The new CEO of The Washington Post faced a tough crowd on Monday—and largely won them over. It was the first meeting between Will Lewis, a London-born media executive, and Post staffers, many of whom are reeling from last month’s news that the company was operating on faulty financial projections and as a result would be offering buyouts to 240 employees. Lewis, 54, read the room, and disarmed it with a mix of self-effacing humor, non-corporate speak, and candor, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Vanity Fair. “I’ve had lovely messages from lots of you, so don’t worry if you’re the one or two people who haven’t thanked me, it’s fine,” he said, to laughs. “I hate talking about myself. This is the one time I’m going to do it. Normally I’m going to do my talking through you—through your journalism. But I understand that you need to know who I am, what my values are, what I stand for, and who I support.” Which is the New York Yankees, he added. “Well, I just lost the room,” he said in jest.
The meet and greet wasn’t all jokes, however. “We’re not in a place that we want to be in and we need to get to that place as fast as we can. It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Lewis. “You’ll find me very cooperative. I’m not a respecter of hierarchy when it comes to great ideas. I think the best ideas for our organization are going to be buried deep in the company, with someone who’s not a senior manager, hasn’t ever been listened to, but they will have the answers to what we need to do. We need to find those ideas,” he said.
Opening the meeting, interim CEO Patty Stonesifer noted that she prioritized three things in her search for a new CEO, based on surveys and conversations across the organization: someone who “loved, lived, and understood the importance of journalism”; who “had not only a vision for, but a track record of, executing on a great business plan”; and who “was accessible…who understood that the wisdom in this room was a big part of what they needed to hear, learn from, and build into where we go forward.”
All of which Lewis, who rose the editing ranks at British newspapers and later became a top executive at the Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones, highlighted in his introduction. “I was a journalist for 20 years. I so wish I was a journalist still,” he said. “I’ve asked lots of people lots of difficult questions over the years, so you can ask me anything. Don’t hold back. Do not leave here today thinking, damn, I should have asked that question.” It was a marked departure from his predecessor, Fred Ryan, a former Reagan administration official who stepped down in August. In a town hall last year, Ryan stunned the room with news about layoffs and then refused to take staffers’ questions, saying he didn’t want the meeting to turn “into a grievance session for the Guild.” (Lewis on Monday noted he is “a big supporter of the union.”)
As I recently reported, the Post appears to be at a crossroads, with lingering questions around its long-term business and editorial strategy. There’s significant pressure on 2024 to increase traffic and subscriptions, and, amid lingering frustration with executive editor Sally Buzbee and her low-key leadership style, hope that the new CEO will offer a firmer sense of direction. But, as Lewis told staff Monday, “If you’re expecting me to provide a strategic plan today, you are going to be disappointed. It’s not going to happen.” Presumably, as one newsroom employee noted to me, Lewis had to have presented some sort of plan to Post owner Jeff Bezos in order to get the job. (The Daily Beast first reported some of Lewis’s comments to staff).
On Monday, however, he suggested it would be foolish to offer a blueprint before even starting the job—he begins in January—and having a proper look around. “My plan is to arrive and for us to together craft an extremely exciting way forward. I can smell it. I can feel it. I know it. But I got to get to know you all to validate some early thinking and to hear your thoughts,” he said. What he was willing to offer were “some indications of what I think we’re going to be talking about in more detail,” including making the Post “more accessible to younger adults” and “dipping into other ways of monetizing our world-class content.” Currently, said Lewis, “we don’t give people enough opportunities to give us money for our journalism.”
“I will never buckle. I will never yield when it comes to defending you. We will always get the story done,” Lewis said, citing his track record of “being able to get independent journalism done despite or together with the ownership structure that I have worked with.” He was publisher of the Journal, he noted, when reporter John Carreyrou revealed the fraud of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes’ blood testing start-up—in which Journal owner Rupert Murdoch had personally invested $125 million.
Lewis, whose appointment was first reported by The New York Times over the weekend, spent the majority of the hour-long meeting taking questions from staff, some of whom asked if there was any chance of reversing the buyouts. “I’m supportive of the actions that are being taken. They are painful, but I’m supportive of it, and there’s nothing between me and Patty at all on this,” he said. “I don’t start until January the second, so I think it’s not appropriate for me to opine about what happens before that.” Lewis was also pressed on expectations that Bezos laid out when he was hired, and if the owner set a timeline for profitability. “I think we’ll all feel a lot better, particularly with regard to the independence of our journalism, when we’re a self-sustaining company,” Lewis said. “So I’d like to get to that as fast as possible. But let’s be very clear about it: we’re not going to do it by cutting, we’re going to do it by growing. So it will take a bit longer.” The staffer asking the question pushed back, asking if this was the case, “Why are we cutting right now?” Lewis again expressed support for the actions being taken, while noting, “It’s not on my watch.”
Another Post newsroom employee I spoke to praised Lewis for the genuine way with which he addressed questions about diversity and inclusion. “I’m very passionate about that at all sorts of levels, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but actually it’s very good for business, as well,” said Lewis. “We need to look like America and that is a really important thing,” he said, to applause.
The general consensus from Post staff I spoke to was that people were charmed by Lewis and his emotional intelligence. (One national security correspondent acknowledged as much during the meeting. “I think we’re all really excited by your enthusiasm. I think we’re like most Americans who are charmed by the accent,” they laughed. “That’s all we got left—seriously,” Lewis replied.) But charm will only get you so far in a newsroom full of dejected journalists, one that will be waiting eagerly to hear a specific business strategy for the future when he starts in January.