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The Washington Post CEO Has Fired the Executive Editor, Sally Buzbee

When legendary executive editor Marty Baron retired from The Washington Post in 2021, he was replaced by the highly respected journalist Sally Buzbee, then the executive editor of the Associated Press. Last Sunday evening, Buzbee was unceremoniously canned by the Post's publisher, Sir William Lewis. The memo Lewis sent to the staff didn't explain anything other than stating the need for "urgency" and "transparency," whatever that means. Buzbee will be replaced by Lewis' buddies Matt Murray (until December) and Robert Winnett (thereafter), along with a new organizational chart.

Politico's always-astute media reporter, Jack Shafer, has taken a stab at explaining what this all means. To start with, the Post lost $77 million last year. To owner Jeff Bezos, who is worth $200 billion, that is not serious money, but he would no doubt prefer that the Post at least break even. Also, readership is down 50% since 2020. Something had to give. Shafer notes that Lewis may be trying to Brit-ify and Murdoch-ify the paper as he has hired a number of top executives who are either British or have worked for British papers or for The Wall Street Journal. This is not necessarily bad.

Shafer expects the endless flabby narratives that have the gestation period of a llama to be either out or much shorter, along with punchier stories and headlines to be in going forward. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Journal from the Bancroft family in 2007, Shafer (and others) were afraid he would turn it into a broadsheet version of the Murdoch-owned fiery right-wing tabloid New York Post. He didn't. He just aimed to acquire readers outside the business community.

Post staffers were not happy that Lewis picked his old buddies and didn't even bother with pro forma statements about diversity and mandatory interviews with women and minorities. Lewis told them that the flight plan had already been filed and no changes would be forthcoming. On the other hand, most of them never liked Buzbee, whom staffers characterized by saying she was barely aware of what her paper published. It is unusual to replace the executive editor of a major national newspaper a month before the first nominating convention, but if Buzbee was really as disengaged as the staff thinks she was, maybe it won't matter.

Lewis also said that henceforth the main newsroom at the Post will focus on these core areas: politics, investigations, business, technology, sports and features. A second newsroom will handle opinion. Starting next year, Murray will run a third newsroom within the organization with an as-yet-undefined mission. According to two inside sources, Buzbee was offered the job of running one of the three newsrooms, which would be a demotion for her, but she refused.

Was Bezos the force behind Buzbee's departure? No one who knows is saying. Bezos is not a micromanager. He is more interested in grand strategy than details. He might just have asked Lewis, the highest executive at the paper: "Do you think you could lose a bit less money going forward? This hobby of mine is getting expensive." It is generally believed that he lets Lewis run the operation as he sees fit, with little or no interference, after an initial burst of activity pouring in money to drag the paper, kicking and screaming, into the digital world.

Shafer is well plugged in, but the Post's own reporters may have the best idea of what really happened. According to them, Lewis was hired by Bezos only 5 months ago to turn the paper around. He drew up a plan to restructure the paper. Buzbee didn't like her new role in it and balked. That led Lewis to suggest that maybe she should look for employment elsewhere and she agreed. Monday morning there was a contentious meeting of the staff about Buzbee's departure and the new plans. One staffer said: "The most cynical interpretation sort of feels like you chose two of your buddies to come in and help run the Post. And we now have four white men running three newsrooms."

Lewis took questions but didn't give answers. He said: "I really enjoyed working with Sally. I wish it could have gone on for longer, but it couldn't." He apologized for dropping a bombshell Sunday evening, but said the news was starting to leak already, so he had to go forward. (V)

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