How The World’s Richest Man Is Driving His Newspaper Into A Self-Inflicted Crisis

If you want to understand the current crisis at The Washington Post—the still-unfolding ethical scandal threatening the reign of its publisher and CEO, the growing newsroom revolt, the tumult and uncertainty about the paper’s future—you have to start with the previous crisis, just 18 months ago, which led to Will Lewis’s appointment as CEO. It was the end of 2022, and, like today, the Post was in desperate need of an intervention.

Web traffic was plunging. Subscription levels were falling steeply as well, and digital-ad revenues were slipping. Beloved sections of the Post—Outlook, the Sunday magazine—were being shut down to cut costs. Washington’s paper of record was on track to lose money for the first time in years.

Post reporters were not privy to all the financial details, but they perceived impending doom. Senior executives and Pulitzer Prize–winning writers were leaving. Subscriptions were being sold at steep discounts. Long-standing problems with the paper’s homepage and the newsroom’s organizational chart weren’t getting fixed. The Post was adrift. Staffers at the time almost uniformly blamed the CEO, Fred Ryan. Even the executive editor Ryan had helped hire 18 months earlier, Sally Buzbee, had given up on him. Buzbee described Ryan to Post journalists as “incompetent.” She told them she was astonished by his complete lack of strategy.

Ryan, though more discreet than Buzbee, was likewise disappointed in her—he had wanted a newsroom “change agent” but felt that she had reverted to the status quo. Staffers gossiped every day about intensifying tensions between the two. It was yet another distraction for an institution that couldn’t afford any. All of this turmoil prompted senior staffers to send an SOS to the Post’s absentee owner, Jeff Bezos.

Several eminent figures from the Post’s storied history were involved, including Bob Woodward, Sally Quinn, and Buzbee’s predecessor, Marty Baron. They each contacted Bezos by email after Ryan held a year-end town hall and shocked the company by announcing layoffs and refusing to answer any questions. “This is embarrassing,” one staffer could be heard saying as Ryan walked out of the room.

Woodward stepped in partly at the urging of other staff members. “I voiced concerns that a lot of people on the news staff had about Fred Ryan,” Woodward told me, confirming his role for the first time. Quinn wrote to Bezos that the situation at the Post was untenable. Baron told Bezos that the Post was suffering from a leadership crisis and urged him to get involved.

The effort wasn’t centrally plotted or carefully orchestrated, but it worked. Bezos spoke with Buzbee by phone—she’d been trying to reach him for weeks—then appeared at the Post’s headquarters in January 2023 and spoke privately with key staffers. Ryan stepped down that summer. Many reporters were relieved; they thought Bezos should have thrown Ryan overboard years earlier.

The Post’s problems, however, did not end with Ryan’s departure. The crisis now gripping the paper—following another year of bad news, staff departures, and sinking morale—is more severe than the previous one. Lewis, Ryan’s successor, is accused of corruption and cronyism. He has denied wrongdoing but hasn’t answered questions from the Post’s own reporters. He has also forced Buzbee out of her job, seemed to blame reporters for the Post’s financial difficulties, allegedly meddled in the newsroom’s decisions about what to publish, and sowed confusion by announcing a radical but vaguely described restructuring of the paper. Many staffers, including senior figures in the newsroom, believe that Lewis is too tainted to continue serving as publisher, and that his presence is badly hurting the Post’s credibility.

The mood in the newsroom these past few weeks has been described to me as aggrieved, embarrassed, and exhausted. “It all feels like one giant house of cards,” a journalist told me. After the steady exodus of talented staffers over the past couple of years, there are widespread concerns that more top reporters will soon flee. (“Either Will goes, or a hell of a lot of us go,” one well-regarded reporter told me.)

Underneath the drama, there is a rising fear among Post staffers that they had not previously understood the root of the problem at their paper, one of the country’s most essential publications. The continuing tumult has drawn attention to the very top of the Post, to the person responsible for hiring both Ryan and Lewis: Bezos.

For years, it was sacrilege at the Post to speak ill of Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon who rescued the paper in 2013. Rescue really is the appropriate word: As the Post’s revenues crumbled amid the broader collapse of the print-newspaper business, the Graham family—stewards of the Post for 80 years—couldn’t find a path forward. Though embedded deeply in the city’s culture, they welcomed Bezos’s $250 million bailout. Baron, the executive editor at the time, wrote in his 2023 memoir, Collision of Power, that “we all wondered whether Bezos grasped just how bad things were.”

He did. “What has been happening over the last several years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos told the newsroom during his initial visit to the Post’s Washington, D.C., offices. “If every year we cut the newsroom a little more and a little more and a little more, we know where that ends.”

Bezos was everything the staff hoped he would be: charming, candid, and ready to invest. He acknowledged that the Post’s print business was in “structural decline” and said that the institution urgently needed to find digital ways to grow. The one word that everyone remembers from his first town hall is runway—as in, financial room to pick up speed and profitably take off. “He said, ‘What I can give you is runway,’ and he did,” Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist who’s been with the Post for decades, told me.

“He hasn’t meddled,” Jenkins said. “He’s been incredibly respectful.” This is true: He has kept his hands off the Post’s news coverage, even when it dinged Amazon, even when it stung him personally. But some staffers now believe that he was too hands-off for his and the paper’s own good—his attention elsewhere while the executives he’d selected flailed. It’s clear in retrospect that the Post’s business operations needed more inspiration and more accountability. All of the runway Bezos gave the Post did not produce sustained profitability.

