June 7, 2024

Will Lewis, publisher of The Washington Post, is not having a good week.

And you can’t help but wonder what his long-term future is at a job he has held for only a few months.

Lewis was already in the middle of chaos when the week began. Post executive editor Sally Buzbee resigned abruptly over the weekend as Lewis announced a major shakeup in how the newsroom would operate going forward.

Post staff and media observers immediately noted that Lewis’ plan in the wake of Buzbee’s resignation severely lacked diversity, with three white males, including two of his former colleagues, eventually being in charge of the Post’s news operation. Staff were not happy about that, as well as losing a popular and well-respected editor in Buzbee

All of that was a mess. Then it got worse for Lewis.

On Wednesday, that brought Lewis’ journalism ethics into question.

The Times reporters wrote that Lewis and Buzbee clashed over a story involving Lewis and a hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids — where Lewis once worked.

The Times wrote, “Sally Buzbee, the editor, informed Mr. Lewis that the newsroom planned to cover a judge’s scheduled ruling in a long-running British legal case brought by Prince Harry and others against some of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, the people said. As part of the ruling, the judge was expected to say whether the plaintiffs could add Mr. Lewis’s name to a list of executives who they argued were involved in a plan to conceal evidence of hacking at the newspapers. Mr. Lewis told Ms. Buzbee the case involving him did not merit coverage, the people said.”

Buzbee told Lewis that the paper would publish pertinent stories. Lewis never stopped the publication of any story. And this disagreement is not believed to be the primary reason why Buzbee stepped down last weekend.

Thursday night that Lewis said through email that accounts that he and Buzbee clashed over the Post publishing a story about his name in the hacking scandal were “inaccurate” and added that he “did not pressure her in any way.”

He added, “I know how this works, I know the right thing to do, and what not to do. I know where the lines are, and I respect them. … The Executive Editor is free to publish when, how, and what they want to. I am fully signed up to that.”

Still, the Post confirmed the Times’ reporting, including that Buzbee was concerned about their exchange. If the accounts are true, it’s a bad look when the publisher of a paper puts pressure on an editor to avoid a story because it might make the publisher look bad.

On Thursday, Lewis went from looking bad to worse.

that he tried to interview Lewis after he became publisher of the Post late last year. But Lewis would only agree to be interviewed if Folkenflik didn’t write a story about the phone hacking scandal.

Folkenflik wrote, “At that time, Lewis had just been named publisher and CEO by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, but had not yet started. In several conversations, Lewis repeatedly — and heatedly — offered to give me an exclusive interview about the Post’s future, as long as I dropped the story about the allegations.”


In addition, Folkenflik reported that a Lewis spokesperson also passed along the same message: Drop the story and get the interview.

Folkenflik went ahead with his story:

Lewis has publicly and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the British tabloid scandal. And while he is named in the lawsuit, he is not a defendant.

But now this is, reportedly, two times when Lewis has pressured the media to try to influence coverage of him. Maybe trying to kill stories isn’t unusual in the Murdoch-British world from where Lewis came, but that’s not how respectable American journalism outlets operate.

As Folkenflik noted in his story, there’s a famous tale of then-St. Petersburg Times top editor and executive Gene Patterson insisting the paper put his DUI arrest on the front page of the paper to show the Times would cover the news — regardless of who was involved. As a former staffer myself at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, I can tell you that the Patterson-DUI story remains legendary, and not the least bit surprising.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, as opposed to Lewis reportedly trying to squash coverage.

on Thursday that “when (Lewis) was a private citizen ahead of joining The Washington Post, he had off the record conversations with an employee of NPR about a story the employee then published.” The spokeswoman then reportedly said that any interview requests for Lewis after he joined the Post were “processed through the normal corporate communication channels.” The spokesperson also said that the Times’ account of Lewis’ meeting with Buzbee about the hacking story was “inaccurate.”

In his email to the Post, Lewis called Folkenflik an “activist, not a journalist” and said, “I had an off the record conversation with him before I joined you at The Post and some six months later he has dusted it down, and made up some excuse to make a story of a non-story.”

Folkenflik told the Times and the Post that he did not violate any off-the-record agreements. The Post wrote, “Folkenflik told The Post late Thursday their off-the-record agreement related to the substance of the hacking case and the story he was reporting, but not ‘his efforts to induce me to kill my story.’ He added that Lewis and a London-based press aide ‘subsequently confirmed’ the nature of the offer in exchanges ‘that were not placed off the record.’”

About being called an “activist,” Folkenflik told the Post, “The Post itself and the New York Times do find my stories newsworthy.”

So why did Folkenflik write now about Lewis’ shady quid-quo-pro offer? Folkenflik told the Times, “I thought the audacity of the offer was notable. And given what’s playing out right now at The Post, I thought it was worth noting in public.”

Lewis’ credibility with the Post staff was already on shaky ground. This makes it all the more unsettled.

The Post’s Ellison and Izadi wrote, “Many in The Post newsroom found the accounts dismaying. A publisher and CEO oversees the entirety of a newspaper but traditionally does not direct or oversee decisions about what to report.”

So what happens now with Lewis?

Post owner Jeff Bezos hand-picked Lewis to lead the paper out of a financial hole. The Post reportedly lost $77 million in the past year alone, and Lewis has a grand plan for getting the Post out of that hole. Bezos isn’t going to pull the plug on all of that because of a few messy stories, especially if he believes in Lewis’ vision for the Post.

But Bezos and Lewis might soon have a staff revolt on their hands.

This is a precarious time for the Post and the word at the center of it all is: credibility. That is, Lewis’ credibility with staff and the Post’s credibility with the public.

Bezos can afford to lose millions of dollars — even $77 million. What he can’t afford to lose is his paper’s credibility, which starts with a publisher who is waist-deep in a mess of bad publicity right now.

And now for a few media tidbits and interesting links for your weekend review …

  • CNN’s Oliver Darcy with
  • NBC News’ David Ingram with
  • The Washington Post’s Philip Bump with
  • My colleague Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of Craig Newmark Center for 51ԹϹand Leadership, with “AP Stylebook’s new chapter on crime is a glimpse into the future.”
  • And, speaking of Kelly’s column, there’s this piece in The Washington Post from Carroll Bogert — president of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to covering criminal justice in the United States:
  • An outstanding project from the Los Angeles Times with art direction by Patrick Hruby:
  • The New York Times’ ​​Tripp Mickle and Erin Griffith with
  • A lot — and I mean a lot — of people have weighed in on WNBA star Caitlin Clark being on the receiving end of a cheap shot in a recent game. But the columnist I’ve been waiting to read is The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins and, of course, Jenkins produced a smart column:

More resources for journalists

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