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‘People are not reading your stuff’ is the worst thing you can say to journalists

From plans to introduce a ‘third newsroom’ to its chief executive’s blunt language at a staff ‘town hall’ meeting, the latest moves by the Washington Post are less than inspiring

It sounds like the script of a recurring genre of nightmare I have: “People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it any more.”

These are words widely reported to have been spoken by Washington Post chief executive Will Lewis at a staff “town hall” meeting held the morning after a Sunday evening email informed journalists at the venerable news institution of the abrupt resignation of Sally Buzbee, its executive editor for the last three years.

“People are not reading your stuff” is a tough burn to counter. The Post’s audience has halved since 2020. But when distribution of news, hammered by shifting consumer habits, increasingly hinges on an ever-shifting online infrastructure ruled by tech giants, it does prompt questions about whose fault that is exactly. Success has many fathers, market failure almost none.

The ‘I can’t sugarcoat it any more’ part is even more enraging, implying as it does that editorial staff are sensitive children who have hitherto been wrapped in cotton wool

There isn’t a newsroom in the world that wouldn’t be wounded by a blanket dismissal of their work as unread, especially when it comes from the company leader. It’s just not the most inspiring of half-time manager talks, is it? It’s got more of a “you’re s*** and you know you are” away supporters’ vibe. Predictably, it hasn’t gone down well.

The “I can’t sugarcoat it any more” part is even more enraging, implying as it does that editorial staff are sensitive children who have hitherto been wrapped in cotton wool while only grown-ups such as Lewis are brave enough to trade in harsh realities. It suggests that journalists have been mollified and insulated to date, rather than being acutely aware of the dismal impact that working in a declining industry is having on their lives.

It also sort of suggests that Lewis is a weary veteran of this sugarcoating effort and it would simply be asking too much for him to maintain the illusion a moment longer. So how long has he been in situ at the Post? That would be a mere six months.

And that’s the crux of some of the tension here. Lewis is not just an executive bruiser, he’s a blow-in of an executive bruiser, and the land he has blown in from is a) Britain and b) media terrain owned by Rupert Murdoch. In 2010, Lewis, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, became an executive at Murdoch’s News International (now known as News UK), and helped manage the fallout from its phone hacking scandal.

The Post’s pioneering new jargon is ‘third newsroom’. Having already split its editorial operations into news and opinion, a third division will give readers ‘who feel traditional news is not for them’ information and updates

His recruitment to head up the Washington Post has renewed attention on his actions around this time, with the focus only intensifying since lawyers for hacking victims including Prince Harry were given the go-ahead last month by a UK High Court judge to expand their civil lawsuit against Murdoch’s company to include allegations of a cover-up by some of his lieutenants, including Lewis. He denies all wrongdoing.

In any case, although Buzbee clashed with Lewis over the Post’s coverage of these developments, it appears the primary reason for her resignation was his move to have her oversee only a new “social media and service journalism” division, which she considered a demotion.

The Post’s pioneering new jargon is “third newsroom”. Having already split its editorial operations into news and opinion, a third division will give readers “who feel traditional news is not for them” information and updates, including wellness and lifestyle content, “in the style that they want”, according to the company. It will use AI to help it do this.

The third newsroom will also facilitate “flexible payment methods”, something that people reluctant to take out news subscriptions often say they would welcome. With Lewis informing staff that the company lost $77 million (€72 million) last year, a bid to broaden its range of readers and customers seems creditable on a pure commercial level.

But plans for the proposed unit aren’t sitting well with those at the Post who are mindful of the journalistic legacy of the newspaper that broke Watergate. They fear that readers will be asked to pay for a diminished, diluted product. You can see their point. “Third newsroom” does not scream Pulitzer.

The Post may have lost $77m last year, but that’s just chicken feed to the Amazon founder, estimated to be worth $207bn

Most editorial staff instinctively understand that there is often a chasm between journalism that the public is interested in and journalism that is in the public interest. Where they disagree is the extent to which the former should be embraced to drive readership of the latter.

Lewis, as evidenced by his personnel decisions, is some operator. Buzbee has been replaced as executive editor on an interim basis by Matt Murray, who was appointed Wall Street Journal editor back when Lewis ran its parent company, Dow Jones. After the US presidential election, the baton will pass to another former associate, Daily Telegraph deputy editor Robert Winnett, with Murray overseeing the “third newsroom”.

The preponderance of white men at the top of the company hasn’t gone unremarked, but there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet: the Washington Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos. The Post may have lost $77 million last year, but that’s just chicken feed to the Amazon founder, estimated to be worth $207 billion.

Meanwhile, the title, haemorrhaging readers, laid off about 13 per cent of its employees last year. This, to be fair, was a correction: its news staff had previously expanded rapidly under the proprietorship of Bezos. But now the newspaper’s future status is unclear, its sense of identity wavering. It’s a facet of the story with the potential to be even more depressing than the low blow of “nobody is reading your stuff”. Because if not even having a double centi-billionaire for an owner is enough to save a respected newspaper from the death spiral, what will?

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