The Post was at one point reportedly on track to lose about $100 million in 2023; after more than 200 staff buyouts and other drastic cost-cutting measures, it ended the year with a $77 million loss. This year, a loss of roughly $50 million has been forecast, according to sources with knowledge of the matter, who, like most of the more than 70 people interviewed for this article, insisted on anonymity to share sensitive information. And although losses can be reversed, sometimes quickly, institutional reputations, once tarnished, can be harder to regain. It is this possibility—that the Post’s leadership may be very rapidly throwing away the standing that the institution has earned over the course of many decades—that seems to most preoccupy the Post’s staff today.

Bezos has so far stood by Lewis, reflecting his reputation as a delegator, his tendency to remain loyal to his lieutenants, and his hopes that Lewis will push large changes through. Bezos wants the Post to reinvent its business model and show the news industry a new, profitable way forward. “This guy invented the Everything Store. He thinks big. He wants the Post to think big,” a person who knows Bezos told me. Although the Post has just significantly and indiscriminately reduced its staff, Bezos wants a dramatically larger audience, and wants AI infused throughout the organization.

And so, another intervention is now underway. Yet it remains unclear whether Lewis and Bezos really know what they want the news organization to become—or whether Bezos cares enough to make the transformation come to pass.

When Bezos took over the Post nearly a dozen years ago, Baron had been the editor for less than a year, and the paper had just introduced a digital paywall. It was still operating under the Graham-era tagline “For and About Washington,” suited for a local publication with only a relatively small number of subscribers beyond the Beltway, even though the Post’s coverage of national politics brought in readers from further afield, especially online.

Don Graham, the head of the family, was well liked, but revenues had declined for six straight years on his watch, without sufficient response, and the paper was hemorrhaging money. (It is perhaps telling that Graham had graciously allowed Mark Zuckerberg to back out of a handshake deal that would have made Graham an early, $6 million investor in Facebook back in 2005—an investment that would be worth many billions of dollars today.)

Bezos wanted to greatly expand the Post’s ambitions. He said that the brand should be truly national, even international, given that the cost of reaching people online was essentially zero. He called this the internet’s “gift.”

Bezos had ideas about how to build a news organization with that kind of reach. He needed Baron to strengthen the Post’s core news coverage and generate more must-read reporting. Baron welcomed the chance to hire more reporters and editors—mostly the former because Bezos, as he examined the Post’s structure, wasn’t sure that the place needed so many editors: He viewed frontline reporters as “direct” employees and editors as “indirect” employees, and he wanted as few “indirects” as possible. (“To avoid setting off alarms up the line,” Baron wrote in his book, “my deputies and I would strip the word ‘editor’ from proposed new positions whenever possible,” sometimes calling them analysts or strategists instead.)

Bezos also wanted the Post to attract more eyeballs with an early-morning report composed entirely of stories aggregated from elsewhere, a proposal that Baron successfully resisted. Looked at one way, these ideas might suggest something less than an ironclad commitment to journalistic quality and originality. But Bezos had worthy ideas as well. He supported more ambitious investigations and deeply reported narratives. During the worldwide reckoning known as #MeToo, Bezos wondered aloud to Baron and others, “Do you think we should have a columnist focused on gender?” Months later, Monica Hesse was named the Post’s first gender columnist. She was a Pulitzer finalist in 2023.

Overall, Bezos seemed like a nearly ideal billionaire benefactor. Newsroom staffers were taken with his listening skills, probing questions, and self-deprecating humor. Perhaps they were also blinded by his net worth. In 2015, Bezos held a dinner for Pulitzer-winning Post reporters and their spouses at Fiola Mare, a luxurious Italian seafood restaurant in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Diners remember detailed conversations about Bezos’s impassioned devotion to the Post. “He wowed us,” one longtime reporter who’d attended the dinner told me, recalling giant seafood towers and champagne. “No question about it.” But, in a version of a comment I heard over and over again during my reporting, the person added, “We didn’t see him again for a long time.”

The most important decision Bezos made in his early days as the owner of the Post was picking Ryan as its publisher. It was inevitable that Bezos would dismiss the Graham family’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, and appoint his own publisher-CEO—traditionally a newspaper owner’s one big hire. Bezos, a D.C. neophyte, wanted someone who would effectively be his ambassador to the city. He was introduced to Ryan by the philanthropist Jean Case, who knew that Ryan was looking for work and that he liked the challenge the Post presented.

Ryan had some political star power and the right kind of media résumé. He had been the chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan after the latter left the White House, and later the founding chief executive of Politico, in 2007. In 2014, when Bezos was searching for a publisher, Politico was the envy of the town; it had grown quickly, and its early-morning Playbook was precisely the kind of popular, lucrative newsletter that the Post should have been publishing but wasn’t. It didn’t hurt that Ryan looked the part: patrician, congenial, vaguely presidential. He brought digital-publishing experience, although how much was unclear; insiders at Politico said that Ryan—who was also the president of Allbritton Communications, the company that owned Politico—had in fact mostly managed the company’s local TV stations, not the Politico brand. Nevertheless, Bezos was sold.

When Ryan arrived, in the fall of 2014, the Post’s advertising and subscription revenue came overwhelmingly from its print product. The website had a measly 35,000 subscribers, and it was obvious to Ryan why: Visitors were able to read 20 stories for free before being prompted to pay. Tightening the paywall was easy, and Ryan did so relatively early in his tenure. The harder part would be converting the free readers of the Post—and there were millions—to subscribers instead of turning them away.

