“What Do We Want to Be?”: The Washington Post at a Crossroads

“The buyout program that the Post has created is neither as generous as the Post has made it out to be nor truly voluntary,” Post Guild leadership says in a statement. “The Post has refused to expand eligibility to all employees rather than targeting certain departments; provide continued access to health insurance; or bolster pensions for long-tenured employees.

Guild leadership adds: “Our hard-working colleagues are going to lose their jobs because of the short-sighted business decisions made by management over the past few years.… The buyout program is funded almost entirely by Post employees’ retirement funds, and we will continue to demand a program that works for us.”

Meanwhile, there’s been lingering frustration with Buzbee’s low-key leadership style and questions about her vision for the Post, concerns that have only intensified amid the news of the buyouts, a reversal of the unprecedented newsroom expansion that Buzbee has helped oversee. Growth, more than anything, seemed to be her mandate. Which makes it even more unclear what the mission will be once these cuts shake out. Some people have complained directly to Stonesifer that Buzbee is part of the problem, according to two staffers.

“We have an editor who doesn’t know what she’s doing, a publisher who didn’t know what he was doing, and an owner who took his eye off the ball,” one of the staffers tells me.

It took some effort to get Bezos to pay attention. His visit in January came as the relationship between Buzbee and Ryan had grown increasingly untenable, and just before he visited, I’m told, Buzbee personally reached out to Bezos to discuss the situation. (The Post declined to comment on Buzbee’s outreach to Bezos.) Around this time, Bezos was also alerted to the breakdown between the editor and publisher by Bob Woodward, the legendary Post journalist who helped break the Watergate scandal. Woodward and Bezos have known each other for decades; in 2013, when Bezos visited the Post shortly after becoming its new owner, the two had a private breakfast together, and Woodward has publicly acknowledged that he’s communicated with him about the Post’s recent troubles.

When Bezos bought the paper in 2013, he said he sought to “figure out a new golden era at the Post,” in which it needed “not just to survive, but to grow.” The aspiration seemed to be to become the world’s leading news site, a mission echoed in the 2021 appointment of Buzbee, who’d spent her whole career at the Associated Press. “I came to the Post at the right time where it’s trying to become more of a global news organization,” Buzbee told me one year into her tenure. Ryan, then still publisher, told me the newsroom “added more roles”—over 150—”since she arrived in a single year than any year in our history.” Buzbee was trying to make the rest of the paper as strong as her predecessor Marty Baron had made national politics and investigations, creating two new departments, climate and wellness, and prioritizing technology and international news.

During the latest town hall, National editor Matea Gold, said a goal for 2024 was owning coverage about “politics, our divided nation, and threats to democracy”—but then rattled off a bunch of other corners of the newsroom, including sports, health and science, as well as culture, arts, media, and entertainment. As one Post reporter put it to me, “We thought they were probably just going to come out and say that all they cared about was politics. Instead, they said we care about all of you, but then couldn’t articulate a vision for what that meant.”

The Post’s national political coverage remains strong, but Joe Biden’s White House has made for comparatively dull reading following the leaky Trump team, rife with backstabbing and infighting that played out in the press. “We knew we’d lose some folks with Trump, but…we thought we’d be able to hold onto them, that the quality of the work we were doing in other areas would hold them. It didn’t hold,” Stonesifer told staff when she announced the staff reductions last month. (Not to mention, the Post—already competing against the likes of the Times, Politico, and Axios during the Trump years—is now also facing stiff competition on the congressional front from Punchbowl, whose cofounder, Jake Sherman, was just profiled this week in the Post’s own Style section.)

“The Post still gets plenty of wins, but not as many as before, and the leadership doesn’t seem to know what they want to do,” says one staffer. “More than anything, 2024 has to be the year where someone at the Post at a senior level delineates: What do we want to be?” says another staffer. “Are we going to have a business plan that hinges on politics and scales back other things? Are we going to acquire new things? There’s gotta be some answers on things that are above reporters’ pay grades.”

The Post hasn’t been shy about the need to increase traffic and subscriptions, as Stonesifer and Buzbee have both acknowledged in the town halls. Digital subscribers, currently 2.5 million, dropped more than 15% since 2021, according to the Post, and overall digital audience declined by 28% over the same period. Recently, the Audience team has been closely studying audience and traffic on a desk-by-desk basis, I’m told, putting together presentations for various teams—called “desk dives”—in which they discuss trendlines for the section and what readers are looking for.

Bezos himself gave staff a statement of editorial priorities last month, when he put out a rare note to the newsroom following “an invigorating 48 hours” at the paper. He shouted out the “great and important work from members of our Ukraine reporting team, the Climate team, Politics team, Opinions, and Well+Being” that he learned about during his visit. Notably, areas expected to be most affected by the buyouts—such as Metro, which the Post is aiming to trim by nearly a quarter, as well as audio and video teams—were not mentioned.

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