Can Will Lewis Survive the Big Mess at the Washington Post?

One lingering issue is the difference between how newsrooms are run in the U.K. versus the U.S. Politico Playbook notes that Lewis’s Fleet Street attitude seems to be triggering some culture shock at the Post:

A series of emerging revelations, stemming from his announcement Sunday that executive editor Sally Buzbee would be leaving, to replaced by two close Lewis associates, have left the Post newsroom “uniformly horrified,” in one reporter’s words.

More consequentially, they have revealed that the clash between Lewis’ rough-and-tumble sensibilities and the Post’s more high-minded culture is even more profound than previously suspected: He can’t seem to figure out where his Fleet Street smarts are necessary and refreshing, and where they are toxic and self-defeating.

Inside the Post, the conversation among reporters surveyed Thursday night centered on whether Lewis could continue leading the publication.

The Financial Times pointed out that Lewis’s leadership style is quite normal in the U.K.:

While Lewis’s words rattled the Post newsroom, the tone will be familiar to anyone who has worked at a British newspaper. Blunt words and savage autopsies over the day’s coverage in news meetings were common when Lewis and Winnett were forging their careers. Some executives compare Lewis’s actions with those of [Emma] Tucker, whose glass-walled office was last month covered with Post-it notes as Wall Street Journal staff protested against job cuts and restructurings. Both Tucker and Lewis previously worked for the Financial Times.  

The other clash is about the Post’s general ethos, as former Post media reporter Paul Farhi explains at the Daily Beast:

What I learned in [my 36 years at the Post] — what was reinforced on a near-daily basis — was the Post’s fidelity to basic journalistic principles, such as fairness and accuracy. High on this list was the necessity to avoid conflicts of interest, actual or perceived. Reporters weren’t supposed to march in political rallies, put up yard signs for candidates or contribute in any way to them, lest it suggest partisanship …

Buzbee was not always a popular figure among the Post’s rank and file, but her dedication and integrity were never questioned. The circumstances of her unceremonious departure made her an object of sympathy among many staffers, and surely will leave some lingering sore feelings.

But the suspicion and cynicism surrounding Lewis may linger longer. The events of the past few days have made staffers wonder: Does Lewis get the fundamental principles and codes the Post has tried to live by for decades? Does he want to remake the Post’s business fortunes at the price of its hard-won reputation?

Longtime media columnist Jack Shafer notes at Politico that it has seemed as though Lewis somehow doesn’t understand how reporters think:

Whether you believe the reporting from the Washington Post, the New York Times and NPR or you believe Lewis, he seems to know squat about how to talk to reporters — especially considering his long-tenure as a top reporter and editor in England before moving over to the business side.

Lewis had to know coming into the Post job that the phone-hacking subject could not be avoided, despite his blanket refusal to discuss it again. Now, he may be completely innocent of any misconduct in the phone-hacking, and all the reporters are being busybodies. But reporters rarely take no for an answer.

If he expects to lead an institution whose remit is accountability, he must expect reporters — both those who work for him and those who work for other publishers — to demand answers. Dropping the subject down the memory hole or deterring the Post from writing about it was never a serious option. Can he possibly be that dense?

At the Guardian, former Post columnist Margaret Sullivan writes that Lewis has, for now, lost the newsroom:

I worked at the Post as media columnist from 2016 to 2022. I know my former colleagues to be top-flight and much of their journalism to be essential. They are also nimble and, in general, not resistant to change. They fully understand that we’re in a challenging new era. But they also are tough-minded journalists who demand to be treated with transparency and honesty and respect.

Journalists don’t delude themselves that newsrooms are democracies; they know they don’t get a vote. But successful newsrooms aren’t dictatorships, either. If Lewis is going to be successful in his quest to make the Post soar again, he’ll need to have the journalists with him all the way. Right now, they’re not. And that means a course correction is in order.

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