Left: Former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. Right: Former publisher and CEO Fred Ryan. (Illustration by Mel Haasch. Sources: Justin T. Gellerson / The New York Times / Redux; Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty.)

Bezos weighed in on this at first, in minor ways—scrutinizing the color of the “Subscribe” buttons and fretting over page load times. Paul Farhi, who covered the Bezos takeover as a media reporter for the Post, told me, “I think one of the reasons he bought the Post was to prove that he could solve a problem that had eluded other business people: how to make newspapers profitable again.” For a while, Bezos succeeded, thanks to an inspirational editor, a sizable investment, and very lucky timing.

Shortly before Bezos bought the Post, traffic to the paper’s website was hovering at about 20 million unique visitors a month. But in September 2015, after Donald Trump had upended the Republican primary race for president, the Post scored nearly 60 million unique visitors, and in September 2016, more than 80 million. At the end of 2016, Ryan announced that the publication would “finish this year as a profitable and growing company.”

The Post was flourishing, gaining on The New York Times in both scoops and subscribers. Trump wasn’t the only accelerant to the Post’s growth, but politics was the dominant force, and the paper leaned into it, taking on the official slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The drama of that phrase—adopted by Woodward years earlier, and pushed by Bezos—initially met with concerns in the newsroom (and some snickers, even more so outside the Post). But along with Baron’s gravitas and experience with deep investigations, it gave the paper a sense of mission as a bulwark for democracy during that time, and a base to build on. “Back then, it just felt like the Post could do anything,” a reporter reflected. In 2016, the Post topped 100 million unique visitors a month. Traffic remained elevated through 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic temporarily supercharged interest in health and science news.

But looking back, it’s clear that while the Times used that heady period to build out a business structure that would enable it to thrive after the “Trump bump” ended, the Post … didn’t, at least not to the degree that was needed. Almost everything on the business side needed changing, for the simple reason that almost nothing about the print-newspaper age is transferable to the digital age—not the printing press, not the delivery trucks, not the subscriber mailing cards, not even the marketing techniques.

Bezos knew this better than anyone. He had built the world’s largest online-consumer business, supplanting brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds. And he had pioneered a new kind of bundle at Amazon—the paid-subscription service known as Amazon Prime, featuring e-books, movies, TV shows, and two-day shipping. The Post was a bundle too: Print readers paid for a huge package of investigations, features, columns, and games. “The problem,” Bezos said at his first town hall, “is how do we get back to that glorious bundle that the paper did so well?” He felt that the internet had blown apart the print bundle, and that something new needed to be built.

“People will buy a package,” he said at another meeting. “They will not pay for a story.”

Bezos brought the right vision. And he invested. With the right leadership in place at the Post, that might have been enough. But curiously, the fruits of Bezos’s investment during the Trump era consisted almost exclusively of more and better stories. A decade later, it’s the Times, not the Post, that has reinvented “that glorious bundle”—including Wordle and a wildly popular cooking app—while the Post has done surprisingly little to adapt its business to the digital-news era.

During the Trump years, “on the surface, there was no problem,” a former senior editor told me. “But there was a problem. Our growth was based on politics” in a historically fraught political period. Whenever normalcy returned, it all risked a sudden collapse.

Ideas were hatched, meetings were held, but Baron—who was preparing to retire from the Post—nevertheless grew more concerned about the lack of a plan. He repeatedly pushed Ryan to find time on Bezos’s calendar for a candid long-term-strategy discussion. “We needed his counsel,” Baron wrote in his memoir. “And whatever we settled on doing, we needed his bank account.” But the meeting never materialized. When Baron asked Ryan why, his response was simply “Whenever we have Jeff’s time, I’ve never missed the opportunity to take it.”

Ryan declined to be interviewed for this article and has not spoken publicly about the Post since stepping down. But his confidants told me that Bezos made it clear, in their first conversations, that Bezos was not going to run the Post day to day or week to week. His early suggestions aside, he wanted to be “at arm’s length and trust the stewardship of the place to someone else,” a Post veteran told me.

Bezos rarely visited the newsroom (or spent time in Washington at all, despite his purchase of an enormous mansion in the exclusive neighborhood of Kalorama in 2016). Initially, he held biweekly phone calls with Post officials, during which subscriptions and new initiatives and product ideas were discussed. Then the meetings “became infrequent,” a regular attendee told me. “Then they became smaller. Then they became more choreographed. Then they wouldn’t happen for months.” And then, he said, “Bezos just kind of disappeared.”

Anxiety about the owner’s absence was foreshadowed in 2014 when Bezos developed kidney stones while on a cruise near the Galápagos Islands and had to be rescued by an Ecuadorian-navy helicopter. Post staffers, ruminating on the owner’s mortality, joked a little nervously to one another, “Do you think MacKenzie likes us?,” referring to Bezos’s wife at the time. The Post was reliant on a single world-traveling boss, both for better and for worse. Bezos wasn’t always going to be easy to reach, or reachable at all. So everything was riding on Ryan. “When they hit choppy waters,” Robert McCartney, a 39-year Post staffer who retired in 2021, told me, Ryan “didn’t know how to steer.”

Even Ryan’s harshest critics at the Post say that he excelled at some parts of the job. When the correspondent Jason Rezaian was imprisoned in Iran in 2014, Ryan and Bezos threw all of the Post’s weight behind winning his release. Ryan lobbied every level of the U.S. government and drew on a Rolodex of contacts around the world. He rose to the occasion again when Post journalists and stringers were in harm’s way in Afghanistan in 2021. Aides recall Ryan getting then–Chief of Staff Ron Klain on the phone in 20 minutes when White House assistance was needed.

