The Media Today

The moves—and movies—of the Washington Post

August 31, 2022
Photo: Matt Borge/flickr.

Gringo Hunters, about a Mexican police unit that tracks American fugitives. Something about the fall of Kabul. Something based on an investigation that hasn’t come out yet. These are some of the projects—at least one of them a scripted series; at least one a documentary—that Imagine Entertainment, a leading Hollywood production company, already has in the works based on the archives, past and present, of the Washington Post, whose journalism Imagine agreed to adapt for film and TV earlier this year. Both parties—as well as CAA, a leading talent agency that’s also involved—are excited about the deal, according to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, who wrote about it this week. A top CAA agent referred to the Post as “this storied thing” and Robert Redford, who played the Post’s Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, as key to “my early ideas about celebrity”; a top Imagine executive referred to the paper as a “gold mine” for cinema-worthy stories, and recalled hitting it off instantly with Fred Ryan, the Post’s publisher, who had initially called only for advice. Ryan, for his part, sees the deal as being “first and foremost” about getting the Post’s “brand” in front of a wider audience, and less about profit.

Yesterday, another, much more downbeat story about the Post suggested that Ryan and other bosses at the paper are thinking a lot at the moment about profit—or, rather, their impending lack of one. Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, of the rival New York Times, reported, based on interviews with more than twenty people familiar with the Post’s business, that the Post is on track to lose money this year for the first time in a while, the result, in part, of a post-Trump (sic) slump in readership that has affected other major news organizations, too. According to the Times, the Post now has fewer paying digital subscribers than it did in 2020 (in contrast to—humblebrag here—the Times and the Wall Street Journal) and less digital ad revenue than it had this time last year. In response, Ryan, aspects of whose decision-making have reportedly frustrated other Post executives, has reportedly floated cutting a hundred newsroom positions, by freezing hiring or, as the Times put it somewhat ominously, in “other ways.” (A Post spokesperson disputed some of this reporting, insisting that the paper plans to continue expanding its newsroom and that the advertising figures cited by the Times painted an incomplete picture, without saying how. The spokesperson also pointed to examples of investment on Ryan’s watch—including the Imagine movie deal, from which the paper apparently does “expect to see” financial reward sometime soon.)

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One nugget about the Post’s business activities was particularly eye-catching: according to the Times, executives “have had extensive internal talks” about the prospect of acquiring another major news organization, with names floated including The Economist, the Associated Press, and The Guardian. The rationale for this, seemingly, would be to further expand the Post’s reach overseas, where it has moved to further branch out of late, opening hubs in London and Seoul. Many mediawatchers, however, were quick to express skepticism that such an acquisition would even be possible for the Post, particularly as far as the AP and The Guardian are concerned: the former is a cooperative whereas the latter is owned by a trust in the UK that was established, in its own words, to permanently “safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of The Guardian free from commercial or political interference.” (C.P. Scott may not have cared very much for Jeff Bezos.) The Guardian’s communications director responded to the Post’s reported interest by tweeting the 🤣 emoji, and labeling it his official comment.

Less of a laughing matter, but also eye-catching, were nuggets in the story about editorial operations at the Post—specifically, how the paper treats its staff. According to the Times, Ryan has expressed “annoyance” about what he perceives as a lack of productivity among some Post journalists, and has suggested (again in the Times’ words) that “numerous low performers” should be “managed out.” He has been strict in policing the Post’s policy, established in the wake of pandemic closures, that staffers should now spend at least three days per week in the office. (The Post spokesperson said that Ryan welcomes staff input on this policy, but a leading member of the paper’s union—which has described the application of the policy as “opaque and unequal”disputed this.) Ryan reportedly also asked the Post’s chief information officer to collect data on when employees are holding videoconferences, seeing this as a proxy for productivity. (Woodward and Bernstein, famously, cracked open Watergate by hanging out on Zoom.)

Workplace complaints and tensions at the Post are not new: the last time the Times ran a comparably splashy article on its rival—a little over two years ago, at the height of the pandemic and nationwide racial-justice protests following the murder of George Floyd—Ben Smith highlighted the stories of Black Post staffers who said that they had had lesser access to professional advancement at the paper and had been subjected to double standards, including around how outspoken they were permitted to be on social media, a reflection of a long-running sore at the paper. Since then, Marty Baron, whom Smith depicted as the Post’s “ultimate old-school editor,” has retired and been replaced by Sally Buzbee, formerly the top editor at the AP, who became the first woman ever to lead the Post’s newsroom. On taking over last summer, Buzbee promised to focus on “deep, factual journalism” and ensure that a “very wide diversity of voices” would be heard at the paper. Since then, she has overseen some positive steps. The Post has begun to expand its coverage of climate and of democracy, including at the local and regional level. The paper also led the way on coverage of Trump’s mishandling of government documents, a story that, with the search of Mar-a-Lago, has grown ever more consequential.

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Still, Buzbee has overseen problems, too, with conflicts spilling over from the Baron era and Buzbee failing to quickly resolve them. Earlier in the summer, those spilled into very public view (again), with some of the Post’s most prominent reporters arguing openly on social media about the paper’s direction, workplace culture, and more. In early June, Dave Weigel, a politics reporter, retweeted an offensive joke, leading Felicia Sonmez—also a politics reporter, who was once suspended by the Post for sharing innocuous tweets about a rape claim against the late Kobe Bryant and was also barred, for a time, from covering stories about sexual assault after speaking up about her own experience as a survivor, leading her to sue her bosses (so far unsuccessfully) for discrimination—to publicly criticize Weigel. Buzbee suspended Weigel, but Sonmez continued to speak out about workplace issues, both internally and online. Days later, she was fired for insubordination and publicly maligning her colleagues. As of last month, she said that she was fighting to get her job back, with the support of the Post’s union.

