Incoming Washington Post editor Sally Buzbee eyes international expansion, reaching younger readers

the washington post

Marty Baron’s shoes were high-profile ones to fill. After eight years as executive editor of The Washington Post, Baron’s retirement in February left one of the nation’s most coveted editor positions open — and an opportunity to name the first non-white man to the job.

Incoming executive editor Sally Buzbee — the first woman to have the publication’s top editorial job — has the experience to take the Post’s newsroom expansion and a deeper investment in international coverage to the next level.

Having most recently served as executive editor and svp of The Associated Press, Buzbee’s tenure managing numerous news bureaus around the world aligns with what The Post’s leadership has said will be a new chapter of growth for the D.C.-based brand.

Buzbee “has experience running a very complex organization,” AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt said. The AP’s global news operation produces content for over 15,000 news outlets, from around 250 locations in nearly 100 countries, including places like North Korea. 

Buzbee had been at the AP since 1988 when she joined as a reporter in Kansas. Her time at the news organization has spanned both international and local experience: she served as the Washington bureau chief from 2010 through 2016 and for five years served as the AP’s Middle East regional editor based in Cairo. The AP will conduct an internal and external search for Buzbee’s successor. Pruitt hopes to name a new editor by late summer.

The Post has been investing in its own international expansion. Breaking news hubs in London and Seoul are getting staffed up, and the company’s international footprint will soon grow from 22 to 26 locations with new hubs in cities like Seoul, Sydney and Bogotá.

In an emailed statement, Buzbee, who starts in her new role on June 1 in Washington D.C., said expanding The Post’s global footprint “will certainly be a focus for me and how we can captivate a wider global readership.” 

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013, the newsroom had around 600 people. By the end of this year, the Post expects to have grown that figure to over 1,000 employees, the most in its history. About 88 million people visited the Post’s website in March, according to Comscore. That pales in comparison to the digital audience The Washington Post drew last March, when the pandemic hit. The site had 138.9 million visitors in March 2020, up 56% month-over-month and 60% year-over-year, according to Comscore, and consistently drew between 90-114 million visitors in the months following.

Still, that’s a smaller-staffed newsroom than one of the media companies The Post is most often pitted against, The New York Times, which touts 1,600 journalists in over 150 countries. “The most significant challenge facing [Buzbee] is trying to compete head to head with The New York Times with a substantially smaller newsroom,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.

Buzbee will need to lead the charge in the historic battle between The Post and The Times for scoops, talent and subscribers. The Times’ global news coverage may give it a competitive advantage. International news is “an area where the Post isn’t remotely as comprehensive as the Times, and I suspect it’s where [Buzbee] will be devoting much of her attention,” Kennedy added.

Buzbee is also tasked with continuing to shape the digital future of a legacy news publication, one that is balancing a business model that urges people to open their wallets for content with a newsroom at the center of covering difficult topics like the pandemic and social justice movements, all while grappling with how much leeway it gives journalists who are empowered on social media to be outspoken on these issues.

Baron’s leadership style saw the Post straddle “a line” between traditional, fact-based reporting and “a newer style” that incorporates “voice, attitude and what Jeff Bezos himself has called ‘swagger,’” Kennedy said.

Can Buzbee adjust to the more modern style at the Post? “Maybe she can succeed in an area where Baron fell short: figuring out how to allow Post reporters to express themselves on social media without compromising standards,” Kennedy said. In his opinion, Baron was “too restrictive” with some reporters, such as Wesley Lowery (who went to CBS News last year) and Felicia Sonmez, who both clashed with Baron over his outlook on social media.

However, Baron’s “voice held weight and it mattered” in the media industry, said Katie Mettler, a reporter at the Post and co-chair for news of the Post Guild. Buzbee will face a similar era of mistrust in news and misinformation as Baron, and will likely be looked to as a beacon guiding how the industry faces these issues.

Buzbee “brings great humanity and empathy with her leadership style,” said Pruitt, who has worked with Buzbee for about a decade. “That’s just who she is, that’s part of her leadership approach and encompasses everything.”

Case in point: The AP’s bureau in Gaza was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on May 15. The journalists inside received a one-hour warning before they had to evacuate the building. The AP’s concern off the bat was their safety — and not just their physical safety, but any support they needed or may need to handle the stress, Pruitt said. Buzbee brought that level of empathy to AP’s news operation. “It’s always been a part of the AP but I think Sally brings it to a greater extent. It’s very much a part of her make up as a person, and her management style,” he said.

The Post’s newsroom has been “really warm” and “very eager” to Buzzbee’s appointment, Mettler said. Before it was announced that Buzbee would succeed Baron, Mettler was hoping for “someone that was open, that was welcoming, that was rooted in the belief that collaboration and feedback will make us all stronger.”

Mettler also hoped for an editor that would acknowledge that the Post’s staff wants “to participate in the decisions about where we’re headed. Someone who is committed to creating channels to make that happen, and it seems like in Sally Buzbee we have found that kind of leader,” she said. 

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Buzbee took questions from staff on her first day, a move that “encouraged” employees, Mettler said, adding that staffers expressed wanting a “partnership” with Buzbee to address issues like communication with management, DE&I efforts and pay equity. News & editorial staff had a larger share of white people than at the company overall, with nearly 80% white people in leadership roles and just 21% BIPOC, according to the Post’s diversity report released in July 2020.

When asked how she will tackle these issues, Buzbee said she will “try to be as accessible, transparent and engaged as possible.” She said she likes to walk the newsroom as often as she can.

Her top priority as executive editor at the Post is “listening and learning,” as well as “immersing myself in the reporting and digital operations.” Buzbee is razor-focused on the digital future of the Post. In response to questions about her goals as top editor at The Post, Buzbee did not mention the print newspaper.

When asked what challenges she will have to address in what is arguably one of the biggest roles in the journalism industry, Buzbee pointed to the need to “connect with a younger generation of news consumers who may not make daily visits to a homepage.”

“We need to meet audiences where they are and make our journalism as accessible, sharp and transparent as possible,” she added. “We want to connect the dots between interests and events and tell people stories that have direct relevance to their lives.”

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