn’t labeling Trump’s lies as “lies” because doing so might inject “emotion” into its coverage, Buzbee replied that she didn’t “want to put any filter, or any sort of off-putting thing there, that keeps [readers] from going to good, old-fashioned, factual journalism.” (The AP has recently been more blunt in labeling Trump’s election lies, as several media-watchers have noted.) According to Farhi, on a staff call at the Post yesterday, Buzbee avoided speculating on how her leadership might change the paper, though she did emphasize a focus on “deep, factual journalism,” and pledged to run a newsroom where “a wide, very wide diversity of voices are heard and have influence.” After Baron announced his retirement, I wrote that a strong successor would understand that ensuring the latter is integral to the former, and that factual journalism needn’t be old-fashioned. That challenge now falls to Buzbee.

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Below, more on the Buzbee hire:

  • Some background: Buzbee is originally from Olathe, in Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1988, Buzbee began her career as an AP reporter in Topeka, Farhi reports. “She was also a reporter in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington. She made the jump to editing in 1996 as assistant bureau chief in Washington. Beginning in 2004, she was AP’s Middle East regional editor in Cairo, supervising coverage of the Iraq War. She also holds an MBA from Georgetown University.”
  • The role of Bezos: Jeff Bezos—the Post’s billionaire owner, who also owns Amazon—also took part in the search for Baron’s successor. (Baron was already in the job when Bezos bought the paper, in 2013.) Buzbee will inherit a newspaper in good financial health—but not everyone is sanguine about Bezos’s involvement. “I have no reason to believe Sally Buzbee isn’t a great choice,” Judd Legum, who writes the newsletter Popular Information, tweeted yesterday, but the fact that “the billionaire CEO of one of the world’s most powerful companies picks the top editor of one of the world’s most important news orgs is not a good thing.” Last month, Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, asked what would happen should Bezos at some point decide to abandon his hands-off approach. “Bezos is, despite all appearances, not a robot,” Nolan wrote. “And he can snap.”
  • On foreign reporting: In 2019, Mya Frazier reported for CJR on concern, among some veterans of the AP’s overseas bureaus, on changes to the agency’s foreign-reporting model, including “the shrinking of its global footprint as bureaus are quietly closed; the phasing out of the salaried ‘expat package’ for correspondents; and the reliance on local stringers and staffers, who often are paid far less than full-time American correspondents once were.” Buzbee told Frazier that she gets “a little prickly that someone in the US thinks they should have a salary out of whack with the very talented people in the country where they are working… I admit it might be unfair for the people who aren’t getting expat packages anymore, but it was a two-tier system.” Buzbee added: “I think the old two–tier system sucked.”
  • What next for the AP?: Gary Pruitt, CEO and president of the AP, told David Bauder, an AP media reporter, that management will immediately begin scouting a replacement for Buzbee, and that he expects the search to take several months. In the interim, Bauder reports, Brian Carovillano, a vice president and managing editor, will lead the AP’s news team, while David Scott, who holds the same title as Carovillano, will handle operations. Buzbee will assume her role at the Post at the beginning of next month.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.