The Washington Post’s EIC succession plan shakes up newsroom, but does little to curb marketers’ news avoidance

Illustration of a rolled up newspaper with a blood drip.

It seems the sudden shakeup at the top of The Washington Post’s newsroom is unlikely to make buyers’ evaluation of the news organization as a place to spend their media budgets any worse, given their general aversion to advertising around news content.

The Washington Post announced Sunday night that Matt Murray, former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, is the new executive editor of The Washington Post, replacing Sally Buzbee, who has served in the position since 2021. However, the day after the election on Nov. 6, Robert Winnett, a deputy editor of the U.K.-based Telegraph Media Group, will take over the newsroom and Murray will transition to building a new division at The Washington Post focused on service and social media journalism. 

It’s an arguably strange time to organize a shuffle, just five months before the U.S. presidential election — and likely signals the urgent need to make changes at the news organization.

Will Lewis, who replaced CEO and publisher Fred Ryan last year, told staff last month that The Post had lost $77 million in 2023 and 50% of its audience since 2020. Lewis seems to have called on his former colleagues for help — both Murray and Winnett were appointed by Lewis at the Journal and The Daily Telegraph, respectively.

But new leadership may prove to be a hard sell to the advertising ecosystem, according to Seth Hargrave, CEO of ad agency MediaTwo Interactive. That’s because marketers are already averse to news content. 

“It’s less about the editors, and more about the content. In the current news environment, editors are keen on the data driving their approach to content which leads to better audiences, higher engagement rates, and ultimately steadier ad revenue. With that said, there’s still a fear among advertisers of the news category in general,” Hargrave said.

In a panel during the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual NewFronts event last month, CEOs from five top news media organizations including BBC, CNN, NBCUniversal, The New York Times and NPR urged advertisers to support news organizations with their marketing dollars, in light of challenges such as news avoidance and distrust and keyword blocking.

“The term ‘negative news’ is virtually all-encompassing on a national and international level. Between politics, wars, climate change, crime and a slew of other coverage categories, negative bias is at an all-time high. As a general rule of thumb, we tend to avoid that category for most of our clients,” Hargrave said.

Digiday reached out to four other large ad agencies, all of which declined to comment on the changes at The Post. 

The New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said in a February earnings call that marketers’ “news avoidance” in Q4 2023 — primarily due to the war between Israel and Hamas in October — had a negative effect on both display and audio ad revenue. 

“In the current news environment, editors are keen on the data driving their approach to content which leads to better audiences, higher engagement rates and ultimately steadier ad revenue. With that said, there’s still a fear among advertisers of the news category in general,” Hargrave said.

When CEO and publisher Ryan, who stepped down last year after nine years at the helm (and under his leadership, growing digital subscriptions to 2.5 million — before facing challenges like subscriptions plateauing in 2021, a decline in digital ad revenue and a number of top C-suite exits last year), Post employees told Digiday they were ready for new leadership from outside the D.C. circle to save the Post from its business woes — a wish now granted. 

However, it’s unclear why Winnett won’t take over the newsroom until Nov. 6 – especially because if the 2020 election cycle is any indication, coverage of the event could go on until January 2025 or later.

Of the six current and former Post employees Digiday spoke to, none could shine a light on the rationale behind the November handoff. A Washington Post spokesperson declined to comment on the succession plan. Reps at The Washington Post’s newsroom union also didn’t have much to add, beyond a statement given to Digiday noting that they were “troubled” by Buzbee’s sudden exit, as well as the lack of diversity among the organization’s leadership. The Post will soon have four white men — Lewis, Murray, Winnett and opinion section editor David Shipley — running the organization. Buzbee was the first woman to lead The Post’s newsroom.

“Whether this will address [the Post’s] issues, I don’t know,” said Paul Farhi, a Post media reporter who left last December after 35 years at the company.

A current Post employee – who exchanged anonymity for candor – said they welcomed Lewis’ plan to try to fix the issues plaguing the Post, such as creating separate divisions outside of its core news offering to try to bring in different revenue streams in an effort to mirror The New York Times’ success with their other businesses, they said.

Though the Post employee was uncertain if Lewis’ plan would work, they said it was the most robust plan they’d seen outlined at the news organization since 2020.

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