Ryan cared deeply about the Post’s image. He pushed reporters to promote the paper by saying yes to outside interview requests. (The PR department maneuvered to get Post guests on WTOP, Washington’s all-news radio station, in the 5 p.m. hour so that Ryan would hear them during his drive home.) But he lacked a clear vision for the Post’s future. Bezos’s money had allowed the organization to worry less about the short term and dream big for the long term, but Ryan wasn’t a dreamer.

According to several business-side staffers, the Post did not conduct the type of rigorous long-term planning and strategizing that its rivals did. As a result, the company’s priorities seemed to shift constantly. The paper repeatedly tried to break through with online news videos, for instance, but it changed its approach so often that nothing ever stuck. “There have been these whiplashing changes in policy and strategy,” Sally Jenkins said. “You can’t execute anything that way.”

Ryan didn’t seem to always bear down enough on the details of the digital-news business either. Recruiting and retaining the business staff—especially the data engineers and other professionals most needed to help convert readers into subscribers—was a never-ending struggle. At one point, even the Post’s recruiters were being poached en masse.

Looking back, “we had a lot of financial success in the Trump years—almost by accident,” a senior editor told me. “We didn’t use that moment to add premium subscriptions or market ourselves or acquire products,” whereas “the Times did all of that.”

Bezos, meanwhile, was growing even more absent. In 2019, the National Enquirer broke the news that he was having an affair with a married TV reporter, Lauren Sánchez. His marriage to MacKenzie had fallen apart. His life was being dissected by tabloids. Even at Amazon headquarters, in Seattle, Bezos was “increasingly hard to find,” the journalist Brad Stone reported; “he was spending more time traveling.” It seemed as if his biggest passion at the time was Blue Origin, his rocket company.

Bezos still appeared at the Post occasionally—in October 2019, he visited the newsroom for Baron’s 65th-birthday party, giving him a bicycle (bought and delivered via Amazon)—but in his book, Baron described Bezos’s get-togethers with journalists as “highly infrequent,” and revealed that he’d never had a one-on-one meeting with the owner. The pandemic then put great strains on Amazon—and on Bezos’s time—which only amplified the sense of disconnect. Generally speaking, Bezos “flitted in and out,” a former manager I spoke with said. “Fred was left alone to run it,” a current executive told me.

In 2021, the Post’s total profit was about $60 million. In 2022, the paper began to dip into the red. Ryan reassured people that the loss was expected because of the investments in the Post’s journalism and continued losses at Arc XP, the in-house content-management system that the Post expanded during Bezos’s and Ryan’s tenure (the software is now licensed to other companies). Arc needed to spend a lot of money to have a chance to make money in the future, the argument went, and according to two sources, it accounted for the majority of the Post’s losses in 2022 and 2023.

Regardless, losing money takes a psychic toll, even on the richest of the rich. And none of the trend lines was good: Subscriptions were still falling, and digital-ad sales were cratering. In the past, Ryan had encouraged deputies to be fully prepared and optimistic in presentations to Bezos, but come the summer of 2022, there was little to be optimistic about. People around Ryan wondered if he had a plan. “I don’t think he knew he had to have a theory of the case,” a former staffer told me. He couldn’t articulate what the Post was supposed to be.

Sally Buzbee was the executive editor by then. Baron had retired in early 2021. The decision as to who would next sit in his chair was momentous—and it was the first time Bezos and Ryan would be making the choice. Ryan spent months sifting through candidates and brought four finalists to Bezos’s Kalorama mansion for interviews. The two men settled on Buzbee, a 33-year staffer at the Associated Press newswire who had been its top editor for four years. They expected her to modernize the newsroom and expand the Post’s global presence. But Buzbee’s appointment came as a shock to the newsroom staff, many of whom had hoped for promotion from within; Buzbee didn’t have any experience managing a newspaper. The AP, which licenses stories to other news organizations that wish to publish them, had many strengths, but it wasn’t an obvious place to find the Post’s next inspirational editor.

Buzbee was dealt a terrible hand—taking charge during a pandemic, when a majority of employees were working remotely, and anxiety levels were sky-high—and most of the newsroom staffers I spoke with said she played it poorly. Although they respected Buzbee’s journalistic credentials and instincts, they felt that she couldn’t answer a basic question: Who are we, and what is our mission? In other words, she didn’t have a theory of the case either.

The Post was in the midst of an identity crisis. It was no surprise that highly regarded reporters such as Eli Saslow and David Fahrenthold jumped to the Times, and Stephanie McCrummen to The Atlantic. “We had an extraordinary exodus of talent, both on the business side and the news side,” Robert McCartney said.

Finally, in January 2023, after receiving the SOS from Woodward, Buzbee, and others, Bezos clicked back in. When he visited the Post newsroom that month, he brought a legal pad, asked probing questions about Ryan, and took detailed notes. Almost every meeting went longer than scheduled. “He acknowledged that he’d been an absent owner, that he hadn’t been paying attention to our crisis,” a reporter told me. He shared his personal contact information with the staffers he met with, and asked them to stay in touch. “That day was a real wake-up call for him,” the senior editor, who was one of the people who met with Bezos, said. And he stayed engaged by speaking with Buzbee.

In June 2023, Bezos brought in his friend Patty Stonesifer, an Amazon board member and a well-known philanthropist in D.C., to figure out what had gone so wrong and how to make it right. As the interim CEO, Stonesifer told lieutenants that she was astounded by just how far behind the Post was.

