Washington Post staffers ready for new leadership as CEO Fred Ryan steps down

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Washington Post CEO and publisher Fred Ryan announced on Monday he was stepping down after nine years at the helm. Three Post employees as well as representatives of The Post’s union who spoke to Digiday said they are ready for new blood after a tumultuous few years at the news organization.

Two current Post employees and one former one said the next CEO should have a clear business vision and strategy and should come from outside the D.C. circle.

“I want a CEO who first and foremost has a solid business plan that propels us into the next decade and acutely defines our strategy,” said one of the current Post employees, who traded anonymity for candor. “But along with that, someone who respects and values journalism and is committed to making sure The Post continues to be innovative, while telling stories and meeting audiences where they are.”

The second Post staffer, who also spoke under the condition of anonymity, said they shared a similar sentiment with their peers: optimism. 

“This is a good thing,” the second employee said, regarding Ryan’s exit. The staffer said there is a “thirst for new ideas for the business side of The Post.”

In a joint statement, leadership at The Post’s union, which represents 1,000 employees, told Digiday they are looking forward to “a fresh start.” 

“We are hopeful our owner, Jeff Bezos, and new interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, will seek out and listen to the input of The Post’s smart, caring and dedicated staff about the future of our organization,” the statement read.

Under Ryan’s leadership, The Post’s digital subscriptions grew from from 35,000 to 2.5 million. That number, however, hasn’t changed much in the last few years: It’s roughly the same from a year ago and a decrease from the 3 million subscribers The Post said it had in 2021. Meanwhile, The Post’s digital ad revenue fell 15% in the first half of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021, The New York Times reported.

In the past year, The Post has lost a number of its top C-suite executives, including its chief communications officer, chief information officer, chief product officer and chief revenue officer. All roles, aside from the CCO position, are not yet filled (Kathy Baird was appointed CCO in October 2022). 

“You can’t have that degree of high-level departures without pressure being on the shoulders of the CEO,” the former Post staffer said.

The future of the tech products The Post has built out under Bezos — Amazon’s founder who bought the publication in 2013 for $250 million — is also unclear. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that Post executives are considering spinning off or selling Arc XP, its publishing platform product. And its ad tech business, Zeus, is no longer being sold to external clients. 

The Post’s management has also faced tension with its newsroom union, most recently after announcing in January that the company would eliminate 20 positions and keep 30 open roles unfilled.

The second Post employee who spoke with Digiday said they were “a little” surprised about the news of Ryan’s exit, mostly because there hadn’t been any prior indication that he was leaving. However, the “tumultuous” changes at the top of the organization meant that “some shakeup was not shocking,” they said.

“A lot of people had a lot of questions about [Ryan’s] leadership and management,” the second employee said. “In 2018, it felt like [The New York Times] and The Post were kind of neck and neck. It was the heat of the Trump era, and politics was our bread and butter. But [The Times] seemed to take that opportunity to build a diversified lifestyle business brand. And we did not.”

The former Post staffer also cited the challenges news publishers have faced in light of a quieter, post-Trump, post-pandemic news cycle to draw in readers and subscribers. The Washington Post experienced a 10% drop in U.S. unique visitors from April 2022 to April 2023, according to Comscore’s latest data. The site had close to 55 million unique visitors in April 2023.

While The Post experienced a reduction in both ad revenue and digital subscriptions since 2020, The Times mostly experienced growth. Overall revenue was up 4.3% to $560.7 million from Q1 2022 to Q1 2023 for The Times, despite digital ad revenue falling 8.5% in that same period. And digital-only subscription revenue was $258.8 million at The Times, up 14.1% year over year. The company added 790,000 digital-only subscribers since Q1 2022 and now has over 9 million digital-only subscribers.

The second Post employee said they want their next CEO to be “more dynamic” than Ryan, who the staffer described as having an “old D.C.” outlook and stressed the need for a clearer vision on how to expand beyond politics. Since executive editor Sally Buzbee took the reins in 2021, The Post has made efforts to beef up other verticals, such as growing its climate and environment and wellness coverage teams.

The priority for the next Washington Post CEO should be “communicating a clear business plan,” the second staffer said, particularly around how the publication will grow advertising and subscription revenue.

Ryan, who was appointed by Bezos, is succeeded by interim CEO Patty Stonesifer, a former Microsoft executive, founding CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a member of Amazon’s board of directors. She will help lead the search for the permanent CEO of The Post. 

Ryan will remain publisher of the organization until August, at which point he will go on to lead the Center on Public Civility, a new project by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, backed by Bezos.

https://digiday.com/?p=507446

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