Washington Post hires a “journalist’s journalist” as its CEO

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter.

This week, at the risk of going inside baseball, I take a look at why the new CEO of The Washington Post might be welcomed by the newsroom if it is ready to embrace digital change and bold plans for growth and repositioning some of its effort.

We also look at what issues might be keeping awake the group of newsroom leaders who help me steer the Newsroom Initiative. A note on what worries them, right now.

What The Washington Post newsroom might expect from its new CEO

The New York Times scooped its Washington rival with the news that British media executive and long-time journalist Will Lewis — now Sir Will thanks to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — is to be the new chief executive and publisher of Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post.

Lewis will take over from acting CEO Patti Stonesipher, a celebrated former executive in the era of Bill Gates at Microsoft and now on the board of Amazon for Bezos. In a statement, Bezos remarked that Lewis was an “exceptional, tenacious industry executive.”

Will Lewis is the new CEO at The Washington Post.
Will Lewis is the new CEO at The Washington Post.

Lewis responded by praising the history of The Washington Post and saying, tellingly, that he was “thrilled and humbled to be at its helm as both a media executive and former reporter.”

It’s that reference to being a reporter that the newsroom of The Washington Post — and those of its rivals — should pay particular attention to. Lewis may be referred to as a veteran executive, but everything he does is steeped in his career as a pugnacious and passionate journalist.

I have known Lewis and worked with him in a couple of different jobs and organisations for most of the past 25 years. He is what you might call a “journalist’s journalist.” He loves a scoop, whether it is his own or from his team, and he is far from conservative in his readiness to clash with establishment hierarchies and at work to push dramatic change in practices.

I predict that with Bezos’s money and his own immense energy, Lewis will shake up The Washington Post — especially in increasing the focus on digital products, Washington politics where it failed to strangle Politico at birth years ago, and in international news to compete with The New York Times. Lewis follows Fred Ryan, who left in June with losses mounting and layoffs planned.

“He was CEO of one of America’s largest subscription-based news organisations at Dow Jones. He performed a very similar role at the Telegraph, which had very similar issue(s) to the Post about 20 years ago … . Good news for [Post] reporters because one, he’s a journalist by background, and two, he’s great at managing rich people who own media,” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, wrote on X.

Lewis is not the sort of cerebral, introvert, journalistic figure the former Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron appeared to be in his tenure at the Post and before that the Boston Globe. Baron commanded respect with his record of leading big investigations and a quiet gravitas. Lewis is a ball of energy and excitement, whether it is over big stories or new projects. Sally Buzbee is, of course, executive editor at The Post and replaced Baron.

Here are some of my recollections from knowing Lewis in multiple guises and what I think that might mean for The Washington Post journalists and perhaps for the business:

  • Lewis was a brilliant and hard-charging reporter at The Financial Times in New York when I first knew him. He seemed in a daily battle with Anita Raghavan of The Wall Street Journal. In an era when New York and London banks vied in M&A, they traded scoops day after day and made their newspapers essential reading in both finance hubs.

  • Lewis rose to news editor of The Financial Times in London (where I was setting up a digital unit called FTMarketWatch to one side of FT.com). He sharpened news meetings and story choices, demanding scoops — shaking up the somewhat conservative habits of the newspaper and challenging its cozy relationship with the City of London. I am aware that around this time, Lewis had already impressed Rupert Murdoch.

  • In a period of editorial turbulence at the FT characterised by succession battles, Lewis and FT colleague Robert Thomson moved to newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch — Lewis as business editor of The Sunday Times and Thomson to edit The Times. Robert, of course, is now chief executive of News Corporation.

  • Lewis drove weekly scoops at The Sunday Times and gained deep contacts in the UK and global business scene. His energy was palpable, as was his recognition around this time in the early- to mid-2000s that it was time to invest heavily again in digital.

  • The editorship of the rival Daily Telegraph followed, and here is where The Washington Post staff may really start to pay attention. Lewis and a couple of loyal lieutenants created what was then regarded as the most-modern and integrated newsroom in the world, the first of what is now an accepted hub-and-spoke model of news desks with news editing, digital, and newspaper curation at the centre. Occupying what had been the cavernous trading room of the defunct U.S. investment bank Solomon Salomon Smith Barney, the new Telegraph newsroom was a sort of Gordon Gekko/Wall Street moment.

  • Scoops and deep immersion in the heart of UK politics — Boris was a columnist on The Telegraph — characterised the Lewis editorship, no more so than a leak of expense claims by members of parliament (which The Times had declined but Lewis seized upon). The story blew the doors of British politics — exposing huge and sometimes comical excess (one MP was said to have put a duck house in his pond on expenses) — led to an official inquiry and arguably led to a deepening distrust of politicians.

  • While at The Telegraph, Lewis appeared to me to be heavily influenced by an executive course at Harvard, and he returned from Boston to set up a digital and new media incubator. It didn’t work out, but it excited him and is another signal of what to expect at The Washington Post, which has itself tried to create new digital products and tools like its ARC CMS and now shuttered Zeus advertising network.

  • Back to News Corp shortly after beating his old employer to the scoop of a decade, Lewis helped Murdoch manage his London news empire through the crisis of the phone hacking affair that engulfed the company and led Murdoch to close the News of the World — a celebrated Sunday known in the industry for its “dark arts.” In an unusually and necessarily discreet role, Lewis managed a legal, industry, and staff crisis.

