The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Holiday gloom at The Washington Post

The Post headquarters on K Street NW in Washington. (Robert Miller/The Washington Post)
6 min

In December 2006, David Carr, the media columnist for the New York Times, wrote a column about The Washington Post and mentioned that layoffs could be in the works. Leonard Downie Jr., then The Post’s executive editor, responded with fury: “We want to quash any stupid, false rumors like this one,” said Downie.

That didn’t mean The Post wasn’t slashing its payroll. Thanks to its rich pension fund, the company laid out a series of buyouts in the 2000s — generous packages bulging with cash and health benefits — that aging Posties had trouble resisting. But at least they weren’t layoffs.

What Publisher Fred Ryan announced at a town hall event on Wednesday — those are layoffs. “In the coming year we will be eliminating a number of positions,” said Ryan, who explained it was important to align The Post’s editorial offerings with readers’ interests. The cutbacks, he later emphasized in a staff email, wouldn’t exceed “a single-digit percentage of our workforce.” A 9-percent layoff would reduce The Post’s newsroom by about 100 staffers.

The announcement bewildered Post employees who had crowded into the paper’s fourth floor conference space for the year-end meeting. It arrived as a harsh coda to a series of upbeat presentations on bold initiatives, including ambitious climate coverage, an innovative news-delivery product, and changes afoot in the opinions section. Never bury the lead in a crowd of journalists.

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Adding to a sense of whiplash: Early this year, the paper announced a newsroom expansion of 70-plus journalists, featuring 41 editors and fortifications in the spheres of health and wellness, technology, climate, national and international news. “We are placing big bets on a few new areas of coverage in line with our news mission,” noted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee.

Still, the cutbacks don’t come straight out of the blue. The New York Times reported last summer that Ryan had spoken with masthead leaders about the possibility of cutting 100 positions. Sector-wide weakness in ad revenue along with falling subscriptions — The Post had dipped from the 3 million paying digital subscribers that it had touted in 2020 — forced the reckoning, noted the Times.

There is a broader context, named Donald Trump. The Post’s journalism and business model soared when the real estate mogul came down the escalator in June 2015 to announce his presidential bid. Traffic and subscriptions proliferated, as did new hires to handle the sensational story.

Did The Post do enough to prepare for the inevitable draining of the punch bowl?

Puck’s Dylan Byers has argued that the Times anticipated this moment with investments in lifestyle content — NYT Cooking, for instance, as well as the company’s games expansion and podcast build-out — that drove digital subscriptions. This has somewhat insulated the company from the very forces that are driving staff reductions or other austerity measures at media outlets including CNN, NPR and Gannett.

Though The Post may not have made the visionary bets of the Times, it didn’t exactly stand still under Ryan, who was appointed as publisher in 2014 by owner Jeff Bezos. The Post’s newsroom has doubled in size under his watch — to around 1,100 journalists — with significant investments in key national and international coverage areas. The paper’s winning entry for the public service Pulitzer Prize drew on the work of 100-plus journalists who investigated every aspect of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

Newsroom leaders can soften the backlash to layoffs at The Post by better explaining the financial rationale for the cuts and saying why veteran employees cannot be matched to new missions. They missed that mark in late November, when the company announced the shutdown of The Post’s stand-alone Sunday magazine, along with the elimination of 10 positions. The company declined to mount an effort to find spots for these journalists elsewhere in the newsroom. Though a company source notes that laid-off employees are eligible to apply for open positions, The Post is offering them a “Separation Incentive Program” under which they get an enhanced exit package in return for a commitment not to apply for a job at The Post for 18 months, according to Sarah Kaplan, chief steward at the Washington Post Guild. Guild-covered employees who don’t opt into the severance program, notes the company source, will land on a rehire list for up to 12 months and “will be rehired for the same job or for comparable jobs.”

Buzbee cited “economic head winds” in announcing the magazine closing, though Kaplan took issue with the claim. “Post management has signaled that the magazine is being cut for financial reasons. But there is no economic justification for layoffs in a year when The Post has hired a record number of new employees,” Kaplan said in a statement.

The seeming contradiction shadowed Ryan’s message at Wednesday’s town hall event. In addressing the newspaper’s overall health, he noted that a recession in the advertising sector has already arrived. Post leadership, he continued, has a “responsibility” to stay ahead of “readers’ ever-evolving preferences and habits. We cannot afford to keep spending on initiatives that no longer align with readers’ interests.” The company will be eliminating positions in the first quarter of 2023, said Ryan, though he pledged to continue hiring as well — to such an extent that the newsroom a year from now would be as big as it is now, if not bigger.

One way to interpret that: Post management doesn’t believe its current workforce is entirely ready to compete for readers and advertising dollars.

That’s why The Post Guild is roaring. “People don’t understand what Fred’s journalistic and business vision is,” Kaplan tells the Erik Wemple Blog. Engaged in ongoing contract discussions with management, the Guild signed up a crew of new and prominent Posties in the aftermath of this week’s events.

Ryan left the town hall without taking questions. The assembled crowd, which oozed out of the conference space into the surrounding corridor, felt snookered by an hour of happy talk punctuated by a gut punch. “We’re not going to turn the town hall into a grievance session for the Guild,” said Ryan before he exited the room, signaling that his town hall was more hall than town.