After a notable career that included working at the Financial Times, Telegraph Media Group, News Corp, Dow Jones, and The Wall Street Journal, William Lewis took his old-school media knowledge to a new frontier in 2021 when he became co-founder, CEO, and publisher of The News Movement.
Designed to combat the growing problem of fake news, The News Movement set out to reach Gen Z on the social media platforms where it lives and rebuild the news engagement experience for younger users.
Lewis was recently named CEO and publisher of The Washington Post, a role he will step into on January 2, 2024. During the recent INMA Newsroom Innovation Master Class, Lewis sat down with Newsroom Initiative Lead Peter Bale to talk about reaching Gen Z, leadership, and the future of The Washington Post.
Peter Bale: Would you tell us a little bit about The News Movement?
William Lewis: It’s an organisation dedicated to providing non-partisan news primarily to Gen Z. We have a broader audience than that, but that’s the target audience. It’s where we think the battle against misinformation is most severe. We felt that if we could do something about the severity of the challenge there, then we shouldn’t walk on by.
The most important [finding] is that what most people blithely say — that young adults just aren't interested in the news — is absolute garbage. It turns out the reason they weren’t interested in the news is that they were having to suffer listening to old white men like me, behind a table, blathering on about what happened in Congress yesterday. If you actually do it in a way that is by people that look and feel like them in a language that they understand about issues that they understand, they are very, very interested in news.
Bale: What things have you pivoted on? What didn’t work or what has surprised you?
Lewis: I think what we found with our content strategy is that when I found something really good and useful and I enjoyed watching it, it was way too safe and far too traditional.
When I had to close my eyes and think, “Oh my goodness, is that really what we’re going to be doing?”— that’s when the content was really quite compelling for a Gen Z audience. So we had to learn very quickly to enable the newsroom and provide a framework for action.
For example, we’re partners with Snap. They ask us to use our creator units to identify individuals who have a million followers. We approach them on behalf of Snap and ask them if they’d like to do news and they often say yes.
We train them in how to do news ... so Snap is populated with high-quality, non-partisan news delivered by creators in a style commensurate with the platform. We didn’t imagine that, but that’s come about naturally from us being authentically social and authentically Gen Z.
What anyone that works at our organisation knows is that you can go all sorts of ways with how we do the content. It needs to be ever more creative. The workflow is very, very different from Web production, let alone print production.
But the non-negotiable is you do not merge facts with opinions with commercial. This industry has got itself sick allowing those three things to merge, and it’s not necessary to get people to watch your stuff. We tried to evidence in our first few years of existence that it is possible to do highly engaged, entertaining, interesting news that doesn’t shove down your throat an opinion about the news.
Bale: At The Daily Telegraph, where you were the editor-in-chief, you created a hub and spoke model that other people still follow. Was that as radical as it seems in retrospect now?
Lewis: I was asked by the owners and the CEO to design a new way of working and given about five or six months to practise this new way of working as the new building was being put together. The premise was that the Telegraph, for various reasons, had fallen so far behind, despite having innovation in its DNA.
But for some reason, it convinced itself that it was better off just not changing. And so the premise was there was no point in trying to play catch-up. We needed to try and leap forward.
I was given this very privileged time to create a team of people that I found within the organisation, the agitators that you will always find deep in your side of your company that know exactly what needs to be done, but just don’t get heard.
So bit by bit, we put this new way of working together where we could practise it. We practised day after day doing a version of the paper and Web site to evidence that by making the workflows more efficient, you actually got a better product in both cases. And so we did that. We practised this hub-and-spoke system that I think is still probably industry standard to this day.
And then what happened was that we then, in effect, reversed the old newsroom into a new newsroom. We personally trained each member of staff so they went through at least a one-week digital innovation process over at the new office as well. So they came over understanding what it required to be an integrated newsroom. It was very exciting, very challenging, and I learned lots of lessons.
Bale: When you talked about taking [The Washington Post] job, you said you were going to put the swagger back into the paper, back into the organisation, which I know is a [Jeff] Bezos comment.
Lewis: It won’t be me putting swagger back in. It’ll be my new colleagues, who are an outstanding group of people who have this massive commitment to excellence that you can see every day. It will be them doing it for themselves.
Bale: The Post has announced a number of staff cuts. It’s had a fairly difficult last financial year. I think you said you won’t be rolling those back at this point. Is that right?
Lewis: My job starts on Jan. 2, so I’ll own that going forward. Up until that part, I’m incredibly supportive of all that the CEO is doing.
But we are, as a group, very positive about the years ahead. We’re starting from a really strong position — the power, the influence, and the authority of the masthead that’s been hard-won over so many years. That’s exciting.
The people are world-class and hugely committed. The journalism is outstanding in its breadth and depth. So I’m super excited about where we’re starting from. And, of course, if you then throw in the really big opportunities coming down the line, whether it’s the AI opportunities, whether it’s the opportunity from social …
From a business perspective, I’m very focused on the next generation of subscription growth. I think there are some super exciting opportunities coming alongside growth in the traditional monthly subscriptions, I think it is going to be really a great few years ahead.