  • Lewis became chief executive officer of Dow Jones — and publisher of The Wall Street Journal in New York — effectively replacing Murdoch veteran of more than 50 years Les Hinton, who had previously run the London business. At Dow Jones, Lewis drove massive digital growth at the WSJ — nearly doubling subscribers — and remade Dow Jones against the competition from Bloomberg and Reuters. Working in an almost implausibly small but ultra-focused leadership team with Robert Thomson leading the News Corp parent, Lewis became a fixture at Davos and an energetic leader — always concentrating on the journalistic base of the company’s strength.

  • Lewis left News Corp in 2020 and returned to London, setting up a private office and an innovative start-up targeting younger audiences and offering other companies services to reach those audiences, The News Movement with his long-term friend Kamal Ahmed

Now he moves to The Washington Post, and I predict he will shake up the organisation, probably not least in the newsroom and the emphasis on print.

“His core challenge at the Post will be figuring out how to stop the nine-figure bleeding without embarrassing owner Jeff Bezos with deep cuts to the newsroom,” Semafor co-founder Ben Smith wrote in his newsletter. “Nobody likes their vanity project becoming a PR nightmare. And the Post’s business is a muddle: It recently shelved efforts to become a tech company, and its subscription strategy — to be a discount New York Times — doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” 

He predicts a shift to digital and niche Washington-led products like politics. Here’s a good read from his meeting with staff.

What members of the Newsroom Initiative advisory council have on their minds

A snapshot of what media executives have on their minds right now includes dramatic falls in traffic to news sites from Facebook, actual and expected falls in traffic from Google search, and the seemingly perpetual struggle between newspaper revenue and shifting to digital.

Members of the INMA Newsroom Initiative Advisory Council are concerned about the collapse in news traffic from Facebook.
Members of the INMA Newsroom Initiative Advisory Council are concerned about the collapse in news traffic from Facebook.

One of the most valuable conversations on the Newsroom Initiative each month is a check-in with the advisory council to hear what is on the minds of newsroom leaders who help me steer the INMA Newsroom Initiative to where the industry needs it to go.

Some of the issues that come up are: How fast can I move my organisation to focus on digital while keeping revenue and audience interest as long as it generates revenue, almost perpetually in our business? Others — like concerned about what newsrooms say is clear evidence Facebook is turning news down or off — are newer.

All of the issues, of course, sit within one or sometimes all of the pillars of the Newsroom Initiative: business models for journalism (knowing what business you are really in and how to contribute to it); creating high-value journalism (the trust questions about what news matters and audiences value); and impact and influence (the cultural questions).

Almost the point of the Newsroom Initiative is to check whether we are asking the right questions, creating the correct incentives for journalism teams, serving audiences, and tackling the most difficult challenges rather than leaving them to successors.

Here are some of the issues that were raised in the last call with the advisory council, with my views where I have them in italics:

  • Newsroom leaders say they still see their companies losing advertising revenue to the Big Tech platforms. Everyone knows this is not new but with a stronger focus on revenue as advertising markets appear to be weakening in many markets it is top of mind for many. See more in the INMA Advertising Initiative.

  • Publishers believe they are seeing less search traffic from Google and a near-complete collapse in traffic to news sites from Facebook. The Facebook fall is no surprise given its clear determination to downrate news in feeds and eliminate it entirely in markets like Canada, where what Meta sees as unworkable legislation would require it to pay for content regardless of who posted it. Interestingly, an analysis of 5,500 publishers this week by analyst Thomas Baekdal suggests social still accounted for 18.1% of visits to publisher sites in September, but that represented a significant fall for many. Read what my INMA colleague Greg Piechota of the Readers First Initiative has to say on this.

  • A sense that increasing use of AI in Google might be making SEO less effective. Risk that newsrooms take their eye off the ball in SEO with attention shifting to AI but it remains a critical driver of significant traffic and news readers. The Baekdal report also concurs that search is delivering less traffic but attributes that to consumer choice and tiredness with news. Search still accounts for 36.5% of visits so it is clearly way too early to stop working hard on your SEO programme. See the report we did on this for the Newsroom Initiative. It is still totally relevant: How Newsrooms Succeed  In Search.

  • A focus on first-party data seemed only now to be truly gathering pace. The European GDPR rules supposed to improve consumer ownership and privacy may have backfired — somewhat making it actually harder to maintain first-party relationships and causing consumers to engage less with news sites that request access to their data. See an April master class presentation from the INMA Advertising Initiative on first-party data.

  • Publishers report ongoing sharp falls in newspaper revenue, but just as importantly, ongoing cost pressure and the difficulty even maintaining press plants.

  • At the same time, revenue from newspapers remains critical in many cases. That all adds up to make a more bold move towards digital newsrooms and away from a focus on newspaper production more difficult we know it has to happen.

  • Strong agreement on the need for journalists to better understand the business models their work supports and how they can contribute to meeting user needs — including the obligation as practiced at Reuters and Bloomberg to visit readers and clients. When did you last meet the people who read your publication or advertise in it? How do you know you are meeting user needs if you’re not talking to them? 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at peter.bale@inma.org or newsroom@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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