Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Washington Post page views in July. This version has been corrected.
Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos is replacing Publisher Katharine Weymouth with Politico’s first chief executive, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., a former Reagan administration official now charged with continuing to build the reach of Post journalism through digital initiatives, company officials said Tuesday.
The hiring of Ryan, 59, ends eight decades of Graham family leadership of The Post and underscores the newspaper’s move into a new era marked by expanded ambitions online and a determination to build a larger national and international audience.
Ryan, who also was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and its stable of eight television stations, told Post journalists in a newsroom meeting Tuesday that they need to embrace the change roiling the industry in pursuit of what he has called “a growth strategy.”
And though he praised several recent initiatives, including those intended to more aggressively attract online readers during morning hours, Ryan offered few details on his vision — or Bezos’s — for The Post. Ryan said he feared that early disclosure of his ideas might allow other news organizations to compete against The Post more effectively.
“I’ve known Jeff for a while,” Ryan said in the newsroom meeting. “He is passionate about The Post and about journalism and about the premier role The Post has played and can play going forward. And we had a lot of exciting conversations about opportunities that are available in media today, challenges of course, innovative ways forward. And I was honored that he selected me to take on this role.”
Bezos, who acquired The Post for $250 million in a sale announced in August 2013, initially kept the senior leadership team intact. But during a visit to Washington two weeks ago, on Aug. 18, Bezos told Weymouth that he had selected a new publisher, according to people familiar with the decision. She will remain on the company payroll as an adviser through the end of the year. Ryan’s tenure formally begins Oct. 1.
Weymouth had privately complained to friends for months that she had trouble communicating with Bezos, who often did not respond to her efforts to contact him, said several people familiar with her concerns who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the contents of private conversations.
Weymouth declined to elaborate on her relationship with Bezos for this report but did say that she was surprised by the timing of his decision. “Obviously he was going to get his own team,” she said. “When people buy a company, the existing team rarely stays for longer than a year. I just was expecting to at least finish this year. And we are having an awesome year.”
In a statement to Post employees Tuesday morning, Weymouth called her six-year tenure as publisher “the greatest honor of my life.” She added: “Now it is time for new leadership. With Jeff Bezos as our new owner, you are already seeing an infusion of energy and ideas. This is just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter for The Post.”
In a formal company announcement, Bezos praised Weymouth for her stewardship, saying: “I am so grateful to Katharine for agreeing to stay on as Publisher this past year. She has successfully led many new initiatives and assured that the first ownership change of this great institution in eighty years has been done smoothly and without skipping a beat.”
Bezos added: “I welcome Fred and thank him for agreeing to become The Post’s next Publisher and CEO. I know he’s excited to meet the team and roll up his sleeves.”
The announcement did not give reasons for the change or its timing. Bezos declined through a spokesman to offer further comment.
Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com as well as one of the world’s wealthiest people, has underwritten aggressive efforts to expand online readership. The Post has hired dozens of new journalists and launched numerous digital initiatives since the purchase, part of what Bezos has described as providing a “runway” for innovation amid a rapidly changing media landscape.
Yet his most aggressive move may prove to be the hiring of Ryan, who has experience at a news organization that grew sharply during a digital transition that savaged the profits of traditional newspapers such as The Post. Ryan’s background in Republican politics also raised questions about the direction of The Post’s editorial page, among the most influential in the nation.
In comments Tuesday, Ryan said he did not intend to impose new editorial policies and vowed not to meddle in the independence of The Post’s newsroom. He endorsed current Post editors, including Martin Baron, the executive editor, and Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor.
Several current and former employees of Politico and other news organizations that Ryan has overseen said they saw no evidence that he imposed his political views on news coverage.
“He has never asked us to do or not do a story,” said Bill Lord, the outgoing vice president and general manager of WJLA and NewsChannel 8, which were part of Allbritton Communications until the stations were sold last month. “He checked his politics at the door.”
Baron said he did not expect Ryan’s appointment to carry political implications for coverage by the newsroom. “Our news coverage aims to be fair, honest and accurate,” said Baron, “and it’s non-ideological. I’m confident it will remain that way.”
Ryan, a lawyer, spent years rising in Ronald Reagan’s administration, eventually becoming a top presidential aide and a key leader in the construction of Reagan’s presidential library.
Ryan joined Allbritton Communications in 1995, becoming president and chief operating officer. In 2007, he became the founding chief executive of Politico, owned by Robert Allbritton, the chairman and chief executive of Allbritton Communications.
