Washington Post’s New Leader, One Year In: Mean Tweets, Internal Battles, Finding Direction
Sally Buzbee has a go-to move when Washington Post staff are getting upset: Call a meeting ASAP.
Last year, after business editor Lori Montgomery tweeted criticism of a column noting a rape allegation about retiring NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as “completely FoS,” Buzbee, the paper’s executive editor, held three all-hands meetings to address the issue, according to two people who attended.
They and other staffers say Buzbee followed the same playbook earlier this year, when several Metro desk reporters sent her a letter over their perceived exclusion from the team included in the Jan. 6 riot coverage, for which the paper won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for public service, journalism’s top prize. Almost immediately Buzbee called a meeting to smooth over hurt feelings. Tears were shed, but ultimately some staff left feeling heard by the top leader.
Some staffers thought Buzbee’s tactic was working. Until it wasn’t.
A year into her tenure, Buzbee’s efforts at creating a more inclusive newsroom have been stymied by an environment still reeling from years-old wounds over social media and editorial battles and trying to find its feet after a renewed sense of editorial purpose in the Trump era.
She’s lost prominent staff and, like many other national publications, struggled with a significant decline in readership following the end of the Trump presidency. The Post has experienced a slowdown in subscriptions, according to internal emails seen by staffers. Morale has ebbed to a low. In conversations with more than a dozen staffers granted anonymity to speak freely about newsroom dynamics, employees described the events of earlier this month — in which several prominent reporters accused each other of creating hostile work environments and one reporter was fired — as “mayhem” and “chaos.”
“What are the wins under Sally Buzbee?” asked one of the Post staffers. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Her struggles to steady the newsroom not only reflect the difficulties of an outsider joining a well-established institution but also illustrate the hurdles an editorial leader faces in overseeing a contemporary newsroom immersed by social media and changing social norms.
The Post has more than 1,000 newsroom staffers around the globe, and nearly as many views on Buzbee’s tenure. But conversations with many of them exposed some common threads.
Buzbee has earned plaudits inside the Post for being more accessible than her storied predecessor, Marty Baron. The Post grew in size and influence under his watch, with the help of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the paper in 2015 and infused it with cash.
Baron was generally respected by newsroom employees, but his old-school, top-down management style at times frustrated some of the younger staff, leading to public clashes with prominent reporters. Baron declined to comment for this story.
Buzbee has taken a different approach, leaning into conversations with editors and expanding the organization’s leadership to include more diverse viewpoints. But some staffers have been less certain about Buzbee’s vision for the paper.
She was chosen for the job by Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan over prominent internal candidates, including Cameron Barr and Steven Ginsberg, many of whom had different supporting factions within the newsroom. Buzbee kept both on her leadership team, promoting Ginsberg to managing editor and Barr to senior managing editor.
Her selection was historic, the first woman to ever serve as executive editor of the Post. But there have been a number of staff departures that raised questions about editorial stability.
High-profile political staffers who left the publication include Robert Costa, who departed earlier this year for CBS News and White House reporter Seung Min Kim, who announced last week that she’s joining The Associated Press. Investigative researcher Julie Tate left for the New York Times, as did David Fahrenthold, who won a Pulitzer for his work into Trump business deals.
The recent dustups have led some staff to question whether Buzbee and the paper’s management can guide the renowned news organization in an era where the Post’s top priorities are less clear than during the later part of Baron’s tenure. As evidence of Buzbee’s continued attempt to balance internal staff dynamics with the larger newsroom mission, the Post issued new draft social media guidelines this week with directives for her team and held internal listening sessions with staff to hear feedback.
The Post has also become increasingly guarded about staff leaking information. When leadership circulated a new draft of the social media policies, staff were required to use their Washington Post IDs to access the document, and could not download it. The new document also urged staff against revealing internal communications, including email and Slack messages.
According to a copy of the draft guidelines seen by POLITICO, the Post declared that hashtags like “#defundthepolice and #stopthesteal” should be avoided, while others like #blacklivesmatter and #pride are allowed. Posts that “celebrate identity and recognize marginalized people’s humanity are not political advocacy,” according to the guidelines. But the paper cautioned staff from using similar language in tweets because “they could easily be construed as voicing an opinion and should be avoided.”
The paper’s policies also urged staff against criticizing colleagues publicly on social media, saying that even when facing online harassment, “these sorts of attacks do not give Post journalists license to violate this policy in retaliation.”
Washington Post spokesperson Kristine Coratti Kelly said the document was an early draft of ideas. “It was a document intended to give people a base from which to react, and it made the sessions very productive,” she said.
Through Coratti Kelly, Buzbee declined to comment for this story, saying she had already committed to participating in a one-year retrospective on her tenure with another publication.
Buzbee has overseen the expansion of the editing ranks and introduced new coverage of democracy, the environment and other key issues. Her responsiveness to employee input has earned her internal praise. She holds regular internal newsroom Q-and-A’s and often responds directly (if at times vaguely) to concerns they have. After joining the Post, she rearranged Baron’s old office so her desk faced the door, which symbolically and literally is open most times of the day.
She has also attempted to lower the temperature with the company’s editorial union, which regularly clashed with Baron over issues related to newsroom diversity and social media policies, among other issues. Four of the Washington Post staffers said Buzbee proactively communicates with the union about newsroom issues, a shift from the tense relationship the union had with Baron, who often ignored correspondence from its leadership.
In a statement, the paper’s union leadership credited Buzbee for taking issues like staff diversity seriously, but urged her to help improve the overall newsroom culture.