Around the same time, a different controversy blew up after Taylor Lorenz, a high-profile reporter who had recently joined the Post from the Times, included a significant error in a story, then posted a Twitter thread blaming it on a mixup involving an editor, a step that was reportedly authorized by bosses but nonetheless saw Lorenz accused of buck-passing. The editor involved in the incident had been tapped for a promotion but was subsequently told that he wouldn’t be getting one after all, sparking a furious reaction among some Post staffers; Buzbee suggested that the Lorenz episode was not at issue, but refused to say what was. Since then, things appear, at least from the outside, to have been quieter at the Post, but controversies continue to drip out. The paper’s fact checker was widely accused of casting doubt on a story about a child rape victim’s abortion that turned out to be true. It also emerged that the paper had suspended a media reporter in March, and accused him of endangering his colleagues, after he reported a story about the paper’s protocols for its journalists in Russia. According to Washingtonian, the Post refused to address the issue in arbitration with the paper’s union since the union’s existing contract, which contained such a requirement, expired in June. (It has yet to be renewed.)

Recent articles on the Post’s newsroom, pegged to the one-year mark of Buzbee’s takeover, have painted a broader picture of an institution whose current direction is not yet totally clear; quoted Post staffers credited Buzbee for establishing a more consensual decision-making style than under Baron, who was more top-down—no small feat given the ongoing logistical challenges of running a huge newsroom in a pandemic—though others seemed frustrated by a relative lack of marching orders. As far as I can see, Buzbee agreed to be interviewed in depth for only one one of these articles, by Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, who reported that many staffers she’d spoken to were “still trying to get a handle on the paper’s leader,” describing Buzbee as “warm and animated but almost politician-like in her ability to talk a lot without revealing what she actually thinks.” Buzbee also spoke to Mullin and Robertson for the Times story that came out yesterday, telling them that the Post is actively working to broaden its offering beyond national politics, and urging patience in assessing the fruits of that endeavor—financial and otherwise. “There’s no question that we need to diversify what people come to us for,” Buzbee said. “That’s our whole strategy.”

It’s still relatively early in Buzbee’s tenure, and pivots of any description take time. But saying that diversification of coverage is the Post’s “whole strategy” isn’t all that revealing since it could encompass, well, anything, even if some of the early concrete signs—the extra investment in climate reporters, in particular—are promising. There is also, it strikes me, a risk of siloing here: at a time of democratic erosion, especially, politics cannot just be hived off from coverage of everything else, because democratic erosion weakens the ground that underpins everything else. Again, the Post’s expanded coverage of democracy as a beat seems promising. But here, too, there are reasons for raised eyebrows. When Klein asked Buzbee whether democracy is at greater threat from Republicans or Democrats, Buzbee hedged, even though the right answer is clear. The wording of Buzbee’s answer didn’t preclude that clear truth from coming across in the Post’s journalism, but it’s dispiriting that she didn’t just state it.

Whatever the feasibility of the Post acquiring the AP, The Guardian, or The Economist, the conjecture around it doesn’t seem especially coherent, editorially—those three outlets have different politics and tones, including around the democracy question. Of course, acquisitions are principally a business-side imperative. But business imperatives, even when kept away from editorial matters, can’t help but bleed through in some ways—they often dictate how staff are treated, and it’s staff who do the journalism. On that score, the Post clearly still has work to do. For one thing, journalists don’t need to be seen in the office to be doing valuable, democracy-bolstering work. Or seen on the silver screen, either.

Below, more on the Post and movies:

  • Infinite Jeff? The Times story also assessed the extent to which Bezos remains involved in the paper’s operations: “He was a regular presence at the Post for the first few years after he purchased the company, but receded somewhat from the newspaper’s operations during the covid-19 pandemic,” Mullin and Robertson report. “Zoom and phone meetings with Mr. Bezos, once held every other week, have become less frequent, as have trips by Post executives to Seattle, where Mr. Bezos lives, to solicit his input.” The Post spokesperson pushed back on the suggestion that Bezos has lost interest in the paper, calling it “absolutely false.” Wesley Lowery, a prominent former Post journalist, also pushed back on the Times’ reporting—by claiming that Bezos was never a “regular presence” in the Post’s offices to begin with.
  • All the reviews are fit to print: Last week, Ron Charles, a book critic at the Post, announced that the paper is bringing back a standalone Sunday print section dedicated to books and literary features, at least for readers in the DC area. The Post’s “old Book World tabloid was shuttered in early 2009 as a cost-cutting move. (Then-publisher Katharine Weymouth reportedly got an earful from angry readers),” Charles notes. “Online—where most people read the Post—there was no evident change, but the closure of the tabloid section for Washington-area readers was widely mourned as a sign of declining books coverage in America. The National Book Critics Circle even started a petition to ‘save’ the print version of Book World. It took a while, but it worked.”
  • Hollywood signs: Last year, CJR’s Feven Merid assessed the landscape as media companies increasingly struck adaptation deals with Hollywood production houses and talent agencies. “Recently, voracious demand for streaming has provided many more opportunities for digital media publishers to claim ground in Hollywood,” Merid reported. “In addition to Vox and Vice, Condé Nast, the New York Times, and BuzzFeed have all established their own production initiatives. Vox’s operation is a full-fledged studio in Los Angeles, which allows the company to develop projects in-house.”

Some news from the home front:
On Tuesday, September 13, at 4pm Eastern, CJR and Columbia’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights will host an event focused on objectivity and the future of journalism. The participants will include The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, the historian David Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wesley Lowery, Columbia Journalism School’s Andie Tucher, and Lewis Raven Wallace, author of The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. The event will be livestreamed, or you can register to attend in person in New York. More details here.

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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.