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Tipsheet

The Washington Post Could Be on the Verge of Another Internal Meltdown

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Maybe I spoke too soon. I thought the recent fiasco at The Washington Post between Dave Weigel and Felicia Sonmez was the only meltdown and all would return to normal. I was wrong. Weigel was the subject of the cancel crowd when he retweeted a joke that Sonmez found offensive. Both worked at the paper as reporters. It spilled onto social media. It got nasty. Weigel was suspended for a month. Sonmez was eventually fired. Executive Editor Suzy Buzbee issued an email where she pretty much reminded everyone to calm down and respect one another. That only poured more gasoline on the fire. Sonmez continued to attack what appears to be everyone for another week until she was fired. 

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The New York Times had a lengthy piece about Buzbee. It was obviously crafted as a piece about how she’s the first female executive editor in the 145-year history of the paper, but it also paints a woman at war with a newsroom that doesn’t trust her. She has a new back-to-the-office policy that’s caused some heartburn, but it’s only a three-day requirement. It’s not that terrible. The overhauls to the social media policy, however, and some other lingering issues have placed Buzbee in the eye of a storm that’s engulfed the paper. In all, the paper’s Weigel-Sonmez saga is over, but it seems like the publication is on the verge of another internal civil war.

When those tried to defend Weigel, some folks dug up old problematic tweets to call out the hypocrisy. It was mayhem. And with the recent Taylor Lorenz fiasco regarding social media influencers becoming breaking news aggregators, opened another whole can of worms with regards to an editor who supposedly lost out on a promotion because of this story. It was about the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial. 

The story itself was not the problem. Lorenz’s piece claimed that she reached out to two accounts for comment, both deny it, and both even said the editor’s note contained false information. Lorenz said the initial story saying she reached out was an editor’s error. Erik Wemple, the Post’s media critic, did ask a good question, adding that if we can’t get a correction right—why should readers put their trust in us. There was also this update:

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The fallout from the Lorenz story continues: On Thursday, members of The Post’s features staff held a meeting with Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, Senior Managing Editor Cameron Barr, Managing Editor of Diversity and Inclusion Krissah Thompson and Managing Editor of Digital News Kat Downs Mulder. At issue was a letter from features staffers citing an article in the Daily Beast identifying Deputy Features Editor David Malitz as the one who inserted the mistake about comment requests to YouTube content creators and reporting that the affair “may cost” Malitz a promotion to top features editor.

According to three sources at the meeting, one reporter pressed Buzbee on specifics, saying that colleagues had learned that Buzbee had offered Malitz the job on Thursday, June 2, and then rescinded the offer the following Monday. Buzbee, according to these sources, didn’t deny the timeline but insisted that Malitz was in no way punished for his mistake. Staffers who spoke at the meeting, according to the sources, were furious with Buzbee’s decision and asked whether it could be reversed. She was resistant to that suggestion, say the sources.

A Post spokeswoman said, “We will not be commenting.”

While she has grown the publication, Buzbee seems to be more of a firefighter, putting out potential wildfires across the office. And it doesn’t help that one of the main areas where grievances were high—the social media policy—hadn’t been tweaked because the person tasked with finding standards editors to update the policy wasn’t able to fill those positions. And alas, the blowup at the Post about the Weigel retweet. The Weigel and Lorenz fiascos were a one-two punch for Buzbee (via NYT):

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The newspaper has continued growing in the months since. It has opened breaking news hubs in Seoul and London to become more of a 24-hour global operation. It expanded coverage of technology, climate and personal health. Its reporting won the Pulitzer Prize for public service this year.

But Ms. Buzbee is now on the defensive, yet to completely win over the newsroom and facing internal strife that has eclipsed some of her bold plans.

Internal frustration with Ms. Buzbee has spilled into public view. Much of it resulted from two social media storms — one that led to the firing of a reporter, and another that led to accusations that a feature editor’s promotion was unfairly rescinded. Many journalists at the newspaper say the problems resulted from an outdated policy on how employees should conduct themselves online, and a star system that has led to uneven enforcement of that policy. Ms. Buzbee released a draft of a new social media policy on Wednesday.

[…]

A memo prepared by the national staff in 2020 recommended that the policy be overhauled to redefine the newsroom’s purpose on social media, acknowledge the abuse journalists receive online and create a more transparent enforcement process.

Ms. Buzbee told people that she planned to hire standards editors who would update that policy. The person Ms. Buzbee promoted to oversee the standards team in March hadn’t yet filled those positions when the internal frustrations recently erupted on Twitter.

[…]

Less than an hour later [after the firing of Sonmez], Ms. Buzbee met with the features department to quell another social media flare-up.

Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter lured to The Post from The New York Times this year, had tweeted that a miscommunication with her editor led to an inaccurate line in an article. The tweets were discussed and agreed on by Ms. Lorenz and multiple editors before she posted, said three people with knowledge of the discussions. The tweets prompted an outcry from critics on Twitter who accused her of passing the buck.

[…]

Before the corrections, Ms. Buzbee had offered the well-respected editor, David Malitz, a promotion to run the features department, according to one person with knowledge of the offer. He had agreed to take it. But several days later, Ms. Buzbee pulled the offer.

In the meeting with the features group, Ms. Buzbee fielded angry questions about Mr. Malitz’s treatment. She said he was “in no way reprimanded or punished for any errors,” according to a copy of notes taken at the meeting, but would not say what was behind her decision. She said she couldn’t talk about personnel issues.

It was at that meeting that Ms. Sullivan, The Post’s media columnist, accused Ms. Buzbee of damaging Mr. Malitz’s career, and other staff members said   she hadn’t earned their trust. Some told Ms. Buzbee that their doubts stemmed from rarely hearing from her until that meeting.

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This is a massive ship to captain here, so let’s be fair here. She took over amid the COVID pandemic. It’s tough. Still, that’s no excuse. The piece comes away with the feeling that another blowup could happen, and with the rank-and-file not trusting Buzbee, expect the shenanigans to continue. All of this is fixable—and she certainly has the experience to right the ship, get the core reporters on her side, and get back to the business of helping Democrats not look bad. Until then, be on the lookout for the third meltdown. These things usually happen in threes. Oh, and Taylor Lorenz has been transferred from features to the technology beat where all her pieces will need to be reviewed thoroughly. 

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