By:
June 10, 2024

what all of us in journalism were thinking the past week:

“The oldest axiom in journalism is that the reporter should never become the story. Its unwritten corollary, rarely invoked in the contemporary era, is that the publisher should absolutely never become the story.”

On that front, Washington Post publisher Will Lewis failed miserably.

Lewis and the Post were not only a story, but the story in journalism in the past week. And it’s a story that continues.

Lewis helped usher executive editor Sally Buzbee out the door (she officially resigned) as he sought to reorganize the newsroom. He brought in two former colleagues to help run the newsroom and has put a leadership team in place that lacks diversity — a fact that has understandably angered staff.

Then another story emerged. that Lewis and Buzbee had clashed over the Post’s coverage of his name being associated with the British phone-hacking scandal. (Lewis has denied any wrongdoing and is not a defendant in any lawsuits.)

After that story broke, that he tried to interview Lewis last December after Lewis was named publisher of the Post. Folkenflik wrote that Lewis said he would agree to the interview only if Folkenflik agreed not to write about the phone-hacking scandal. Folkenflik, naturally, refused and about Lewis being accused of being a part of the scandal’s coverup.

About this time, Lewis must have known he had a brewing problem inside his newsroom. that reports that he and Buzbee clashed over Post’s coverage of him were “inaccurate,” adding that he knows how the newsroom works and “The Executive Editor is free to publish when, how, and what they want to. I am fully signed up to that.”

But then he went after Folkenflik, calling him an “activist, not a journalist.”

In an attempt to defend himself, Lewis might not have realized how much worse he made it. Folkenflik is highly respected in the business, and if the Post newsroom — or anybody in the industry, for that matter — was going to side with either Lewis or Folkenflik in this squabble, my money would be on Folkenflik.

Shafer wrote, “Folkenflik has a reputation for being relentlessly sensible and accurate, and he routinely breaks news, even about his own employers. Journalists know this about Folkenflik. So when Lewis smears him, it can only arouse curiosity about his motives.”

Former Washington Post media columnist , “I’m trying to think of what journos would have had more people defending them than does Folkenflik,” adding, “Way to pick your target there, Will.”

Lewis went into damage control on Friday, sending a lengthy note to staff hoping to hit the reset button.

Lewis wrote, “So, time for some humility from me. I need to improve how well I listen and how well I communicate so that we all agree more clearly where urgent improvements are needed and why.”

He acknowledged in his memo that “trust has been lost” because of “scars from the past.”

But he asked staff to leave those scars behind “and start presuming the best of intent.”

Lewis deserves some credit for at least trying to extend an olive branch to staff, but it’s going to take more than a memo after the week he had. And reporting on everything that happened in the phone-hacking scandal will surely intensify, if for no other reason than Lewis seems annoyed that it’s still a topic years after everything happened.

Shafer wrote, “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?”

Here’s a good recap of what’s going on now from The New York Times’ Justin Scheck, Eshe Nelson and Tariq Panja:

The British are … here

Speaking of Lewis, the latest from The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum is

Grynbaum notes how English journalists are now running some of America’s best-known and most powerful newsrooms. That includes Lewis and Post, where he is bringing on British-born Robert Winnett to eventually be executive editor; Emma Tucker, who runs the Wall Street Journal newsroom; and Mark Thompson, who is the head of CNN.

Grynbaum adds, “They joined a slew of Brits already ensconced in the American media establishment. Michael Bloomberg, a noted Anglophile, hired John Micklethwait (former editor of the London-based Economist) in 2015 to run Bloomberg News. Rupert Murdoch tapped Keith Poole (The Sun and The Daily Mail) to edit The New York Post in 2021, the same year that The Associated Press named an Englishwoman, Daisy Veerasingham, as its chief executive.”

In addition, English-born editor Joanna Coles is the head of The Daily Beast.

There’s lots to Grynbaum’s well-done story, but this passage stuck out to me: “This most recent crop of British imports may be explained by the newfound scarcity in the American news business. Ms. Tucker and Mr. Thompson have overseen layoffs and budget cuts; Mr. Lewis has warned his staff that The Post lost $77 million last year, and its readership has fallen by half since 2020.”

But Grynbaum also smartly adds, “But while British journalists are used to intense competition, their journalistic rule book is not always in line with American standards. At The Washington Post, the home of Woodward and Bernstein, some of Mr. Lewis’s behavior has unsettled the newsroom.”

That became clear over the past week at The Washington Post.

Media tidbits

  • New York Times opinion columnist David French with
  • Politico’s Jordain Carney and Kyle Cheney with
  • The New York Times’ Tripp Mickle with
  • Awful Announcing’s Sean Keeley with
  • Saturday night’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on ABC between the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers drew 3.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast Nationals. That’s a 12% increase from last year’s Game 1 on TNT. That series was between the Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights.

Hot type

A must-read three-part series from The Wall Street Journal’s Brody Mullins. The three parts are:

More resources for journalists

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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