Beware the Tory takeover of the Washington Post

l to r: William Lewis, Matt Murray, Rob Winnett
l to r: William Lewis, Matt Murray, Rob Winnett

Will Lewis, the white male former Rupert Murdoch henchman and British knight bachelor who mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos installed as publisher of the Washington Post a few months back, sure got one thing right on Monday.

It was during a contentious, dismissive meeting he held with newsroom staffers a few hours after unceremoniously driving out executive editor Sally Buzbee and replacing her with two additional white male former Murdoch henchmen.

“If we keep doing the same things in the same ways,” the publisher said, according to one report, “we’re nuts,”

The big question, of course, is what he and his new Praetorian guard want to do differently. Thus far, he’s only shared the radical yet unformed idea of splitting the main newsroom in two and devoting the second one to the wildly enigmatic goals of “service and social media” to attract a new audience.  That’s the sort of plan you announce when you either have no plan or have one that you know won’t survive the scrutiny of your peers. (Remember The Messenger?)

And given their previous affiliations with Murdoch and with the fiercely right-wing Telegraph newspaper – sometimes referred to as the Torygraph — there is a palpable fear in and out of the Post newsroom that the three men will drag the Post’s political coverage in a more pro-Trump direction.

Indeed, there are all sorts of danger signs in what Lewis and newly-named editor Matt Murray (lately of the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal) told staffers on Monday. I will enumerate them shortly

But first, let’s focus on Lewis’s recognition that something needs to change.

That is potentially a huge step forward. My single greatest desire – the raison d’être for the work I’ve done here on Press Watch for the last four and a half years – has been for the news industry to recognize that it desperately needs a reset. Specifically: that it has failed to properly adjust to radical and asymmetric polarization of our political and media environment.

The American public is drowning in misinformation, with a significant voting bloc mesmerized by a dangerous and delusional authoritarian, and our elite newsrooms remain aloof and detached, so intent on covering the play-by-play and “not taking sides” that they have refused to scream out the truth.

The Post, in particular, has a related business-model problem: Being a poor imitation of the industry-leading New York Times turns out to be financially untenable. (Bezos’s refusal to pony up what is for him pocket change led to the damaging and demoralizing buyouts of 240 staffers at the end of last year.)

So there is an extraordinary opportunity here for the Post to be the first elite newsroom to abandon the both-sides and pox-on-both-your-houses reporting style and instead actively warn readers that at this moment in our history, one party’s faults are wildly more dangerous than the other’s to both the free press and to a free country. That means relentless truth-telling along with remedial civics education and nonstop coverage of the stakes of the 2024 election

The Times’s egregiously restrained political coverage has left this lane wide open for the Post. And nothing could be more appropriate for the Post’s brand. The Post’s brand is bringing down a corrupt president; bold truth-telling that holds power to account. That’s an enormously powerful brand, both nationally and internationally, if the newsroom can deliver.

So to Lewis and his fellow Brit Rob Winnett (currently the deputy editor of Telegraph Media Group, taking up the reins of the main newsroom in November) I say: Go ahead and import the scrappy, in-your-face traditions of the British press. Avoid partisanship, but recognize that there’s an amazing news story to tell, if you have the courage, about the increasingly demented and authoritarian MAGA movement and the threat it poses to pluralism and democracy.

(And while they’re at it, they should tell Bezos to quit being so damned cheap.)

The Warning Signs

Unfortunately, there were no signs, either in Lewis’s memo announcing the blizzard of changes, nor at Monday’s meeting, where Lewis and Murray both spoke, to suggest the new management is considering a move like the one I describe.

There were, to the contrary, lots of warning signs. Among them:

The Third Newsroom

In his memo, Lewis described the new newsroom as “dedicated to better serving audiences who want to consume and pay for news differently from traditional offerings.” He wrote that it would “be comprised of service and social media journalism and run separately from the core news operation.”

It would focus more “on video storytelling, embracing AI to help, and flexible payment methods” and “allow the core news division to focus entirely on growing The Washington Post subscriber base and building a new suite of professional products – Pro, Plus and Membership.”

Skepticism is appropriate. Or, as New York-based investigative reporter Mike Spies tweeted: “Pivot to video. SEO. Listicles. Hashtags. Facebook algorithms. Twitter algorithms. Explainers. Citizen journalism. Blogs. Aggregation. Slideshows. Ten thousand posts a day. Bullet points. Sub-headlines. Third newsroom. All a load of snake oil shit.”

Matt Pearce, president of the Media Guild of the West, intelligently and disturbingly speculated in his newsletter that “Washington Post executives might be thinking of cordoning their excellent journalists behind ever-higher paywalls for the D.C. insider audience for whom subscription pricing is more elastic… while the Post simultaneously lets loose a more public-facing and camera-ready army of lower-paid twentysomethings on YouTube or something.”

