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Clash Over Phone Hacking Article Preceded Exit of Washington Post Editor

Clash Over Phone Hacking Article Preceded Exit of Washington Post Editor

Weeks before the embattled executive editor of The Washington Post abruptly resigned on Sunday, her relationship with the company’s chief executive became increasingly tense.

In mid-May, the two clashed over whether to publish an article about a British hacking scandal with some ties to The Post’s chief executive, Will Lewis, according to two people with knowledge of their interactions.

Sally Buzbee, the editor, informed Mr. Lewis that the newsroom planned to cover a judge’s scheduled ruling in a long-running British legal case brought by Prince Harry and others against some of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, the people said.

As part of the ruling, the judge was expected to say whether the plaintiffs could add Mr. Lewis’s name to a list of executives who they argued were involved in a plan to conceal evidence of hacking at the newspapers. Mr. Lewis told Ms. Buzbee the case involving him did not merit coverage, the people said.

When Ms. Buzbee said The Post would publish an article anyway, he said her decision represented a lapse in judgment and abruptly ended the conversation.

The interaction rattled Ms. Buzbee, who then consulted with confidants outside The Post about how she should handle the situation. When the judge ruled several days later, on May 21, that Mr. Lewis could be added to the case, The Post published an article about the decision.

Mr. Lewis did not prevent the article from publishing. But the incident continued to weigh on Ms. Buzbee just as she was considering her future at the paper, according to the two people with knowledge of her decision-making process. Her eventual decision to resign has shaken one of the country’s top news organizations.

The interaction over the court ruling was not the primary reason for her resignation. Ms. Buzbee had already been mulling her future at The Post because of a plan by Mr. Lewis to reorganize the newsroom that he laid out to her in April, the people said. Mr. Lewis had offered Ms. Buzbee a job running a new division focused on social media and service journalism, according to the people. She considered that a demotion, since her job as executive editor included overseeing all parts of the news report.

A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment. Ms. Buzbee also declined to comment.

Mr. Lewis was appointed by Jeff Bezos, The Post’s owner and the founder of Amazon, late last year to remake the publication as it reeled from a steep audience decline and annual losses in the tens of millions of dollars. For the past few months, Mr. Lewis, who was previously the chief executive of News Corp’s Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, has been formulating a strategy to overhaul the business.

He decided to split the editorial ranks into three divisions: a core newsroom that covers politics, business and other topics; an opinion section; and a new division that would focus on social media, like video storytelling, as well as service journalism, including wellness and lifestyle coverage. (The Post is currently divided into two parts, news and opinion.)

In offering Ms. Buzbee a role running the social media and service journalism division, according to people familiar with her thinking, Mr. Lewis told her she could weigh in on the recruitment of the editor to oversee the core news operation. He later informed her that he had selected Robert Winnett, an editor at The Daily Telegraph who had previously worked with Mr. Lewis, the people said.

The conversation between Mr. Lewis and Ms. Buzbee about the phone hacking coverage took place in a conference room at an executive meeting outside The Post newsroom. At the meeting, Post executives discussed Mr. Lewis’s planned changes to The Post.

Editors occasionally alert top executives about thorny stories before they are published. In 2013, Martin Baron, the longtime editor who preceded Ms. Buzbee, informed The Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, before The Post began to report on sensitive stories about the National Security Agency. In 1971, Ben Bradlee, a crusading managing editor, gave Katharine Graham, The Post’s former owner, a heads-up before the newspaper published articles about the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the secret history of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Lewis declined to comment to The Post for its article about the ruling in the phone hacking case. But in numerous previous media interviews, he has strongly denied the allegations that he was involved in covering up phone hacking while he was a senior executive for Mr. Murdoch. The Post published an article in March about the lawsuit that also named Mr. Lewis.

At a contentious staff meeting on Monday, Mr. Lewis defended his business strategy, telling the newsroom that The Post had lost $77 million the previous year, had seen a 50 percent audience decline since 2020 and needed to make radical changes to succeed.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it. It needs turning around, right?” he said, according to a recording of the meeting. “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff.”

He continued: “I’ve had to take decisive, urgent action to set us on a different path, sourcing talent that I have worked with that are the best of the best of the best.”

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