The Media Today

The Brits are coming. Again.

June 4, 2024
Photo: Matt Borge/flickr.

Three years ago last month, the Washington Post surprised much of the media world when it appointed Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of the Associated Press, to the same role in its own newsroom. For months, media reporters had gossiped about the supposed contenders to succeed Marty Baron, the Post’s outgoing editor. But Buzbee’s name never came up. 

As I wrote at the time, her appointment perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprising: the AP sometimes flies beneath media reporters’ radar, but Buzbee had overseen a huge news organization with a significant international footprint, a fact that attracted the Post as it was building out its own global presence, with plans for news hubs in Seoul and London. Post staffers seemed (relatively) happy about the hire. And—as Hamilton Nolan, then CJR’s public editor for the Post, put it—Buzbee’s relative youth (she was fifty-five at the time) meant that, “with luck, she will be able to stay in the job for a decade or more, in order to spare the Post’s management from having to go through all of this again any time soon.”

This past weekend, however, the Post’s management did go through all this again, albeit on a greatly accelerated timetable compared with the hunt to replace Baron. Buzbee—whose tenure at the paper came to be defined at least as much by financial decline, newsroom cuts, and tensions among staff as by the Pulitzer-winning journalism and expanded editorial initiatives that she oversaw—stepped down abruptly. Will Lewis, a Brit who took over as the Post’s publisher and chief executive earlier this year, tapped Matt Murray, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, to succeed her through the election, at which point Murray will shuffle over to run a so-called “third newsroom” at the Post, with a mandate to attract nontraditional news audiences using “service” and “social media” journalism. He will then be replaced atop the paper’s core editorial team by a hire who, like Buzbee, is a surprise choice with international credentials, albeit of a totally different variety: Rob Winnett, currently an editor at the British newspaper the Telegraph. The reorganization took media reporters by surprise—but even if they’d had years to gossip about it, it’s hard to imagine that they would have come up with Winnett’s name.

The reorganization spooked some high-profile media watchers, some of whom expressed fears that it could presage a conservative shift for the Post; Dan Froomkin (who wrote about the Post’s leadership for CJR in 2022) described the idea of “right-wing Brits running the Washington Post” as the “stuff of nightmares.” Other observers focused less on the possible politics of the reorganization than on, well, its Britishness—and situated the hires of Lewis and, soon, Winnett, in the context of a broader British invasion of major US media companies’ top ranks. Some said that they were eagerly awaiting a deep-dive article on the phenomenon.

In fact, versions of this article have been written before, over a span of at least thirty years (and usually replete with allusions to Paul Revere and the Beatles, and excruciating renderings of British slang). Indeed, Brits taking over US newsrooms is neither a new phenomenon nor, as I see it, a particularly remarkable one in a globalized media industry with porous national boundaries—even if Winnett’s and Lewis’s respective, very different roles in major British politics stories are worth studying for their possible implications at the Post. It’ll be worth watching, of course, for any changes in the Post’s editorial direction. Far more so, though, Lewis, Winnett, and their compatriots elsewhere seem likely to be judged on how they face up to business challenges that care very little for international borders.

It is certainly fair to question why the Post—with its very American, play-it-straight self-conception—will soon hand its core news product to a longtime editor at the Bible of British Conservatism (with a big C). It’s also fair to wonder how a Brit immersed in that country’s distinctive political culture will adapt to America’s, despite the superficial similarities between the two that culture warriors—including at the Telegraph—like to echo and invoke. Winnett, it would seem, has long had a hand in the Telegraph’s orientation, first as its political editor, then as a deputy editor. But if he is not a well-known figure in the US media business, nor is he a particularly recognizable one in the UK, even as other editors (see: Boris Johnson, another Telegraph alum) have loudly taken partisan positions. Rosa Prince, a former colleague of Winnett’s at the Telegraph, told the New York Times that he “is so much more of a news person than someone who has particularly strong political opinions himself.”

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And Winnett’s career highlights, at least, point to respectable journalistic experience. When he started his career at the Rupert Murdoch–owned Sunday Times, in the nineties, he was reportedly seen as a prodigy; in the 2000s, he helped break open a scandal around the awarding of political honors in exchange for donations and, most notably, a huge story about politicians’ use of public money to pay for personal expenses—work that put a handful of lawmakers behind bars and led to an overhaul of parliamentary rules. Winnett reportedly helped persuade a source to leak a hard drive full of expense data to the Telegraph, rather than one of its rivals, by promising to investigate the contents rigorously and without regard for lawmakers’ political affiliations or profile. (He reportedly negotiated with John Wick—not the Keanu Reeves hit man character, but a former special forces operative who acted as a middleman on behalf of the source.)

The Telegraph also paid a reported six-figure sum to secure the story—crossing what, in the US, would be deemed a bright ethical line (and is far from a point of ethical consensus even in the UK). David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, asked over the weekend whether Winnett would forswear such practices at the Post. Folkenflik also reported on apparent “queasiness,” among some Post staffers, that Winnett’s hire and the broader reorganization might reflect a desire, on Lewis’s part, to “consolidate power” at the paper. (The news site NOTUS has since reported something similar.)

According to Folkenflik, this concern, too, relates to a major British scandal—this time, one in which Lewis played a part. As Folkenflik and others have reported, Lewis worked for the UK arm of Murdoch’s media business in the early 2010s, when it was accused of having hacked the phones of various public figures, among other illegal acts of information-gathering; Lewis was among a group of staffers tasked with righting the ship, but in recent months, plaintiffs in ongoing civil litigation related to the scandal—including Prince Harry and Hugh Grant—have alleged that he was actually complicit in covering up high-level wrongdoing. (Lewis has always denied this.) Last month, a judge allowed the plaintiffs to amend the scope of their suit to refer to claims involving Lewis, among others. The Post ran a story on the ruling—but, according to Semafor, an editor subsequently told colleagues not to promote it in any of the paper’s newsletters. (A source subsequently told Semafor that the directive resulted from a miscommunication. A spokesperson defended the independence of the paper’s coverage.)