Ryan’s gregarious manner allowed him to be a visible promoter of Politico in its formative years, yet several current and former Politico staffers portrayed him as more a business manager than a visionary or journalistic leader.
He is credited with helping the news organization win a lucrative advertising deal with Goldman Sachs and host presidential debates before the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Ryan also urged Politico to always write its name in capital letters — as POLITICO — in a bit of branding that has become part of its identity.
Ryan oversaw the birth in 2010 of a less successful online venture, TBD.com, a local news service. Deep staff cuts a year later left bruised feelings among several people who had worked there, they said.
“Fred and I certainly had our differences, certainly, at the end of TBD,” said Jim Brady, the former general manager for TBD.com who is now developing a local news site in Philadelphia. “We were promised a five-year runway. . . . The runway ended up being four years less than we were promised.”
Ryan left the dual roles at Allbritton Communications and Politico on Aug. 1, when the sale of the television stations was completed. Ryan had laid the groundwork for his new job in January at a black-tie Beltway dinner when he told Jean Case, a former tech executive and the wife of AOL founder Steve Case, that he wanted to be publisher of The Washington Post. According to a source with knowledge of the conversation, Case then brokered an introduction to Bezos.
Ryan declined to confirm any details about how he had come to get the publisher’s job.
“I decided I’m not going to get into the play-by-play,” Ryan said. “But I will say I’ve known Jeff for a while.”
Graham family control of The Post began when Eugene Meyer, Weymouth’s great-grandfather, bought the paper at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, in what is regarded as the start of The Post’s rise to national prominence and profitability.
Since then it has been led at various points by Meyer’s son-in-law Philip Graham, daughter Katharine Graham and their son, Donald Graham. He was chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., a publicly traded company largely controlled by the family, when Weymouth, his niece, was named publisher in 2008 after years of working on the business side at The Post.
Weymouth had a tumultuous tenure that saw steep declines in revenue and circulation, coinciding with a global economic crisis that heightened troubles for a struggling newspaper industry. The Post under her guidance cut sections and staff as it attempted to move much of its journalism online and find a sustainable business model for an organization that had traditionally provided vigorous coverage of local, national and international news.
Weymouth also oversaw several changes in newsroom leadership that included the retirement in 2008 of longtime executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., who was succeeded by the Wall Street Journal’s former top editor, Marcus Brauchli. Weymouth dismissed Brauchli in 2012 and appointed Baron, the former Boston Globe editor, as executive editor. He has held the position since January 2013.
As publisher, Weymouth continued the editorial policies long practiced by The Post. She also oversaw a more recent period of stronger financial performance and digital innovation, and continued to support ambitious, award-winning journalism. Recent months have seen major surges in online readership, reaching a record in July, newsroom officials say. ComScore, an independent firm that tracks digital traffic, reported that The Post’s Web site had 369 million page views in July, a 70 percent increase over July 2013, and 39.5 million visitors, a 63 percent increase over the same period.
A key moment in Weymouth’s tenure as publisher came in late 2012 when, after reviewing seven straight years of revenue declines, she suggested to Donald Graham that he consider selling The Post. The only other option, she told her uncle, was more rounds of cuts that eventually would devastate The Post’s journalism. Graham initiated a search for a buyer, eventually settling on Bezos.
“Anyone who loves The Post will wish Fred Ryan nothing but the best in becoming publisher,” Graham said in an interview. “I want to congratulate Katharine Weymouth on outstanding work as publisher. She brought The Post back from large financial losses in 2009, restored the business fundamentals of the paper and hired an outstanding leadership team, in Marty Baron and others, that will serve The Post well for the future.”
Ryan is the chairman of the White House Historical Association and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, as well as a board member for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he received bachelor’s and law degrees.
Peter Hart, a media analyst at FAIR, a left-leaning media watchdog group, said that “people have been watching Bezos like a hawk to find some evidence of what his ownership means” and how the paper will change under his watch. Ryan’s hiring presents perhaps the first clear litmus test.
At the newsroom meeting, Baron introduced Ryan by noting that news of his hiring had bolstered The Post’s digital readership that morning.
“I was glad to help today,” Ryan said to laughter. “What are you going to do to own the morning tomorrow?”
Karen Tumulty, Julie Tate and Ellen McCarthy contributed to this report.