WWJD: What Would Jeff Do?

bezos at post
As the Washington Post’s struggles have caused internal turmoil, staffers have questioned whether owner Jeff Bezos is intellectually invested in the company’s challenges. Photo: Elif Ozturk/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
January 20, 2023

Jeff Bezos visited The Washington Post on Wednesday. It’s an event that should hardly warrant mention, let alone media coverage. Bezos owns the paper, after all, and it was hardly his first time roaming its halls. 

And yet, given the Post’s present circumstances (a tiff between editor and publisher, a botched town hall, a union imbroglio, a revenue shortfall, a healthy case of Times envy, and that’s before even touching that Felicia Sonmez situation), the visit felt like the unleashing of a long pent-up nuclear electromagnetic pulse—heightening long-held anxieties and causing staff to stop work and feverishly exchange rumors, theories and occasionally well-informed insights about their owner’s intentions.

Post employees have long been plagued by uncertainty over Bezos’s view on the paper and its leadership. The Post’s historic, nearly decade-long growth run—fueled by Bezos’s injection of capital, the leadership of Marty Baron and, most significantly, Trump’s three-ring circus—came to an end almost as soon as Trump left office. Since then, the company has been backsliding: churning subscribers, losing ad revenue, and talent, too. 

And the Post’s misfortunes have been made all the more apparent by the sustained success of its storied rival, The New York Times, which has maintained its position as the nation’s preeminent journalistic institution while masterfully diversifying into perpetually-on softcore lifestyle content, all the while contorting itself into the plutocrat’s media holding company of our time. In the early days of his ownership, Bezos had aspired to go head-to-head with the Times and turn the Post into America’s “new paper of record.” Recently, it’s felt as though the paper has kept its ambitions inside the Beltway, and gone back to competing with Politico.

In recent months, as the paper’s struggles have caused internal turmoil, staffers have questioned whether Bezos, who is reasonably preoccupied with his various other businesses and personal pursuits, was intellectually invested in the company’s challenges. Last summer, when Post staffers started calling me to raise doubts about the leadership of C.E.O. Fred Ryan, they often posed a question: “Where’s Jeff?” Did he care that Ryan had failed to leverage the Post’s Trump-era growth and find new ways to milk the audience to increase ARPU? Did he care that Ryan had been caught flat-footed while A.G. Sulzberger and Meredith Kopit-Levien snapped up acquisitions like The Athletic and Wordle and Audm? 

The soul-searching, perhaps amplified by some journalistic myopia and hand-wringing, was considerable and extensive. It went on: Did Bezos care that the Post was on track to lose money for the first time in years? Did he care that the company’s chief information officer, chief product officer and V.P. of audience development had left? And did he care that Sally Buzbee, the executive editor he and Ryan had picked for the job, had failed to sustain the heat of the Baron Age, or retain top talent like Robert Costa and David Fahrenthold?

The consternation over Bezos’s whereabouts reached a fever pitch in November, when I reported that Buzbee herself had openly criticized Ryan’s leadership and lack of strategy in private conversations with colleagues and friends, and questioned how long he would remain as C.E.O.—a claim she categorically denied at the time. Even then, no one really seemed to know what Bezos made of it all, and many merely assumed that he wasn’t paying attention. Nor so the next month, when a video emerged of Ryan announcing layoffs and then refusing to answer questions—“we are not going to turn the town hall into a grievance session,” he told staff—as he quickly exited the room. Since then, more than 60 people have joined The Washington Post Guild, one of the guild’s co-chairs told me. The union now has 670 members, or two-thirds of eligible Post staff.

Finally, earlier this month, The New Yorker’s David Remnick put the question to Bob Woodward, the legendary Post journalist who talks regularly with Bezos, and has greater insight into his thinking than most at the company: “It’s clear to me he’s aware that there’s trouble,” Woodward said. “I know he’s in a listening mode about what people think, what those troubles are, where they come from.” Woodward went on to say that Bezos was aware “that some repair work needs to be done,” but as for “what that is and how, and who is responsible? I’m on the sidelines.”

“Listening Mode”

Bezos’s arrival at Post headquarters on Wednesday seemed to portend that the paper’s owner was indeed paying attention to its problems, and that he finally intended to do something about them. Listening mode had, indeed, commenced. Of course, no one was quite sure what that entailed, and so a frenzied game of tea-leaf reading ensued. And given the level of anxiety inside one of the great crucibles of American journalism, every detail was scrutinized.

Bezos was seen spending a great deal of time in Ryan’s office, sources said. Meanwhile, Buzbee, who had been in Davos up until Wednesday, was all of a sudden back in her office—the time change appeared to have worked in her favor—but was not seen meeting with Bezos. Did that mean he was safe and she was toast, or vice versa? Who knows.

And then Bezos was spotted meeting one-on-one with various newsroom leaders: managing editor Cameron Barr, national editor Matea Gold and her deputy Phil Rucker, business editor Lori Montgomery, and Krissah Thompson, the managing editor for diversity and inclusion, as well as the Post’s star political reporter Josh Dawsey. Were they being brought in on a new leadership structure? Who knows. Finally, news spread that Bezos would be at the 9:30 a.m. news meeting the next day. Would he be announcing a new publisher or a new editor? Or both? Who knows.

Bezos’s visit was ultimately far more mundane than the anticipation suggested. Indeed, the guy is a once-in-a-lifetime C.E.O., entrepreneur, and operator: he’s not going to walk into one of his investment entities and unleash turmoil. No one was fired at the 9:30 a.m. meeting—Bezos mostly sat back as Buzbee conducted her usual business—and, for now at least, Ryan and Buzbee will both keep their jobs as Bezos continues to assess the paper’s current predicament. “He’s still in listening mode,” a source with knowledge of his thinking said. 

Still, Bezos’s visit may have provided something perhaps more reassuring to staff than any managerial change: evidence that he remains committed to the paper, that he’s visibly paying close attention to what’s going on, and, most importantly, that he intends to be more ostensibly involved going forward. (Truth be told, his connectivity to the company, its balance sheet, and the product is known only by a very small circle of trust that many speculate about but few truly know.) The available evidence from Bezos’s C.V. suggests he’s a man interested in owning successful things—and that if something is not successful at a given moment, he wants to see what he should do to change that. And, while it may have taken him a while, that indeed seems to be the case here. 

Whether this last round of the listening tour bodes well or ill for Ryan or Buzbee, only time will tell. More important, of course, is what it portends for the Post. All the Sturm und Drang around Bezos’s visit has served to highlight that, at the end of the day, the Post—very much unlike the Times—is a paper owned by one man who can do what he wants with it at will. And while it seems that he’s still incentivized to make it respectable, Pulitzer-eligible and profitable enough to survive the down years, it’s not yet clear whether he still aspires to compete with the Times. 

Moreover, it’s also entirely possible that Bezos’s view of success looks different. The Post, of course, is his core media asset: it’s a standalone business, almost always comfortably profitable, privately held, answering to him. The Times, its perennial competitor, is publicly traded, operated by a dual-class structure, and now essentially a mutli-layered holdco with major growth ambitions and bets galore. The two companies may look alike on the outside, but not the inside—much like CAA, a traditional representation business, and WME, now a multi-tentacled entertainment conglomerate built around a talent agency. 

These differences matter. After a decade of ownership maybe Bezos doesn’t want the Post to be the Times. Maybe he just wants it to be the Post. Either way, he’ll do what he wants.