As Folkenflik notes, there is currently no evidence to suggest that the Post’s reorganization is linked to any of this; for now, the simplest explanation is that Lewis wants a “trusted pal” to run the newsroom, as Folkfenflik put it. Lewis and Winnett go way back—they worked together at the Sunday Times before Lewis hired Winnett to the Telegraph back in 2007, after Lewis became the latter paper’s top editor. The same could perhaps be said of the decision to hire Murray, whom Lewis appointed to the top job at the Journal during his previous tenure as that paper’s publisher. Indeed, Murray, an American, is at least the third staffer Lewis has brought over to the Post from his days at Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company

To my mind, Lewis and Winnett’s Britishness is only incidentally relevant to this game of musical chairs. Lewis might not be a publisher in the Post’s traditional, Beltway-insider mold, as Semafor’s Ben Smith noted earlier this year—but he has worked in the US since around 2012 as he climbed the ranks of Murdoch’s global business. Similar can be said of the other Brits running US media companies right now. Mark Thompson, the head of CNN since last year, was likely hired as much for the impressive digital transformation he helped execute as the chief executive of the New York Times as for his prior leadership of the BBC. Joanna Coles, back on the scene in a leadership role at the Daily Beast, has deep US experience, too, as does John Micklethwait, who has led Bloomberg News since moving over from The Economist in 2015. Emma Tucker, hired to lead the Journal starting last year, was plucked from London’s Sunday Times—by Murdoch, who has long shuffled staff among the various outposts of his empire.

For as long as Brits have taken powerful jobs in US journalism, media reporters have posited reasons as to why, ranging from British editors’ supposed willingness to be harder-charging for less money to claims of an “emotional love affair” and desire to appropriate British irony. (“It may be that the English are so well trained in language and that we are experiencing a reinvigorated appreciation of language,” one observer told the New York Times in 1992, “partly in reaction to TV omissions and partly because language counts.”) These theories have varying degrees of merit. But interpersonal networks seem to be curiously underplayed in many of them. And, as I wrote last year, if the UK-US media relationship was ever “special,” it’s not clear that it is anymore. For me, the most consequential recent invasion of US media is not Brits taking big jobs, but Axel Springer, a German company with its own distinctive cultural values, taking ownership of Politico and other US outlets.

Foreign owners and executives should be judged, ultimately, on the same metrics as their American counterparts: things like how they treat their staff, the economic health of their newsrooms, and their diversity. Various observers—not least inside the Post—have noted that, from November, the paper’s three-newsroom structure (comprising the core news offering, Murray’s experimental venture, and the opinion section) will be headed exclusively by white men. On the economic health front, only time will tell whether this new structure—probably the most consequential, if also the fuzziest, part of the weekend’s announcement out of the Post—succeeds in engaging new paying audiences. Some media watchers have praised Lewis for the innovative “third newsroom” concept, or expressed openness to it. Others, at least in the absence of details as to how it will work, see the idea as incoherent and a gimmick.

If it doesn’t work, the Post—which cut hundreds of staffers last year and which, per Lewis, has lost half its audience since 2020—may well cut again, despite the largesse of its billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos. Weighing in on the British invasion discourse over the weekend, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the outgoing director of the UK-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, argued that, “compared to some kinds of US journalism, I suspect UK journalism may come across as more… I think the nice word is ‘pragmatic.’” Journalism, Nielsen added, “takes many forms in [the] UK, often unabashedly commercial”—a fact that may appeal to US media bosses who know that “unpopular cuts” and “hard decisions” lie ahead. Hard decisions, of course, are hard in any accent. According to NOTUS, Lewis was asked about job security at a staff meeting yesterday, and was noncommittal. A CEO ruling out cuts, he said, would be “nuts.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, numerous outlets reported that the meeting between Lewis and Post staffers grew contentious; according to Folkenflik, employees “peppered him with questions about strategy, timing, and cronyism,” while Lewis—previously a “soothing, smooth presence” in the newsroom—“frequently sounded defensive and combative.” The Post is “losing large amounts of money,” he said at one point. “Your audience is halved. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.” (Per NOTUS, he was also “visibly annoyed” when a senior reporter questioned the cultural background of his hires, describing himself as “blind when it comes to nationality.”) When staffers expressed concerns about diversity and the hiring process, Lewis declined to get into the latter but pledged to do better on the former. The Post’s union also expressed concern.
  • Yesterday, Weidong Guan—a top executive at the Epoch Times, a media company with ties to the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong that has recently made headlines for its support of Donald Trump and viral publication of conspiracy theories—was arrested on charges of money laundering and bank fraud. He pleaded not guilty. Federal prosecutors allege that Guan cycled nearly seventy million dollars of stolen money through the company’s accounts, massively inflating the Epoch Times’ reported revenue in the process. (Prosecutors said that the charges do not relate to “newsgathering.”)
  • And hundreds of people turned out to honor Iryna Tsybukh, a Ukrainian journalist who was killed while serving as a volunteer combat medic in the Kharkiv region. According to the Associated Press, Tsybukh was part of a team tasked with implementing reforms of Ukraine’s public broadcaster prior to Russia’s invasion in 2022, at which point she signed up as a medic. “I am a young girl just like any in France or Spain,” she told Elle later that year. “The only difference is that we have a totalitarian regime on our border.”

ICYMI: A local reporter was arrested for doing her job. The Supreme Court needs to step in.

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.