Post Apocalyptic

Fred Ryan
Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/ Getty Images
Dylan Byers
December 14, 2022

On Wednesday, the dapper and hyper-well-connected Washington Post C.E.O. Fred Ryan stood up before the company’s thousand-plus staff and announced that the organization would be conducting layoffs in the first quarter of next year, resulting in a less-than-10 percent reduction of the workforce. Since Trump left office, and Marty Baron retired from his role as executive editor, the Post has been churning subscribers and losing ad revenue. During the town hall, Ryan told staff that ad revenue was at “recession levels.”

Such announcements have become familiar in the media industry these days as companies correct from an era of overhiring amid low interest rates and an overstimulated economy, and recession-anxious executives try to manage the P&L. If Netflix’s stock price can get cut in half, and Warner Bros. Discovery can remain punished by public market investors in search of higher EBITDA and synergies, then what is a mid-Atlantic media company, even one owned by the world’s fifth-richest man, supposed to expect? 

Nevertheless, Ryan’s disclosure left staff stunned and visibly pissed. A video from the staff-wide town hall—taken and tweeted by one of the Post’s own correspondents—shows employees shouting questions at Ryan that he refused to answer as he walked out of the room. “We are not going to turn the town hall into a grievance session,” he responded, awkwardly. In a statement, the Washington Post Guild called Ryan’s behavior “unacceptable from any leader, but especially the leader of a news organization whose core values include transparency and accountability.” 

Sensing how poorly his performance had been received, Ryan followed up with a memo later in the day elaborating on the layoffs, noting that the cuts were “necessary” to ensure the Post’s future success. He also said the company could not continue to invest “in initiatives that do not meet our customers’ needs.” Ryan did not respond to a request for an interview. 

The Jeff Question

The Post’s grievances are many these days, and they mostly center on Ryan, himself. Since September, I have been reporting on internal frustrations about his leadership, most notably his failure to extend the newsgathering organization’s success, post-Trump, in the same way that Meredith Kopit Levien has subtly yet masterfully diversified the Times into an always-on lifestyle brand with technology at its core through internal investment and M&A. (Whether her massive $550 million cash bet on The Athletic comes to fruition remains to be seen, and some inside the building, a couple levels down on the org chart, privately agonize about conversion metrics. Even Ryan suggested Wednesday that some of the Times’s growth initiatives would flop, and that his rival would be forced to raise subscription prices.)

The lack of faith in Ryan has become a frequent talking point at the Post, and, as I reported last month, those sentiments go all the way to the top of the newsroom. In private conversations with colleagues and friends, Sally Buzbee, Ryan’s hand-picked executive editor, has criticized her boss for his lack of strategy around editorial and digital investments, expressed envy with the Times’s aggressive acquisition strategy, and, most notably, told colleagues that she doesn’t know how long Ryan will, or should, remain as C.E.O.—a point she has categorically denied making, even as I increasingly hear from more and more sources that it’s a point she continues to make.

The Ryan-Buzbee fallout has created a seemingly untenable situation at the paper—evidenced most recently by the fact that Ryan did not inform Buzbee about the impending layoffs until this week, according to sources who spoke with her after the town hall. Many Post staffers have frustrations with Buzbee’s editorial leadership; they say she is also not a strong leader, and has failed to articulate a clear editorial vision for the paper. And, indeed, the Post does seem to have reverted to some of the ponderous inertia that predated the Baron era. It competes for stories against the Times and Politico in its backyard, and seems like an afterthought in other areas. Its opinion section, once a powder keg under the late Fred Hiatt, has yet to find footing under Bloomberg transplant David Shipley.

The paper, after all, has seen an exodus of high level talent on both the business and editorial side in recent months: Shailesh Prakash, the company’s chief information officer, jumped to Google; Kat Downs Mulder, the chief product officer, decamped to Yahoo!; Beth Diaz, the Post’s vice president of audience development and analytics, joined Politico; and Kris Coratti, Ryan’s chief communications officer, left for CNN. Steven Ginsberg, a managing editor who was passed over for the top editor job, has joined The New York Times as executive editor of The Athletic. Meanwhile, the Post has also lost top-tier journalists like Robert Costa, David Fahrenthold and Carlos Lozada to rival publications, and lost out in recent recruitment efforts for both Jonathan Martin, who went from the Times to Politico, and Jonathan Swan, who is en route to the Times from Axios.

Nevertheless, the newsroom isn’t blaming the newsroom; many seem to share Buzbee’s views that Ryan is the root of the problem. In response to Wednesday’s town hall and the ongoing frustrations with Post leadership, several of the paper’s top reporters—including Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker, Shane Harris, Bob Barnes, Jose Del Real, John Woodrow Cox and Tyler Pager—enlisted in the guild in what one source described as “the biggest recruitment day for the union in a long time.” 

Late Wednesday evening, I was told that union members are discussing putting together a letter of no confidence in Ryan that they expect hundreds of members would sign. They may be hoping that this public show of frustration will be enough to get the attention of the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, whose views on the Post drama are a mystery to absolutely everyone at the paper. Ryan has privately maintained that he has his boss’s full support, and it’s certainly true that Ryan, with a direct line to Bezos, is able to finesse the narrative. But there are other Post legends who also have Bezos’s ear—Bob Woodward, Sally Quinn—and might conceivably tell him a different story. 

In some fascinating and important ways, the gyrations and shapeshifting impacting the largest media companies in the world have descended to the smaller ecosystem in America’s capital. In 2016, for instance, Netflix had streaming virtually all to itself, linear was imperiled but not decimated, and the other biggest media companies had yet to build their own O.T.T. products. Now, Netflix, Disney, Paramount Global, Warner Bros. Discovery, and NBCU/Comcast—not to mention all the SVOD and FAST options—compete directly with one another for subscribers and advertisers, alike. 

Meanwhile, in 2016, there was really just The New York Times and The Washington Post competing for the eyeballs of the aggrieved institutionalists and center-leftists who couldn’t keep their eyes off the Trump car crash. Axios came about that year, followed by the resurgence of Politico and The Atlantic and The New Yorker and Vox and Substackers. Now there’s Semafor, too, and whatever crazy idea Jimmy Finkelstein is kicking around. Maybe Ryan hasn’t really screwed anything up, but to adlib from Inherit the Wind, perhaps it is the Post that has changed by standing still.