Washington Post CEO plans a mysterious ‘third newsroom.’ His past offers a clue.

William Lewis speaking to Washington Post staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C., last year.
William Lewis speaking to Washington Post staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C., last year.

Summary

In 2020, William Lewis co-founded a startup to make journalism for social-media platforms.

William Lewis set out in 2020 to build a modern newsroom. His plan: Don’t resist the power of social media. Embrace it.

Whereas most publications try to draw readers to their own websites and apps, Lewis’s startup, the News Movement, creates content for TikTok, Instagram and YouTube—short, vertical videos on topics from politics to fashion to culture, aimed at a Gen Z audience.

Lewis is now promising to carry out a digital transformation at the Washington Post, where he took over as CEO this year, with goals of reversing its contraction in online readership and stemming financial losses.

He has said little about his plans, other than that he wants to create a new, specialized newsroom to do social-media and service journalism. The News Movement offers some clues about how he views the modern media landscape, and in what direction he might take the Post.

One goal of the Post’s “third newsroom"—the first is the core news operation and the second is the opinion section—would be to reach and generate revenue from audiences who are unlikely to pay for subscriptions but will engage with the news outlet’s content on social-media platforms, people familiar with the Post’s plans said.

As Lewis tries to implement his plans, he faces deepening controversies that are creating a major distraction. He’s dealing with questions about his role in a U.K. hacking scandal that played out more than a decade ago, his reported attempts to quash stories about that case, and the tactics he has employed as a journalist.

The Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, has reaffirmed his support for Lewis, according to people familiar with the matter. On Tuesday, Bezos sent a note to Post leaders committing to maintain the news organization’s “journalistic standards and ethics," and emphasizing the importance of evolving the Post’s business.

“The world is evolving rapidly, and we do need to change as a business," Bezos wrote.

When Lewis arrived at the Post, he had already been carrying out a news experiment. He launched the News Movement after leaving Dow Jones, parent of The Wall Street Journal, where he was CEO for six years. Lewis stepped down from the News Movement when he joined the Post but remains an investor.

Many news outlets are emphasizing their own websites and platforms, after discovering that relying too much on Facebook, Google, Twitter and others failed to pay dividends. The startup, which employs journalists who report primarily for social platforms, is taking the other side of that bet, submitting to the will of social media and accepting that it is where new audiences are spending time.

The News Movement acquired the politics-focused news site the Recount last year and has close to 50 staffers in New York and London. Coverage formats range from news-recap videos on TikTok to newsletters and Instagram posts about the latest fashion trends, under the startup’s women’s lifestyle brand, Capsule.

One post from the News Movement’s TikTok profile explained a recent decision by Maryland’s governor to pardon 175,000 marijuana convictions, while a recent post on Capsule’s Instagram page about what to wear at music festivals offered up a few outfit combinations.

“The notion of a ‘third newsroom’ that is more native to video and social media is intriguing," said Jim Friedlich, chief executive of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer.

One risk of doubling down on social-media distribution is that it gives publishers less control over the exposure their work gets. “Any effort to build audience on TikTok or other platforms must be undertaken with eyes wide open since it represents a dependence on other companies’ platforms rather than direct customer access," Friedlich said.

Turning reach into dollars

The News Movement doesn’t disclose its financial performance. Ramin Beheshti, CEO and co-founder, said it generated seven figures in revenue last year and expects to double its revenue this year, compared with 2023.

The startup makes money primarily through a separate unit that helps brands make promotional content on social media, said Beheshti. It also generates ad revenue and has begun testing donations.

The News Movement has raised around $15 million from strategic partners and family offices and says it is on a path to profitability.

Virtually every major newsroom is experimenting with new business models and exploring how to reach younger readers.

“One big thing that makes it hard to reach this audience is that their attention is across many platforms and most traditional newsrooms were set up with one distribution format," said S. Mitra Kalita, who runs both Epicenter, a newsletter and civic-engagement company, and URL Media, a network of 32 community media organizations.

“The Washington Post and all other news brands need to go where the young people are," said digital-media consultant Matthew Goldstein. “The young people are not, right now, on the open internet. They are on the apps that are already on the phone, on the first page of the phone."

The Post has tried various other efforts to jump-start its business. It has diversified its coverage with the Lily, focused on women; the videogame section Launcher, which the Post closed last year; and food hub Voraciously. Former Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, who chose to leave in recent weeks as part of Lewis’s newsroom restructuring, also expanded coverage in areas such as wellness and climate coverage.

Despite those efforts, the company has suffered from sliding traffic and subscriptions following a surge during the presidency of Donald Trump. The Post lost $77 million in 2023.

Lewis appointed Matt Murray, a former Wall Street Journal editor in chief, to succeed Buzbee. Murray will eventually take control of the third newsroom and hand the reins of the core newsroom to Robert Winnett, a veteran British journalist, following the presidential election.

‘Untapped audiences’

The Post is seeking to grow subscriptions through more flexible payment options, such as allowing subscribers to pay for a shorter period of time or charging a premium for professional products. The outlet also wants to reach people who are unlikely to be paying subscribers or visitors to the Post website; the third newsroom is part of that effort, according to one of the people familiar with the plans.

In a note Friday, Lewis said the new newsroom is meant to help the Post build the skills “required to meet untapped audiences where they are."

Murray indicated in staff meetings that the goal of the third newsroom was to create a team squarely focused on developing new products and experiences, rather than making that an add-on task for core news personnel. In some sessions, Murray cited the New York Times as a model, saying the unit that includes video and audio, including the hit podcast “The Daily," operates like a newsroom within a newsroom.

As Lewis sets his strategy in motion, he remains in the headlines. ​On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Winnett and Lewis had used fraudulently obtained phone and company records in news articles during their careers as U.K. journalists.

A Post story on Sunday detailed ties between Winnett and John Ford, an individual who used deceptive means to obtain information and who had been hired by the Sunday Times to assist with stories. A week earlier, Lewis denied the characterization of a Times report saying he had pressured Buzbee to quash a Post story about the hacking scandal that cast him in a negative light.

The Post has asked former senior managing editor Cameron Barr to oversee the outlet’s coverage of itself. “The publisher has no involvement in or influence on our reporting," a Post spokeswoman said.

Employees have banded together through the turmoil. Patty Stonesifer, whom Bezos tapped as interim CEO before Lewis’s appointment, hosted a party Sunday for Buzbee that was attended by around 40 newsroom staffers, executives and editors.

Meanwhile, the Post canceled a dinner Lewis had planned to host near Cannes this week during an annual event for the advertising and media industries, according to people familiar with the matter.

Isabella Simonetti contributed to this article.

Write to Alexandra Bruell at alexandra.bruell@wsj.com

 

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