Another reason for concern: The new newsroom, according to NPR’s David Folkenflik, would also include climate coverage. Barring a Trump victory and the end of democracy, climate will arguably be the biggest news story of the next several decades. It belongs in news.

Murray’s News Priorities Are Screwy

Sarah Ellison, Elahe Izadi and Jeremy Barr reported for the Washington Post that “In his brief remarks, Murray did not share his specific editorial priorities, though he mentioned a few specific stories that will be top priorities for The Post, including the presidential election, Donald Trump and the trial facing Hunter Biden.”

The Hunter Biden trial as a top priority? That is highly alarming. It is not a major story unless you take your assignments from Fox News.

The Backgrounds of the Key Players and How They Were Hired

Lewis – that’s Sir William to you – remains embroiled in a major British journalistic scandal, accused of helping delete millions of emails sought by police as evidence of phone hacking by the staff of the raunchy, Murdoch-owned  tabloid News of the World. Lewis received his knighthood in a shady way: from British prime minister Boris Johnson as he rewarded his cronies on his way out the door.

At the Daily Telegraph in 2009, Winnett famously paid a source $170,000 for a computer disk containing the questionable expenses of Member of Parliament, which birthed a huge scandal. Lewis was the editor who approved the payment. Paying sources is considered unethical in  American journalism.

Murray is a more traditional newsman, and an American, having spent 29 years on the respected news side of the Wall Street Journal. He was editor in chief for the Murdoch-owned paper from 2018 to 2023, when he was replaced with someone more malleable.

Most disturbing is the process by which Lewis hired Winnett and Murray.

As Charlotte Klein wrote for Vanity Fair, one reporter at Monday’s meeting asked Lewis whether “any women or people of color were interviewed and seriously considered for either of these positions.”

According to Klein, “Lewis said there will be ‘significant opportunities’ within the new organizational structure. Asked by another staffer about which people he met with, Lewis said, ‘It was an iterative, messy process, which I don’t want to go into the details of.’”

In other words: No. Seeking the two future leaders of the second most important newsroom in America, Lewis didn’t consider a single woman or person of color. He phoned a couple white male friends instead. That’s inexcusable.

Lewis Was Rude and Condescending at the Monday Meeting

According to Margaret Sullivan, the Guardian columnist who used to write about media for the Post, Lewis really bombed at Monday’s meeting.

“If Lewis is going to be successful in his quest to make the Post soar again, he’ll need to have the journalists with him all the way. Right now, they’re not. And that means a course correction is in order,” she concluded.

Lewis reportedly got testy when some reporters asked him pointed questions, responding to one query about bringing in outsiders: “Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. Right. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.”

As former Post reporter Kara Swisher tweeted: “1. Creating a needlessly hot mess does not make any more money for a place that needs it. And 2. This has been a failure of the top execs & Bezos & not the journalism, so slapping the news staff was boneheaded.”

Former Post data journalist Ira Chinoy reacted with horror, tweeting: “These are accomplished, hardworking professionals. They don’t need to be told to ‘get with the program.’ ” He added that “in such a high-quality newsroom, if you can’t foster respect for the leadership from the bottom up, it’s a lost cause.”

Lewis’s most memorable screwup may have come in an aside. According to Matt Fuller and Tara Golshan of Notus:

At some point near the end, Lewis was itching to end the meeting. “Let’s have the penultimate question,” he said. “That means the second to last question.”

One of the sources said Lewis’ explanation, to a room of reporters who know what penultimate means, was “patronizing.”

Or as Columbia professor Bill Grueskin tweeted: “Becuz Amerikin jurnalists R not two smart, we kneed British editurs 2 telll us what big wurds lyke ‘penultimate’ meen”

Chasing the Wrong Audiences?

According to Lewis’s memo, the audience he wants the new newsroom to serve is “the millions of Americans who feel traditional news is not for them but still want to be kept informed.”

He was even blunter at the Monday meeting: “It’s the most important thing: untapped audiences,” he said.

But which untapped audiences? The largest audience of people “who feel traditional news is not for them” skews to the right. They are consumers of Fox News and TikTok. They hate what the Washington Post stands for. Does Lewis want to chase after that crowd? I fear that he does, and that it would require hideous contortions.

What I would like him to do instead is chase after another untapped audience: The people who yearn for what the Washington Post stands for but don’t read it because it doesn’t deliver as promised.

I hear a lot from that audience on social media – many of them former subscribers who have left in disgust. (I heard a lot from that audience when the Post axed my accountability-focused White House Watch column back in 2009, but that’s another story.)

