When Jeff Bezos, acquired The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, the publication entered a new era of expansion and transformation. As the executive editor, Martin Baron faced the daunting task of elevating the newspaper from a regional news organization to a globally recognized media powerhouse, aligned with Bezos’ vision. However, budget constraints compelled Bezos to minimize the number of new editors, which led to creative workarounds devised by Baron and his team.
With Bezos closely monitoring the budget, he was hesitant to increase the editorial team significantly. This resulted in categorizing reporters as “direct” employees and editors as “indirect,” aiming to limit the latter’s headcount. To overcome this constraint, Baron and his deputies devised a clever solution: they omitted the term “editor” from proposed new positions, opting for alternative titles like “analyst” or “strategist.” This approach allowed for the expansion of the newsroom without raising alarms in the budget discussions.
Over time, Bezos gained a deeper understanding of the news business and became more involved in The Post’s operations. However, recent months have presented new challenges, including a decline in staff morale and financial struggles. Despite Bezos’ expressed desire for The Post to be profitable, projections indicate expected losses of around $100 million in 2023. Additionally, ad revenue is anticipated to fall short of forecasts for the current year, posing significant hurdles in achieving profitability.
Since the 2020 election, The Post has faced challenges in expanding its subscriber base, with digital subscriptions peaking at three million and currently hovering around 2.5 million. Bezos’ spokesperson declined to arrange an interview, but Patty Stonesifer, the interim chief executive, emphasized Bezos’ satisfaction with every dollar invested in the company. Insiders familiar with Bezos’ plans revealed that 2023 was intended to be a year focused on investment.
Bezos’ Vision for Transformation
Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post marked the end of the Graham family’s long-standing ownership, during which the paper achieved legendary coverage of events like Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Bezos encouraged the Post staff to embrace digital experimentation during an early meeting after the acquisition. He envisioned leveraging the internet’s potential for global reach, much like how Amazon’s success had been driven by its digital presence. Financial support was generously provided to fuel the growth and development of the newsroom.
Bezos actively participated in product decisions and brought in Fred Ryan as publisher, replacing Katharine Weymouth, a member of the Graham family. Baron continued as the top editor until his retirement in 2021, with Bezos consistently praising him as an exceptional journalism mentor for an owner. Bezos was personally involved in selecting Sally Buzbee as Baron’s successor, inviting her to his home in Washington’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood.
As Bezos stepped down as Amazon’s CEO, his direct involvement in The Post’s operations somewhat diminished, as reported by insiders familiar with his interactions with the newsroom. However, in January, a significant shift occurred after a conversation between Buzbee and Bezos. Buzbee urgently conveyed concerns about low staff morale, which was partly attributed to missteps by the newspaper’s chief business executive, Mr. Ryan.
Buzbee’s relationship with Ryan had been tense, as he allegedly accused her top deputy, Cameron Barr, of leaking information about The Post’s operations to the media. Ryan sought Barr’s removal, leading to internal disputes and mounting tensions. However, a spokesperson for Ryan denied these accusations, and sources familiar with the matter found no evidence supporting the claims of leaking.
A Year of Talent Exodus and Innovation at The Washington Post
The Post experienced an exodus of talent, with several prominent reporters and top editors leaving in the past year. Notably, several top executives, including Shailesh Prakash, Joy Robins, Kat Downs Mulder, and Kristine Coratti Kelly, departed. Joy Robins, Eli Saslow, David Malitz, and Steven Ginsberg joined The New York Times Company following their departure from The Post.
In a rare appearance in the newsroom in January, Bezos attended a morning news meeting and interacted with a few Post journalists, who expressed their concerns about Ryan’s missteps and the overall direction of the newspaper. In June, Ryan announced his resignation, with plans to launch the Center on Public Civility under the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, where he serves as chairman. Bezos agreed to fund the center.
In Mr. Ryan’s absence, Bezos appointed Patty Stonesifer as interim chief executive, leveraging her long-standing friendship and board membership at Amazon. Stonesifer has already made her mark, actively engaging with staff members to address concerns and improve the newspaper. In July, Stonesifer and Ryan hired Alex MacCallum as The Post’s chief revenue officer and Vineet Khosla as the chief technology officer.
Bezos personally provided input for an experimental project in The Post’s opinion section, led by David Shipley, a former Bloomberg editor specially recruited by Bezos. The initiative aims to create a platform for readers from various US cities to submit their own opinions and commentary.
In addition to the experimental project, other changes are underway, including the revamp of the Style section with an online redesign in September. Despite strained relations between Buzbee and the newsroom, The Post continues to deliver high-quality journalism, receiving recognition with two Pulitzer Prizes in May. Stonesifer’s close ties to Bezos have revitalized the newsroom, fostering hope and renewed enthusiasm among staff members.
Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post marked a pivotal moment for the publication, ushering in a new era of expansion and transformation. Despite financial challenges and a talent exodus, Bezos’ vision and active involvement have reinvigorated the newsroom’s spirit. With new projects and a fresh vision for the future, The Washington Post continues to evolve under Bezos’ ownership, solidifying its legacy as a leading journalistic institution.