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Former Wall Street Journal editor Matt Murray will temporarily take over as executive editor until the election. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

‘What the Hell Is Going On?’: Inside The Washington Post After a Surprise Newsroom Shake-Up

A Washington Post all-hands meeting on Monday turned combative early and only got worse, sources told NOTUS.

The Washington Post newsroom descended into a “shit show” Monday as reporters clashed with Post Publisher and CEO Will Lewis over the sudden departure of Sally Buzbee as executive editor and the installation of a new all-male leadership team.

Sources in the newsroom described a 45-minute all-hands meeting as “tense,” “combative” and “extremely defensive.”

“I’ve never been in a meeting like that in my life,” one attendee told NOTUS. “People are pissed. … People are like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Lewis surprised staff in a Sunday night email with the news that Buzbee was out and that former Wall Street Journal editor Matt Murray will temporarily take over as executive editor until the election. Robert Winnett, the deputy editor of Telegraph Media Group, will take over newsroom operations after the election.

Washington Post staffers are concerned that Lewis is cleaning house, sources told NOTUS. They fear that he’s installing allies to consolidate power over an editorial vision they don’t have clarity on just months ahead of one of the most contentious election years in American history.

The all-hands started awkwardly when Lewis asked the newsroom to give Buzbee a round of applause. Buzbee got an unexpectedly enthusiastic cheer. Lewis then introduced Murray.

“This is Matt Murray. You should probably give him a round of applause too,” Lewis said, according to notes staffers took of the meeting. The newsroom clapped, but in one source’s telling, “It felt weird.”

The meeting “marked a tonal shift for Will Lewis,” another source said. “He has been kind of breezy in other meetings and definitely let his frustration show in a few moments.”

The all-hands took a quick turn when senior national correspondent Ashley Parker criticized how the news of Buzbee’s departure was shared Sunday night and asked about the new executive suite. “Now we have four white men running the newsroom,” Parker said, with the question receiving a surprise ovation, according to a source.

Lewis acknowledged that diversity was an issue at The Washington Post — “I’ve got to do better,” he said — but said that despite the newsroom leadership being all white men in their late 40s and early 50s, his new picks were the best people for the job.

His explanation didn’t seem to convince the newsroom. “No one was buying what he was selling,” a source told NOTUS, describing the internal reaction. Lewis was also asked whether he had interviewed any diverse candidates or women to be the new executive editor but did not give a definitive answer, per several sources.

Lewis also apologized for “the episode last night,” in reference to the announcement of Buzbee’s departure. But, he said, the news was about to leak. Lewis said he wished Buzbee could have continued as executive editor longer, which one source called “very weird because he clearly forced her out.”

Lewis has billed his shake-up as a way to bring forth his vision for a “third newsroom” — what he called a “decisive decision” to harness resources to reach untapped audiences. In his email Sunday night, Lewis described the “third newsroom” as a combination of “service and social media journalism” that will run separately from the new “core news operation.”

“If we keep doing the same things in the same ways... we’re nuts,” Lewis said during the all-hands, according to a source in the room. Lewis added that it’s “dangerous to keep doing things the same way because we’re losing so much money.”

Several staffers said they don’t know what this project will actually mean for the Post. There’s been no guidance on who would staff the “third newsroom” or whether current staff would have a say or choice in how it is built, one source said.

Asked on Monday what this “third newsroom” meant for job security, Lewis was noncommittal. “Any CEO who guarantees that there won’t be job cuts is nuts,” he responded, according to a source.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Carol D. Leonnig also asked about the “series of stutter steps” the Post has had in the last 18 months — with buyouts, a new publisher and now a new executive editor — and Lewis became visibly frustrated the longer her question went on.

“You know how Trump makes scoffing faces and eyebrows? That was Lewis multiple times throughout the meeting,” one source said, pointing to Lewis’ exasperation, particularly during Leonnig’s question.

Eventually, Leonnig expressed concern that the publication’s new leadership team, meaning Lewis and Winnett, was from different publications with different values and priorities.

“You’ve chosen people — almost, it seems, intentionally — with a very different culture from the Washington Post,” Leonnig said, according to a source, seemingly referring to the tabloid culture on Fleet Street that is fundamentally different from the Post.

Lewis perceived that as “the British question,” and said he was “blind when it comes to nationality,” visibly annoyed by the line of questioning, per multiple sources.

Lewis eventually started to try to cut the question and answer session short, citing a doctor’s appointment for his shoulder later in the morning. As the questions continued, he grew more combative.

When he was asked why the Post was creating this third newsroom instead of just bolstering the existing journalism, Lewis disputed the premise of the question, per a source.

“The game is up,” Lewis said. “We have to move into fully pursuing untapped audiences.”

When Lewis was asked why newsroom leadership wasn’t directing more resources toward local coverage, Lewis again disagreed.

“It’s not true what you’re saying,” he said, claiming local coverage has been given “a lot of investment.”

At some point near the end, Lewis was itching to end the meeting. “Let’s have the penultimate question,” he said. “That means the second to last question.”

One of the sources said Lewis’ explanation, to a room of reporters who know what penultimate means, was “patronizing.”

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The Post’s internal struggles have been bubbling to the surface for some time now. The newsroom underwent a round of buyouts and layoffs to reduce head count in the last year, cutting its Metro desk, Sunday Magazine and more. The company reportedly lost $100 million last year.

“It’s a business; the Post is losing a lot of money, so he’s gotta make some money, and these are very good moves,” said Sally Quinn, a veteran columnist at The Washington Post, supportive of the changes. “The vision is to upgrade the content and have it appeal to new and different readers and make the newspaper swagger.”

Lewis ended the meeting by telling the newsroom they could “reconvene later if people think this is a fail.”

But he insisted that everyone leave before him, to prevent the potential image of him walking out on the all-hands in the manner that former Publisher Fred Ryan had walked out of a meeting in December 2022.

“You have to leave first,” Lewis said. “I’m not walking out.”

Correction: A source presented a paraphrase of a question asked by Carol D. Leonnig as a direct quote. Leonnig’s comments — and the context surrounding her comments — have been updated to reflect her actual question.
Matt Fuller and Tara Golshan are editors at NOTUS.