There was a small sign of hope in a soft-focus profile of Winnett by New York Times reporter Michael M. Grynbaum. Rosa Prince, the deputy U.K. editor of Politico, who worked with Winnett at the Telegraph, was quoted saying “He really believes in holding power to account, and believes that’s the most important job that journalism exists to do.”

Accountability is AWOL in American political journalism. If some Brits can bring it back, more power to them.

But I worry that their true ambitions lie elsewhere.

[Correction. In an earlier version, I referred to Lewis as a lord. He was knighted; he is not a lord.]


  1. It’s my impression Folkenfil says climate coverage will be done by the regular news room, and that will be turned into another product by the dig newsroom, for example, a subscription archive and daily newstream. They’ve already done it at the NYT with recipes and are making a million bucks a second.
    The only problem I have with that is do reporters get royalties on this second use of their worK? You know what the answer to that is.

  2. What has especially alarmed me was the reporting on these changes from the Post itself. Their stories lacked crucial, potentially concerning information, like the planned “third newsroom” reorganization, among other details which signal a radical shift in focus for the paper. Readers had to turn to other news sources for that information. Hige red flag.

    Worst, though, in a clumsy attempt to soothe the fears of loyal, largely left-leaning subscribers, the Post published this absolutely laughable profile of the incoming administration: It’s a fawning hagiography, again lacking any critical balance or journalistic integrity. This article is a massive contrast with other profiles of Lewis & co., like the one in the Times. If this kind of writing is what we can expect moving forward then the paper is lurching not just rightward, but toward tabloid news-lite junk content.

    Judging by the comments on these articles the Post might have lost a significant number of paying subscribers already. I don’t see any realistic possiblity these subscribers will be replaced by an untapped market of customers who do not now, and never have, paid for news or even clicked through to the actual Post site. Even Buzzfeed couldn’t turn a profit chasing these readers.

    I fear the business reality is that there isn’t enough interest to sustain more than one national investigative paper anymore, and the New York Times won that spot decades ago. To survive as a business the Post might have no choice but to reinvent itself as a cheaper, junkier product, eeking out a profit based on low production cost. I agree with you that if the paper wants to preserve some status as world-class news source then the Post should track back to the left where the audience is under-served and hungry. The last time the paper noticably increased its readership, after all, was in 2016, when it briefly positioned itself as openly Trump critical. It has not done anything to sustain that rebranding, however. Unfortunately, in the years since the Post has cannibalized its newsroom and noticably dropped in quality, while facing the same lethal challenges from big tech and a polarized citizenship that every other news organization is struggling against. The quality drop, however, is what made canceling subscriptions thinkable for decades-long readers like me. It’s clear, however, that the leadership has decided to cut its way to quick profitability, rather than invest in long-term rebuilding.

  3. Thankyou so much for these 3 comments. I’m trying to sort out this disaster. I love many WaPo journalists. This takeover makes me sick, the more I read about the new “leaders”/ bosses of the newsroom. It is just a question for me now of when to end my subscription. So sad. This will upend a great long tradition since the 60’s.

  4. The “penultimate” comment was stupid, but the other one? The reporters seem to have been asking as if the Post was a viable business and so why have outsiders? It’s not and that was Lewis’ point. There was a reality check needed.

  5. Pfft. I completely stopped reading WaPo years ago when I couldn’t get through the first paragraph of ANY story without being confronted by some sweeping value judgment being stated as fact. It’s only gone downhill from there. The “Rx” that WaPo has to be MORE ideologically
    strident is a brilliant idea if your objective is to waste more of Mr. Bezos’s cash (something I fully support), and further alienate the sentient portion of society (there are some even in the DMV) who aren’t running around with their hair on fire, condemning anyone who isn’t buying their apocalyptic BS about democracy falling apart because of DJT. The irony in the Froomkin perspective is two-fold: 1) the reason WaPo is failing is that nobody is buying their brand of earnest, censorious “if only you knew what was good for you, like we do” hyperventilating (no, it isn’t reporting). It’s a testimony to his ideological blindness that doubling down on that lemon is his answer to stanche the bleeding; and 2) if DJT is reelected, the threat to democracy is real, but it’s wholly the province of the hysterical
    Left, who will trample any right, norm or institution in their anti-Trump zeal (current examples abound). This imperious, arrogant “we’re the guardians of knowledge who adjudicate the truth” ideology is the very thing decimating journalists’ credibility – a viewpoint encapsulated, if not personified, in the nonsense being peddled in this “elite newsroom” fantasy. It’s astonishing. Who the hell do you people think you are?


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