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Infighting Overshadows Big Plans at The Washington Post

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When Sally Buzbee joined The Washington Post a yr ago this month, she took over a newsroom that had nearly doubled to greater than 1,000 journalists under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, who bought it in 2013. Its coverage often won Pulitzer Prizes.

The newspaper has continued growing within the months since. It has opened breaking news hubs in Seoul and London to develop into more of a 24-hour global operation. It expanded coverage of technology, climate and private health. Its reporting won the Pulitzer Prize for public service this yr.

But Ms. Buzbee is now on the defensive, yet to completely win over the newsroom and facing internal strife that has eclipsed a few of her daring plans.

Internal frustration with Ms. Buzbee has spilled into public view. Much of it resulted from two social media storms — one which led to a reporter getting fired, and one other that led to accusations that a feature editor’s promotion was unfairly rescinded. Many journalists on the newspaper say the issues resulted from an outdated policy on how employees should conduct themselves online, and a star system that has led to uneven enforcement of that policy. Ms. Buzbee released a draft of a recent social media policy on Wednesday.

Some within the newsroom also feel that Ms. Buzbee has not made a priority of meeting with the rank-and-file to deal with those frustrations. Other employees have chafed over her return-to-office requirements, and tensions have flared between the national and metro reporting teams.

In a contentious meeting last week, some staff members told Ms. Buzbee that she had not yet earned their trust, in line with several people amongst dozens in attendance. Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper’s media columnist, told Ms. Buzbee in that meeting that rescinding the feature editor’s promotion would unfairly damage his profession. Many others spoke up with the same sentiment.

In one other meeting with Ms. Buzbee, on Tuesday, one editor relayed concerns from his staff that being promoted to an editor role seemed an unappetizing prospect at The Post. Ms. Buzbee responded with an impassioned speech about how an editor’s job was to assist people do great work and advance of their careers, in line with an individual on the meeting.

The sentiment about Ms. Buzbee, and details concerning the meetings, were conveyed in interviews by greater than two dozen current and former Post staff members. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain the newsroom’s inner workings.

Lots of the people noted that among the concerns predate Ms. Buzbee’s arrival. Additionally they said that her arrival in the course of the pandemic, with most individuals working remotely, has made her job harder. Ms. Buzbee has won many friends in The Washington Post newsroom, they said. Quite a few influential reporters tweeted in unison last week in support of the newspaper’s direction.

Fred Ryan, The Post’s publisher, expressed support for Ms. Buzbee, saying in an announcement that “Sally has exceeded all expectations in her first yr.”

However the recent tumult has distracted Ms. Buzbee and a newsroom that has stood out as considered one of the few to successfully navigate the treacherous economics of recent media.

Cameron Barr, The Post’s senior managing editor, said in an interview that an absence of clarity around the corporate’s social media policies was partly guilty for the recent tumult.

“Social media on this context is basically a proxy for newsroom culture,” Mr. Barr said. “We’ve work to do to shore up a way of trust and civility inside our newsroom,” he added.

He disputed characterizations of Ms. Buzbee as unavailable to individuals who will not be stars. “She could be very accessible,” he said. “She could be very smitten by what we do.”

Ms. Buzbee declined to comment for this text.

Ms. Buzbee, 57, joined The Post in June 2021, becoming the primary female executive editor in its 145-year history. She had spent her profession at The Associated Press, most recently serving as executive editor. She replaced Martin Baron, who remade the newsroom over eight years to much acclaim, including 10 Pulitzer Prizes.

Ms. Buzbee resembles Mr. Baron in her approach to stories and has strong news judgment, in line with quite a few reporters who’ve worked closely together with her. The reporters praised how she handled complicated stories.

Ms. Buzbee has a special management style from Mr. Baron, though. While he was widely thought to be a top-down leader, Ms. Buzbee is often called someone who listens to everyone within the room before making decisions. She holds more meetings with senior editors and reporters than Mr. Baron did, people at The Post say.

Ms. Buzbee has told all newsroom employees that they need to work within the office no less than three days every week. She has highlighted the advantages of collaborating in person slightly than punishing anyone for not coming in.

Updated 

June 16, 2022, 12:49 p.m. ET

That return-to-office plan has upset some employees. A minimum of two individuals who left the newspaper recently said — one publicly, on Twitter, and one other in an interview — that the policy had been a significant component of their decision to depart. Some have been reluctant to follow the policy, leading Ms. Buzbee to induce managers to remind their employees to return into the office.

There has also been friction between the metro and national reporting desks. In a gathering last yr, the metro staff raised concerns to Ms. Buzbee that they’d not been adequately involved in a project reconstructing the events of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in line with multiple people there.