“We didn’t lose this in two years; we lost this in five years,” she told a Post employee—meaning that the Post’s missteps dated back to the middle of the “Trump bump,” when things were flush and the newsroom was expanding and the paper was winning widespread acclaim. Stonesifer concluded that inaction had been the problem: Neither the newsroom nor the business units had built the products and systems that were needed. At an all-hands meeting in October 2023, when a skeptical employee asked if Bezos was too absent for the Post’s own good, Stonesifer said that Bezos “trusts his leaders to lead, perhaps trusting longer than you would.”

Soon after her appointment, Stonesifer had brought on Alex MacCallum, a respected expert in subscriptions from the Times and CNN, to be chief revenue officer. MacCallum told her new colleagues that she was stunned by the Post’s puny business-side staffing. It was amateurish. She estimated that the Times had about 100 people working on customer acquisition, whereas the Post had about a dozen. There were other glaring problems too: The data sets used by staffers to help them attract and retain subscribers were way too rudimentary. Far too little thought had been given to price points and the approach to wooing back digital subscribers who’d canceled their memberships. MacCallum returned to CNN six months later.

Times envy and resentment runs deep at the Post, and it’s useful to compare how the two publications had diverged by the Post’s 2022 crash and its aftermath. Beyond all of its infrastructure investments, the Times poured money into its puzzles and cooking app. It acquired Wirecutter in 2016. It snapped up Wordle and The Athletic in 2022. These things provided premium-subscription opportunities, cross-sells, diversification. “Today, The New York Times looks much more, as a business operation, like Spotify or Netflix than a legacy newspaper company,” Meredith Kopit Levien, its CEO, said earlier this year.

The Post looks nothing like that. Ryan had never matched the Times with his own acquisitions. He had his reasons, including an awareness that integrating outside products can be arduous. He was also aware that Bezos has high standards for acquisitions—the owner needed to sign off on them and “is willing to invest, but only if you have a very strong plan,” a source told me.

But Ryan hadn’t built much in-house, either. In 2019, the Post did attempt an exciting content extension, Launcher, a section devoted to video games and esports. The brand was well regarded and well reviewed, but staffers groused that it was under-resourced, and it was shut down after less than four years, under the rationale that it didn’t drive enough gaming fans to the rest of the Post site. In 2022, at Ryan’s urging, Buzbee led a build-out of climate and wellness verticals. The vertical Well+Being could have been the Post’s answer to Wirecutter, full of profitable affiliate links to recommended products and services. But “we didn’t even have an affiliate-marketing deal around it,” the former manager said. Philosophically, Ryan believed that the Post’s news coverage should be sustainable on its own, without needing puzzles or product-review sites to turn a profit.

How should one evaluate this period of masked problems, strategic lassitude, and sudden decline, which set the stage for all the other disasters that have, in short order, followed? Journalists who have worked at both the Times and the Post portray the competition in personal terms, as “A. G. versus Fred.” A. G. Sulzberger was the younger but in many ways superior publisher: He recruited mentors, soaked up information like a sponge, and ensured that the Times was a valuable part of subscribers’ lives.

But another comparison seems at least as significant—and more important to the Post’s future. Although the Times is a family business, it is also a publicly traded company with a board of directors and all the transparency and accountability that come from shareholders. Ryan was accountable to only one person, Bezos. No one in Bezos’s orbit was relying on a dividend from the Post’s profits or pushing him to explore changes, so he had little external prompting to keep close tabs on the operation. An attorney from his private-investment firm Nash Holdings interacts with the Post on legal matters, but he is based in the state of Washington, not the city, and is not involved on a regular basis.

Some Post leaders believe that Bezos should set up a board of directors that would supply oversight and counsel. If a board had been in place in 2021, “they would have seen that the numbers weren’t going in the right direction,” a high-ranking editor told me. The board idea came up in the Post newsroom again earlier this month. “Bezos doesn’t have time or bandwidth for us,” a source told me, “so a board would help a lot.” But Bezos hasn’t taken any such action.

One of the biggest problems that plagued the Post during Ryan’s tenure—and one the organization still needs to overcome today—is a debilitating lack of trust between the news and business sides of the organization, which has grown worse and worse over many years.

Although Baron and Ryan tried to act friendly toward each other, they argued frequently. Their feuds embodied wider attitudes: Business staffers blamed the newsroom for not generating more must-click content, and the newsroom blamed the business side for weak marketing, ad sales, and subscription operations. (“We were winning Pulitzer after Pulitzer, and there was never any marketing campaign,” the high-ranking editor complained.) Tensions compounded after Buzbee took over.

The newsroom has not been blameless. Many reporters and editors described to me the persistence of inefficient bureaucracies and outdated publishing techniques. Some complained that the Post has failed to own its D.C. backyard in the face of competition from Politico and Axios. Others said that stories die on the vine because the homepage is poorly programmed. As recently as last year, splashy stories meant for Sunday’s print edition were routinely posted online on Saturdays, a day that has historically received low traffic, rather than being rolled out in a more thoughtful manner, when more readers might encounter them and subscribe. And although the publication has still earned prize after prize, it has sometimes seemed weaker, sloppier, and less rigorous in recent years. Copy editing has been sorely lacking, multiple writers told me.

The point is that for long stretches, no one—and certainly not Bezos—was mediating high-level disputes or fostering unity. For a time, Stonesifer was something of a unifying figure: The rank and file in the newsroom warmed to her immediately. But she was only an interim leader, and one who presided over hundreds of employee buyouts to help stanch the bleeding. Some staffers have told me that they understood the buyouts, saying the Post is better off being a profitable business than a charity case. But the ire of others seems to have fallen on the owner. Paul Farhi, who took a buyout, expressed disappointment that Bezos was trying to cut his way back to profitability.

