How Jeff Bezos Is Trying to Fix The Washington Post

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When The Washington Post’s staff gathered in the newsroom in early May to celebrate winning three Pulitzer Prizes, one person was conspicuously absent: Will Lewis, the company’s publisher and chief executive.

That’s because Mr. Lewis was in New York meeting with Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and owner of The Post, who was in the city to attend the Met Gala, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.

The pair had been discussing a reorganization aimed at helping The Post turn around its business. That included creating a “third newsroom” inside The Post to focus on new editorial products, an idea blessed by Mr. Bezos, according to one of those people and another familiar with the talks.

Mr. Lewis’s decision this month to go ahead with that plan has shaken The Post. Sally Buzbee, the paper’s executive editor, abruptly resigned, upsetting many in the newsroom. Since then, revelations about Mr. Lewis’s response to a years-old scandal have raised questions about his ethics before and after he joined The Post — and even questions about whether he would survive in his job.

So far, Mr. Bezos appears to be standing by Mr. Lewis, who joined the paper this year. Mr. Bezos recently expressed his support for Mr. Lewis during one of their periodic conversations, according to two people with knowledge of the interaction.

Mr. Bezos’ decisions to reshape The Post underscore the central role he is playing at the paper he bought for $250 million more than 10 years ago. Mr. Bezos spends more time on other projects, including his space company, Blue Origin, leaving the day-to-day operations and editorial strategy to the chief executive and top editors. But he is ultimately The Post’s most important figure.

He has picked The Post’s chief executives and set the agenda for its business, according to multiple people with knowledge of his interactions with people at the newspaper. He approves The Post’s budget and advises the newspaper on business matters through regular phone calls with the chief executive and occasional meetings with its leadership team.

According to people who have spoken to him, he has said that he believes The Post could reach 100 million paying subscribers, a feat that would catapult it far ahead of competitors. (The Post now has about 2.5 million paying subscribers.)

During the last conversation that Ms. Buzbee had with Mr. Bezos before she resigned, he encouraged her to run the “third newsroom” overseeing service journalism and social media, according to a person with knowledge of the talks.

In the past, Mr. Bezos had occasionally urged Ms. Buzbee to think boldly when considering ambitious digital initiatives, two other people said.

Mr. Bezos did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Post said in a statement: “We’re grateful for our owner’s ongoing support and commitment to The Washington Post.”

In the first seven years after Mr. Bezos bought The Post, the newsroom staff more than doubled and subscriptions increased sharply, helped by the paper’s vigorous reporting on the Trump administration. But The Post’s audience has halved since the 2020 election, Mr. Lewis recently told the newsroom, and the company lost $77 million in 2023.

Mr. Bezos, aware of the growing business problems, started paying more attention to his purchase last year. In June, the company announced that Fred Ryan, the chief executive since 2014, would be stepping down and that Patty Stonesifer, a veteran technology executive and a confidante of Mr. Bezos, would temporarily take over.

Ms. Stonesifer organized meetings between Mr. Bezos and top editors and business executives at The Post’s headquarters in October. Throughout the meetings, Mr. Bezos asked questions about the coverage, many of them focused on how The Post could turn its stories into products that would serve its users, according to two people familiar with his remarks. He was also focused on reaching new readers, particularly those in the middle of the country.

In a meeting with The Post’s political staff that day, Mr. Bezos also asked about how the newspaper was covering threats to democracy and how it planned to engage with younger readers on social media, the people said, adding that Mr. Bezos did not focus on specific stories but was interested in the overall strategy.

At the time, Mr. Bezos was also involved with a Post project to reach out to a broader audience. The Amazon founder had long pushed The Post to try new things to expand its audience. At one point, he suggested rewriting articles from other news organizations — but Ms. Buzbee preferred to give priority to original journalism.

The project, which originated in The Post’s opinion section, involved creating a new network of opinion writers. Mr. Bezos was pitched on a pilot version of the program with contributors from Kansas City, and some form of the project is still in the works.

He hired Mr. Lewis, a reporter turned news executive, after Ms. Stonesifer worked with the recruiting firm Sucherman to find a permanent chief executive.

Before he was hired, The Post examined allegations that Mr. Lewis had ties to one of the darkest periods in British press history. Mr. Lewis has said that, while working for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp more than a decade before, he was entrusted with cleaning up a phone-hacking scandal that led to the closing of one of the nation’s most popular tabloids. Some victims have alleged that he helped cover up evidence of wrongdoing — accusations that Mr. Lewis had repeatedly denied.

Ms. Stonesifer researched the aftermath of the scandal, according to a person familiar with the matter. She came away satisfied with his explanation and confident that he was the right executive to run The Post, the person said.

Mr. Lewis, who is British, was named chief executive in November, after a dinner with Ms. Stonesifer and Mr. Bezos at his mansion in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood, and started in his new role in January.

Things seemed relatively calm until Mr. Lewis replaced Ms. Buzbee this month. After Ms. Buzbee resigned, The New York Times reported that she had clashed in mid-May with Mr. Lewis over a decision to cover a court decision involving him and other executives in a case tied to the phone-hacking scandal. Mr. Lewis has denied pressuring Ms. Buzbee.

An NPR reporter, David Folkenflik, later confirmed that reporting and said that Mr. Lewis, after he had been hired for his job at The Post, had offered him an exclusive interview in exchange for ignoring a story on the phone-hacking scandal, a quid pro quo that is frowned upon in American journalism. Mr. Lewis has acknowledged having an off-the-record conversation with Mr. Folkenflik, whom he called an “activist.”

The revelations incensed many journalists at the paper. Mr. Lewis has since issued a conciliatory memo to Post staff members, and met with them this week in small groups to explain his thinking about his vision for The Post and the events of the past two weeks. Post staff members were also sent an internal survey on June 5 asking for their feedback on Mr. Lewis’s new plans for the newsroom, including whether they support the need for a third newsroom and how they view the use of A.I.

Last Saturday, after a week of intense scrutiny, Mr. Lewis sent out an email: “Let me tell you, I have had a very stressful week.”

The email, obtained by The Times, went to a private list of people who subscribe to Mr. Lewis’s reading recommendations newsletter, which is sent from a non-Post email address.

Mr. Lewis made no mention of his professional stressors. Instead, he regaled readers with the tale of how his mother’s cat, Gabbro, went missing in London.

“Thankfully, Gabbro is now back in my mother’s hands and we can all enjoy a restful weekend,” he signed off.



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