Some staffers thought Buzbee’s tactic was working. Until it wasn’t.
A year into her tenure, Buzbee’s efforts at creating a more inclusive newsroom have been stymied by an environment still reeling from years-old wounds over social media and editorial battles and trying to find its feet after a renewed sense of editorial purpose in the Trump era .
She’s lost prominent staff and, like many other national publications, struggled with a significant decline in readership following the end of the Trump presidency. The Post has experienced a slowdown in subscriptions, according to internal emails seen by staffers. Morale has ebbed to a low. In conversations with more than a dozen staffers granted anonymity to speak freely about newsroom dynamics, employees described the events of earlier this month – in which several prominent reporters accused each other of creating hostile work environments and one reporter was fired – as “mayhem” and “Chaos.”
“What are the wins under Sally Buzbee?” asked one of the Post staffers. “I do not know the answer to that.”
Her struggles to steady the newsroom not only reflect the difficulties of an outsider joining a well-established institution but also illustrate the hurdles of an editorial leader faces in overseeing a contemporary newsroom immersed by social media and changing social norms.
The Post has more than 1,000 newsroom staffers around the globe, and nearly as many views on Buzbee’s tenure. But conversations with many of them exposed some common threads.
Buzbee has earned plaudits inside the Post for being more accessible than her storied predecessor, Marty Baron. The Post grew in size and influence under his watch, with the help of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the paper in 2015 and infused it with cash.
Baron was generally respected by newsroom employees, but his old-school, top-down management style at times frustrated some of the younger staff, leading to public clashes with prominent reporters. Baron declined to comment for this story.
Buzbee has taken a different approach, leaning into conversations with editors and expanding the organization’s leadership to include more diverse viewpoints. But some staffers have been less certain about Buzbee’s vision for the paper.
She was chosen for the job by Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan over prominent internal candidates, including Cameron Barr and Steven Ginsberg, many of whom had different supporting factions within the newsroom. Buzbee kept both on her leadership team, promoting Ginsberg to managing editor and Barr to senior managing editor.
Her selection was historic, the first woman to ever serve as executive editor of the Post. But there have been a number of staff departures that raised questions about editorial stability.
High-profile political staffers who left the publication include Robert Costa, who departed earlier this year for CBS News and White House reporter Seung Min Kim, who announced last week that she’s joining The Associated Press. Investigative researcher Julie Tate left for the New York Times, as did David Fahrenthold, who won a Pulitzer for his work into Trump business deals.
The recent dustups have led some staff to question whether Buzbee and the paper’s management can guide the renowned news organization in an era where the Post’s top priorities are less clear than during the later part of Baron’s tenure. As evidence of Buzbee’s continued attempt to balance internal staff dynamics with the larger newsroom mission, the Post issued new draft social media guidelines this week with directives for her team and held internal listening sessions with staff to hear feedback.
The Post has also become increasingly guarded about staff leaking information. When leadership circulated a new draft of the social media policies, staff were required to use their Washington Post IDs to access the document, and could not download it. The new document also urged staff against revealing internal communications, including email and Slack messages.
According to a copy of the draft guidelines seen by POLITICO, the Post stated that hashtags like “#defundthepolice and #stopthesteal” should be avoided, while others like #blacklivesmatter and #pride are allowed. Posts that “celebrate identity and recognize marginalized people humanity are not political advocacy,” according to the guidelines. But the paper cautioned staff from using similar language in tweets because “they could easily be constructed as voicing an opinion and should be avoided.”
The paper’s policies also urged staff against criticizing colleagues publicly on social media, saying that even when facing online harassment, “these sorts of attacks do not give Post journalists license to violate this policy in retaliation.”
Washington Post spokesperson Kristine Coratti Kelly said the document was an early draft of ideas. “It was a document intended to give people a base from which to react, and it made the sessions very productive,” she said.
Through Coratti Kelly, Buzbee declined to comment for this story, saying she had already committed to participating in a one-year retrospective on her tenure with another publication.
Buzbee has overseen the expansion of the editing ranks and introduced new coverage of democracy, the environment and other key issues. Her responsiveness to employee input has earned her internal praise. She holds regular internal newsroom Q-and-A’s and often responds directly (if at times vaguely) to concerns they have. After joining the Post, she rearranged Baron’s old office so her desk faced the door, which symbolically and literally is open most times of the day.
She has also attempted to lower the temperature with the company editorial union, which regularly clashed with Baron over issues related to newsroom diversity and social media policies, among other issues. Four of the Washington Post staffers said Buzbee proactively communicates with the union about newsroom issues, a shift from the tense relationship the union had with Baron, who often ignored correspondence from its leadership.