Bezos, in other words, has been losing trust too.

After a gutting 2023 of buyouts, bad feelings, and bad press, Post reporters and editors desperately wanted a new leader, someone who would protect the paper and turn its annual losses back into profits. Among the most important tasks facing that leader would be the articulation of a clear strategy and the restoration of trust between the newsroom and the business side.

For this role, Bezos selected Will Lewis, a veteran of British newspapers who’d spent the past 10 years running The Wall Street Journal and launching a digital-news start-up aimed at young people. To Bezos, Lewis must have seemed like everything Ryan wasn’t—decisive, creative, steeped more fully in digital journalism. Lewis knew he had some nuts-and-bolts work to do when he arrived at the Post, but “Jeff encouraged him to go bigger and bolder,” the former manager said. Bezos called Lewis “an exceptional, tenacious industry executive” with a background in “fierce, award-winning journalism” in a press release.

When Lewis started work on January 2 of this year, he hit all the right notes, and the goodwill stretched for months. “He is impressing people so far,” an editor told me in mid-April. “We’re rooting for Will,” a reporter told me in early May. His corporate patter—we’re going to “say it,” he promised, meaning say what’s wrong with the Post, then “fix it,” “build it,” and “scale it”—was cringey, but it provided a path forward and conveyed a sense of urgency that had been sorely lacking during Ryan’s tenure.

It feels like “a return to the Don Graham era,” another reporter told me, referring to a time when the publisher was a supportive presence in the newsroom. Graham, who has been an informal sounding board for Bezos in the past, talked with Lewis early on and advised him to send attaboy notes to reporters in much the same way Graham had sent “Donnie-grams” decades earlier. Lewis did just that, and made a positive first impression. “You can tell Will reads our stories,” one writer told me.

But concerns were always lurking beneath the surface. Lewis was another outsider to the Post—and he was coming from even further outside than Ryan or Buzbee had. Although rakish and charming, with a relatable history as a beat reporter at The Mail on Sunday and an editor at The Daily Telegraph, he also had a mysterious past life as a Rupert Murdoch lieutenant. After Murdoch’s papers were exposed for paying public officials for story tips and hacking into phones, resulting in criminal charges and huge payouts to victims, Lewis was appointed to help clean up the mess—by cooperating with police probes and establishing new standards—but he was later accused in legal filings of concealing evidence. He denied any wrongdoing years ago—“Any allegations of wrongdoing are untrue,” he reiterated after a request for comment for this article—and he told Post reporters on the day he was hired, “I’m never going to talk about it” again.

It soon turned out that he didn’t want the Post to talk about it either. In March and again in May, Lewis tried to wave Buzbee off publishing stories about litigation by Prince Harry and other victims of phone-hacking. The plaintiffs claim that Lewis allowed emails to be destroyed, so Buzbee was troubled that he applied pressure, sensing that he was interfering in newsroom coverage in a way that business-side executives never should. The Post went ahead and covered the news anyway, but hours after the May story was published, the Post’s director of newsletter strategy told writers, “Please do not put this Prince Harry story in any of your newsletters.” (The Post declined to explain the situation to Semafor, which first reported it, but a Post employee told Semafor that the email was the result of an internal miscommunication.)

In a memo to staffers on his very first day, in January, Lewis had pledged transparency: “I want you to know that I will always level with you and I ask that you do the same with me.” But he appeared to be hiding something serious. NPR’s David Folkenflik perceived as much when Lewis “repeatedly” and “heatedly” offered him an exclusive interview if Folkenflik would scrap plans for a story about the hacking allegations. Folkenflik didn’t take the deal.

By the time these facts came out, Buzbee was gone. The Post’s staff learned of her departure in what some now call the “Sunday-night massacre.” In a shocking late-evening memo on June 2, Lewis declared that Buzbee was out “effective immediately” and that Robert Winnett, his longtime protégé and a deputy editor of the Telegraph in London, was in line to take over in the fall. Matt Murray, a former editor in chief of the Journal, would run the Post’s newsroom in the interim, he added. The swiftness (no goodbye for Buzbee) and secrecy (no heads-up for at least some top editors) suggested brutality and arrogance, as did his combative performance at a staff town hall the next day. “We are going to turn this thing around, but let’s not sugarcoat it: It needs turning around,” Lewis said. “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.”

Officially, the Post said that Buzbee had “stepped down,” but it was more complicated. She had doubts about the strategic plans Lewis was developing for the paper, and had balked after he revealed a reorganization that would have diminished her role. In any case, it wasn’t so much the fact of Buzbee’s departure that disturbed staff, but the manner. And Winnett’s appointment immediately worried many: He was well regarded in the U.K., but the Post is a uniquely American brand, based in the U.S. capital and best known for its political reportage; the British import made no sense.

photo collage of Sally Buzbee and William Lewis
Left: Former executive editor Sally Buzbee. Right: Publisher and CEO William Lewis. (Illustration by Mel Haasch. Sources: Kevin Mazur / Getty; Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty.)