“Sally has shown that she is willing to listen and consider issues raised by Guild leaders, members and committees. We appreciate her receptiveness to our 2022 Pay and Retention Study and the accompanying testimonials from Black Washington Post staffers, among other efforts,” the statement said. “Still, we are eager to see her take action on a host of Guild recommendations that we know will help improve the company’s culture and create a better work environment for all of our staff.”
Buzbee has also made deliberate restructuring changes that many staff felt were overdue. She has focused on hiring more editors, including elevating those who are nonwhite, and unraveling the job formerly held by managing editor Tracy Grant, a prominent newsroom figure who riled some rank-and-file staffers over the way she enforced standards policies.
In a statement, Coratti Kelly, the Post spokesperson, noted the paper had hired more than three dozen new editors and promoted many existing editors to better address challenges posed by the paper’s expansion in recent years.
“Sally came into a newsroom that had outgrown its structure,” she said. “Her priority was to execute the necessary structural changes to properly manage The Post’s growth.”
But others feel that the paper has lost some of the focus it gained under Baron, who helped steer the Post to new levels of journalism prominence through major investigations and a series of scoops under the presidency of Donald Trump, one of the leakiest and most unorthodox administrations in modern history.
Some staff have found Buzbee’s moves fairly uninspiring. And as far as many employees can tell, her largest project has been the creation of a section to cover wellness.
The recent public airing of dirty laundry has also embarrassed some staff. Some have also been frustrated by lingering questions about the paper’s social media policies, which have been at the root of many Post issues that spilled out into the public. Buzbee told staff shortly after coming on board that the paper would rewrite social media policies last fall. But she then deferred to a new standards editor, Liz Seymour, who was on extended leave until this week, frustrating staff who felt Buzbee let the issue fester for too long.
“It’s an absence of leadership,” said a second Washington Post reporter.
And then there was the recent termination of political reporter Felicia Sonmez.
The battle started earlier this month when fellow political reporter Dave Weigel retweeted a sexist and homophobic joke. He quickly deleted the tweet and apologized for it. But by then, many colleagues, including Sonmez, publicly criticized the paper over what they saw as inequitable enforcement of social media policies over what reporters can say online.
It quickly spiraled from there. Weigel was suspended for a month without pay, and Sonmez escalated the feud on Twitter, dividing Post staffers in the process. The drama climaxed when the Post fired Sonmez for “misconduct that includes subordination” as well as maligning her coworkers online.
This time, instead of a meeting, Buzbee issued a newsroom memo calling to “treat each other with respect and kindness.” The paper’s leadership also limited the ability to send staff-wide emails to management after some employees used the function to criticize higher-ups over decisions related to Sonmez.
This episode, in particular, was a setback for Buzbee. The Post spokesperson confirmed that top editors sent a letter to Sonmez after Baron retired with the intent of repairing the relationship between the paper and the outspoken Post reporter. According to two people with knowledge of the events, Buzbee also attempted to mend fences with Sonmez, including reaching out to Sonmez after Montgomery’s Roethlisberger tweet to set up a slate-clearing meeting.
But Sonmez, who declined to comment for this story, had an active lawsuit against the paper for discrimination, filed after she was prohibited from covering sexual harassment and assault, and the meeting never happened. Further, Sonmez and her allies were dismayed that Buzbee continued to promote many of the editors named in Sonmez’s lawsuit, which they saw as a continuation of the status quo.
Even some of Buzbee’s wins have been somewhat complicated.
Poaching technology and culture reporter Taylor Lorenz in May from the New York Times, where she was a high-profile figure, was seen as a coup for the Post. Lorenz immediately injected the paper’s digital culture coverage with energy, delivering scoops and exclusives on TikTok and the White House’s attempts to fight disinformation. One Post staffer said internal emails show Lorenz’s pieces are often the top drivers of subscriptions to the paper.
But earlier this month, the paper issued a correction after an Internet content creator who was the subject of a Lorenz article complained the reporter did not reach out for comment as the piece claimed. In a tweet, Lorenz blamed the error on an editor, but the incident gained significant attention among conservative media outlets often critical of Lorenz’s work.
Two other people familiar with Buzbee’s thinking said she privately expressed frustration over how the incident was handled. The Post stood by Lorenz’s comment publicly, despite criticism from the paper’s own media columnist Erik Wemple, who wrote that Lorenz violated the paper’s correction guidelines prohibiting staff from blaming editors and colleagues for mistakes. The Post spokesperson did not address the issue in a statement, but said the top editor’s focus is “on ensuring The Post reports fairly and accurately, and that we are transparent about any necessary corrections.”
But the incident prompted a decision to move Lorenz from the Style section and into tech or another section more suited to her beat, said a separate Post staffer. Her stories would then get an edit by Barr, the senior managing editor. The spokesperson for the paper confirmed the move. Lorenz declined to comment.
The fallout had other consequences.
Staff in the Style section sent a strongly worded letter to masthead leaders last week protesting the apparent promotion, and then reversal, of the editor Lorenz called out in the incident. Buzbee quickly called for a meeting with the staff. The contentious gathering came almost immediately after the paper notified Sonmez by email she was fired.
Ultimately, the recent newsroom controversies mean this for Buzbee: More meetings.
Buzbee met privately with multiple reporters at the paper this week and, according to an internal memo obtained by POLITICO, the Post scheduled multiple meetings this week to hear employee feelings on the recent events. Two other Washington Post staffers said that the top editor and other senior editors held Zoom sessions last Friday and Monday with individual teams at the Post.
On the agenda: Employee concerns over the recent incidents at the Post.
Alex Thompson contributed to this report.