Phone hacking article was preceded by departure of Washington Post editor

Weeks before The Washington Post’s executive editor abruptly resigned on Sunday, her relationship with the company’s chief executive became increasingly strained.

In mid-May, the two clashed over publishing an article about a British hacking scandal with some links to Post Chief Executive Will Lewis, according to two people with knowledge of their interactions.

Sally Buzbee, the editor, informed Lewis that the newsroom planned to cover a judge’s scheduled ruling in a long-running British court 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 Lewis’ name to a list of executives they said were involved in a plan to hide evidence of newspaper hacking. Lewis told Buzbee that the case involving him did not deserve coverage, the people said.

When Buzbee said the Post would publish an article anyway, he said her decision represented a lapse in judgment and abruptly ended the conversation.

The interaction shook Buzbee, who then consulted confidants outside the Post about how she should handle the situation. When the judge ruled several days later, on May 21, that Mr. Lewis could be added to the case, the Post published an article about the decision.

Mr. Lewis did not prevent the publication of the article. But the incident continued to weigh on Buzbee as she considered her future at the newspaper, according to two people with knowledge of her decision-making process. Her eventual decision to resign shook one of the country’s leading news organizations.

The interaction over the court decision was not the main reason for his resignation. Buzbee was already mulling her future at the Post because of a plan by Lewis to reorganize the newsroom that he pitched to her in April, the people said. Lewis offered Buzbee a job running a new division focused on social media and service journalism, the people said. She considered this a demotion, as her job as executive editor included overseeing all parts of the story.

A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment. Ms. Buzbee also declined to comment.

Lewis was appointed by Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos late last year to remake the publication, which was reeling from a sharp decline in viewership and annual losses of tens of millions of dollars. In recent months, Lewis, who was previously chief executive of News Corp’s Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, has been formulating a strategy to revamp the business.

He decided to divide the editorial ranks into three divisions: a central newsroom covering politics, business and other topics; an opinion section; and a new division that would focus on social media, such as video storytelling, as well as service journalism, including wellness and lifestyle coverage. (The Post is currently divided into two parts, news and opinion.)

In offering Buzbee a role heading the social media and service journalism division, according to people familiar with her thinking, Lewis said she could have a say in recruiting the editor to oversee the central news operation. He later informed her that he had chosen Robert Winnett, an editor at The Daily Telegraph who had previously worked with Lewis, the people said.

The conversation between Lewis and Buzbee about covering phone hacking took place in a conference room at an executive meeting outside the Post newsroom. At the meeting, Post executives discussed Lewis’ planned changes to the Post.

Editors occasionally warn top executives about thorny stories before they are published. In 2013, Martin Baron, the longtime editor who preceded Ms. Buzbee, briefed Post editor Katharine Weymouth before the Post began reporting sensitive stories about the National Security Agency. In 1971, Ben Bradlee, the crusade’s executive editor, warned former Post owner Katharine Graham before the paper published articles about the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the secret history of the Vietnam War.

Lewis declined to comment on the Post’s article about the decision in the phone hacking case. But in numerous previous media interviews, he has vehemently denied allegations that he was involved in covering up phone hacks while he was a senior Murdoch executive. The Post published an article in March about the lawsuit that also named Lewis.

In a contentious staff meeting on Monday, Lewis defended his business strategy, telling the newsroom that the Post had lost $77 million the previous year, had seen a 50% audience decline since 2020 and needed to make sweeping changes. to have success.

“Let’s not sugarcoat this. It needs to be turned over, right? he said, according to a recording of the meeting. “We are losing huge amounts of money. Its audience has halved in recent years. People aren’t reading your stuff.”

He continued: “I had to take decisive and urgent action to put us on a different path by hiring talent that I have worked with and who are the best of the best of the best.”