The project, assigned before Ms. Buzbee joined, was run by the national desk. That frustrated some reporters on the metro desk, who had extensively covered the event because it unfolded. Ms. Buzbee agreed that the metro reporters must have played a much bigger role within the project, which ran after she took over.

The Post ultimately submitted many stories from the metro staff, in addition to the reconstruction project, within the package about Jan. 6 that won the Pulitzer for public service. A Post spokeswoman said the metro entries had been included before the meeting with Ms. Buzbee was requested.

Ms. Buzbee inherited a policy about how Post journalists should behave online that reporters and editors had repeatedly said was too vague and unevenly enforced. Mr. Baron faced similar tensions under his tenure, including a clash with a star reporter, Wesley Lowery. Mr. Baron threatened to fireplace Mr. Lowery for violations of The Post’s social media policy, including expressing political opinions and criticizing competitors, in line with a replica of a disciplinary letter.

A memo prepared by the national staff in 2020 really helpful that the policy be overhauled to redefine the newsroom’s purpose on social media, acknowledge the abuse journalists receive online and create a more transparent enforcement process.

Ms. Buzbee told people who she planned to rent standards editors who would update that policy. The person Ms. Buzbee promoted to oversee the standards team in March hadn’t yet filled those positions when the inner frustrations recently erupted on Twitter.

Much of the infighting began after David Weigel, a politics reporter, retweeted a sexist and homophobic joke. In response, Felicia Sonmez, one other political reporter at The Post, tweeted: “Incredible to work at a news outlet where retweets like this are allowed!”

Mr. Weigel quickly deleted his tweet and apologized. Several days later, with several staff members fighting about his actions online, Ms. Buzbee suspended him for a month. In emails, she implored Post journalists to be collegial. After an worker replied to everyone in support of Ms. Sonmez, The Post cut off the flexibility for workers members to reply-all in a newsroom-wide email, in line with an individual with knowledge of the choice.

But Ms. Sonmez, who had accused The Post of a hostile work environment in a lawsuit that a judge dismissed in March, never stopped tweeting. She said the newspaper unevenly punished journalists for what they wrote on Twitter, and critiqued her co-workers publicly.

Mr. Ryan and Ms. Buzbee agreed that the one option was to fireplace her, in line with an individual with knowledge of the discussion. They met with top editors to speak through the choice. Some suggested other options, including a suspension. Eventually, there was broad agreement that Ms. Sonmez needed to go, the person said.

Ms. Buzbee planned to fireplace Ms. Sonmez the following evening, June 9, the person said. But after Ms. Sonmez tweeted early the following morning, the timeline moved up a couple of hours. The termination letter sent by The Post accused her of “insubordination, maligning your co-workers online and violating The Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.”

Lower than an hour later, Ms. Buzbee met with the features department to quell one other social media flare-up.

Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter lured to The Post from The Recent York Times this yr, had tweeted that a miscommunication together with her editor led to an inaccurate line in an article. The tweets were discussed and agreed on by Ms. Lorenz and multiple editors before she posted, said three individuals with knowledge of the discussions. The tweets prompted an outcry from critics on Twitter who accused her of passing the buck.

Before Ms. Lorenz’s tweet, Ms. Buzbee had offered the well-respected editor, David Malitz, a promotion to run the features department, in line with one person with knowledge of the offer. He had agreed to take it. But several days later, Ms. Buzbee pulled the offer.

Within the meeting with the features group, Ms. Buzbee fielded offended questions on Mr. Malitz’s treatment. She said he was “by no means reprimanded or punished for any errors,” in line with a replica of notes taken on the meeting, but wouldn’t say what was behind her decision. She said she couldn’t discuss personnel issues.

It was at that meeting that Ms. Sullivan, The Post’s media columnist, accused Ms. Buzbee of damaging Mr. Malitz’s profession, and other staff members said that she hadn’t earned their trust. Some told Ms. Buzbee that their doubts stemmed from rarely hearing from her until that meeting.

On Tuesday, Ms. Buzbee met with dozens of editors in person and over video conference, fielding questions on the recent upheaval. One editor relayed the concerns from employees who were wary of becoming editors at The Post after recent events.

Ms. Buzbee said within the meeting that she was optimistic concerning the way forward for the newspaper. She also told editors that it was their collective responsibility to guard the staff, the readers and the newspaper’s credibility.

On Wednesday evening, newsroom employees were emailed a draft of updated social media guidelines and told that senior editors would hold “listening sessions” this week to get feedback on the revisions.

The draft says that no worker is required to post or engage on social media platforms; journalists must not harm the integrity or repute of the newsroom; and journalists are “allowed and encouraged to bring their full identity and lived experiences to their social accounts.”

The draft guidelines also note that The Post considers it as a priority to guard its journalists from online harassment and attacks.

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