Within a few days of the Sunday-night massacre, the Times revealed that Lewis had pressured Buzbee over the hacking-litigation stories. The Post’s own media reporters were able to confirm the Times’ account with two sources. Still, a Post spokesperson working for Lewis insisted that he “did not pressure Ms. Buzbee from publishing any stories”—contradicting the Post’s own reporting. And when Folkenflik came forward with his account of Lewis’s pressure, Lewis called the longtime NPR correspondent an “activist, not a journalist.” Many Post reporters knew Folkenflik and took the insult personally. Lewis sounded hostile toward the Post’s newsroom and toward tough-nosed journalism in general. “It seems like he doesn’t trust anyone in the building,” a Post reporter told me. “And many of us don’t trust him either.”

Added to this soup of concerns over Lewis—questions about his journalistic values, suspicions that he might not be a newsroom ally after all—were the unfolding reactions to Lewis’s strategic plan for the Post, which he had first revealed to the staff on May 22. Lewis said at the time that the Post would do more to convert free readers into paying subscribers and build a pyramid of products at different price points. Parts of his presentation were quite convincing, even exciting, but 10 days later, he left some staffers confused and worried when, on the same day that he made Buzbee’s departure public, he announced the establishment of what he dubbed a “third newsroom.” Until that moment, no one had referred to the Opinion section as the Post’s “second newsroom,” although it is true that the editorial-page editor had always reported to the publisher and CEO, not to Baron or Buzbee. More to the point, why did the Post need a “third” newsroom? Lewis said that this new department, under an editor who would report directly to him as well, would produce service journalism and social-media content for audiences who don’t currently read or trust the Post. It would be “video-first, image-first, because that’s how most audiences consume news now,” Lewis told a small group of editors and reporters.

Some elements of the Lewis plan seemed very much in keeping with Bezos’s ethos, or at least his way of doing things at Amazon. In 2004, Bezos set up Lab126, a secretive Amazon R&D center where products such as the Kindle and the Echo were invented. Bezos told executives that the “third newsroom” would be the Post’s lab, where the publication could innovate more quickly and try new forms of aggregation—a harkening-back to one of his earliest ideas as the Post’s owner—adding that the paper’s core standards were sacrosanct. A slogan in Lewis’s presentation of the strategic plan—“AI everywhere”—was also in keeping with Bezos’s investment in a controversial AI venture, Perplexity (which has been accused of stealing journalists’ work). Rightly or not, Lewis’s comments and slogans stoked fears in the newsroom that high-quality journalism might be sacrificed in a race to break even.

But the business plans were overshadowed on the weekend of June 16 by bruising articles in the Times and in the Post itself about Lewis’s and Winnett’s pasts. The Times reported allegations that, years ago, as journalists in the U.K., each man had “used fraudulently obtained phone and company records in newspaper articles”; the Post revealed Winnett’s alleged collaboration when he worked at The Sunday Times with a self-described “thief” who said that he would misrepresent himself to journalistic targets in order to gain sensitive information. Winnett has not commented publicly on the allegations in either article; a spokesperson for the Telegraph, Winnett’s current employer, declined to comment for this article. Lewis declined to comment on the Times article. By mid-June, staffers wondered if he would survive as CEO, and a great many hoped he wouldn’t. An investigative team at the Post has since continued to report on his background.

Bezos, meanwhile, remained silent on the matter, and paparazzi spotted him on the Greek island of Mykonos. His $500 million superyacht was reportedly harbored nearby. As friends interrupted his island-hopping with texts about the Post’s instability and reporters hounded his spokespeople for updates, a plan was developed: Bezos would send a memo to the Post’s top editors, and it would be immediately shared with the public, in an attempt to calm nerves.

“The journalistic standards and ethics at The Post will not change,” Bezos wrote in the one-paragraph email on June 18. He mentioned Lewis and, in so doing, showed his support for the CEO, though with sufficient wiggle room should the circumstances worsen. And worsen they did the following day, when David Maraniss, who has worked at the Post for 47 years and won two Pulitzer Prizes, wrote on Facebook, “I don’t know a single person at the Post who thinks the current situation with the publisher and supposed new editor can stand. There might be a few, but very very few.”

Maraniss wasn’t done. He wrote that Bezos was too much of an outsider—he “owns the Post but he is not of and for the Post”—to understand the mess. His page filled up with comments from fellow journalists assailing Bezos. Lewis’s fate aside, the billionaire who’d hired him was now firmly under scrutiny.

As recently as March, when I began reporting this story about the Post’s decade of missed opportunities, the references to Bezos by people at the paper were minimal. When reporters did mention him, it was mostly to praise him. His basic ethos—a willingness to spend money and foment journalistic ambition while not interfering with the journalism itself—is noble. Even with the recent buyouts and defections, the newsroom has nearly 1,000 employees, up from about 640 at the time of his acquisition. The Post has done much to be proud of during Bezos’s tenure, and the publication has certainly burnished his reputation.

But right now it’s doing the opposite. If Bezos remains aloof and continues to reject a corporate board or some other manner of oversight, then everything depends on his key hires, and his hiring judgment so far has been exceedingly questionable. The most respected Post leader in the Bezos era was Marty Baron, who was hired before Bezos arrived. As his appointment of Lewis has collapsed into an ethical crisis, it should not be surprising that the Post’s employees are now invoking Bezos with skepticism and even bitterness. “We think he just doesn’t care that much,” a business reporter remarked to me.

If Bezos had ever immersed himself in the Post’s newsroom, had ever taken a crash course in journalists’ habits and anxieties, he’d understand why so many of his employees are perturbed. In 2013, the longtime reporter recalled, “Jeff told us, ‘Cover me like you cover anyone else.’ He has clearly laid out that his expectation is no special favors. But Will did the opposite by pressuring Buzbee.” The reporter wondered what Bezos would think about that. But it seemed unlikely that she would have a chance to find out.

Bezos hasn’t granted an interview to his own paper or held a town hall with staffers in years. On a recent trip to D.C., in March, for his and Sánchez’s Courage and Civility Award ceremony, he invited Lewis and a handful of staffers to the cocktail reception at his mansion, but didn’t stop by the Post’s offices. It’s clear that Bezos was a steadying presence during that January 2023 checkup, but he has done little to reassure anxious staffers since.

Emily Bell, the founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, told me that “journalists and editors think they want a hands-off proprietor, but in truth that’s a total misreading of what it takes to run a news organization in the long term”—it takes someone “in it for the long haul with a very deep understanding of the mission and the business.” The Lewis appointment, she added, shows that Bezos is “not thinking about it maybe as deeply as he should.”

Lewis has very few defenders left at the Post today. And one of the only defenses that staffers have recently mustered is rooted in fear—the fear that Bezos could give up on the paper and sell it to some private-equity firm or sovereign wealth fund. I heard the words “Will is our last chance” several times.

Confidants of Bezos say that’s not true. They noted that he has consistently said that he plans to own the publication for the rest of his life. A few months before he bought the Post, Bezos led a $5 million investment round in Business Insider, the media start-up co-founded by Henry Blodget. Bezos exited that business three years later. “Watching from the outside, I think Jeff still very much values the Post,” Blodget told me. “If he hadn’t, I think he’d have sold it years ago. It’s challenging and thankless to own media these days, so you don’t do it unless you care.”

Stonesifer returned to the office in June as the institutional chaos intensified, and she has been touching base with Bezos regularly. She has also participated in meetings with Bezos and Lewis. In those meetings, she told me, “Jeff’s persistent focus was on ensuring a successful future for the Post. He is committed to our mission and our journalism.”

“Jeff is highly connected to the work at the Post,” Stonesifer said. “To perceive otherwise is false.” She said that Bezos “consistently joins critical conversations and discussions with the Post’s leadership. And he reads the Post daily as well.” Stonesifer has been holding meetings at the paper this week to reassure reporters. Still, they haven’t heard directly from the owner.

Post employees would like to see Bezos care; they’d like to see him focused. Right now they see a place in disarray. On June 21, Winnett’s boss at the Telegraph, Chris Evans, announced that Winnett would not be joining the Post after all; he’d be staying put. The news rippled across social media and through the group chats of relieved Post employees for nearly an hour before Lewis sent out a terse memo making it official. In journalism parlance, he got “scooped.” The executive team couldn’t even break its own news.

The Post’s crisis is particularly worrying for at least two reasons: The publication’s credibility is at risk, and the institution can’t afford to waste any more time implementing a turnaround plan. “To be sure, it can’t be business as usual at The Post,” Bezos wrote in his reassure-the-newsroom email last week. “The world is evolving rapidly and we do need to change as a business.”

Lewis, for all his faults, has at least outlined how the paper might make up for lost time. Two of his top deputies, Karl Wells and Johanna Mayer-Jones, recently walked me through the business plan, which began with the mantra “One size doesn’t fit all.” (Mayer-Jones previously worked at The Atlantic.) Wells, who is in charge of subscriptions, said that the Post reaches tens of millions of people a month who currently don’t pay for any access. “There’s a ton of juice left to squeeze” by offering flexible payments such as pay-per-article options at the bottom of the pyramid and superpremium subscriptions at the top, he said.

That would be a departure from Bezos’s previously stated belief in the bundle, and could well backfire. Bezos said in 2013 that people wouldn’t pay for individual stories, and lots of other companies have tried micropayments without much success. But the Post is going to attempt it anyway; the new plan is premised on the very real phenomenon of “subscription fatigue” and the notion that some people don’t want to make a monthly or yearly commitment. People used to gain access to one day of the Post by buying a print copy at the newsstand; why not offer one-day access online? For that matter, why not try a “third newsroom” full of experiments? The media industry, beset by technological upheaval and political attacks, is in desperate need of new thinking. The Post media critic, Erik Wemple, told me, “If anyone is sniping about the business plans, I think they should show what they have proposed in the past two or three years that’s better.”

Skepticism comes naturally to many reporters, but the Post newsroom is not change-averse per se. Every single Post journalist I interviewed said that they’re willing to adapt. “All folks crave is some organization and direction,” Sally Jenkins said.

They’re getting that from Matt Murray—the interim newsroom editor replacing Buzbee—who has been warmly welcomed into the newsroom and has already been called “Marty-like,” a kind reference to Baron. Numerous staffers have expressed the hope that Murray will remain in charge of the Post’s core coverage after the election, rather than shifting over to the “third newsroom,” as is currently expected. Last week, Lewis promised that he would follow a formal process for finding a new editor this time—which hadn’t happened when he recruited Winnett.

No matter who is running the Post, no matter who is editing it, the institution needs a theory of the case. Considering Bezos’s ambitions, the Post can’t limit itself to Washington, even though much of its core audience still lives in the metro area. And it can’t define itself by what it’s not, even though it’s tempting to say the Post is less elitist than the Times and less corporate than the Journal. In the Trump years, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was a clever slogan that perhaps helped convert readers into subscribers, and it’s possible that if Trump wins again in November, the paper’s deeper problems may again be masked for a time. But allusions to death aren’t typically the best way to sell a product, and the Post needs more than a slogan.

News organizations are raucous, living organisms, made up of people who know stuff and want to tell it to the world. What they need more than anything else is leadership.

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