The First Law of Meetings states that a boss should never convene a meeting, especially an employee meeting, unless he can safely control its substance and outcome.
Washington Post Publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. botched this simple dictate on Wednesday at an afternoon all-employee town hall. Ryan surprised the staff by disclosing that layoffs beyond the November dismissal of the entire Washington Post Magazine staff and the paper’s dance critic were in the cards for early 2023. A cascade of stinging questions fell like hail on Ryan’s comments, prompting his whimpering pushback that he wasn’t about to “turn the town hall into a grievance session” and a retreat from his own meeting, as this video documents.
What was Ryan thinking? What sort of executive calls a meeting less than two weeks before Christmas to promise attendees that the sack of coal of more layoffs was a certainty in the new year? Did he expect the news to go down like bourbon-fortified eggnog? Following the disastrous meeting, Ryan took another shot at announcing the impending layoffs by issuing an email to staffers that was equally undiplomatic. “It is not a decision that has been taken lightly,” he wrote, assuaging nobody.
The town hall blow-up could be dismissed as just a random bad day in the office if viewed in isolation. But much of 2022 has been a nightmare for Ryan, who has held his job since 2014, when Post owner Jeff Bezos hired him. After years of Post growth, expansion and profits, the tide has turned against Ryan’s paper. In late August, the New York Times reported that the Post was on track to lose money this year after previous profitability. It has lost 500,000 subscribers since the Biden inauguration, down from a high of 3 million, and digital ad revenue is off, too, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Such bad news could be discounted by pointing out the cyclical nature of the newspaper business or that other newsrooms have laid off employees this year, including Gannett and CNN. Even Bezos’ own Amazon is currently shedding 10,000 employees and is closing warehouses and canceling new ones across the country. Even the shuttering of the Washington Post Magazine can be defended in the context of the paper’s bad financial news. As former news executive Richard Tofel explained in late August, well before the Washington Post Magazine’s closure, the economic deck has been stacked against Sunday magazines for decades. Viewed in this context, Ryan could have made the case that the current and past ownership had tried everything possible to keep the section afloat but that it was time to surrender and put the paper’s resources elsewhere. Ryan didn’t avail himself to that defense last month, but probably didn’t because he figured any further discussion would only spiral out of control. Given this week’s drama, maybe he was smart to limit his exposure.
The most damaging thing about the New York Times story wasn’t that the Post was losing money. What lifted eyebrows was the Times’ access to internal Post documents and the fact that more than 20 people “with knowledge of the Post’s business operations” spoke for this article (mostly anonymously). The Times piece collects additional dirt: We learn of Ryan’s complaints about low-productivity reporters, his request for “attendance” records of video conference meetings as a way to judge productivity, and his plans to send disciplinary letters to workers who don’t come to the office. It’s damaging, and downright embarrassing, for an institution like the Post to suffer so many breaches of confidentiality, especially to a competitor. It’s one thing for angry journalists to pepper their publisher with angry questions at a town hall. But when a publisher’s own team starts leaking sensitive information, he’s in big trouble. No wonder Ryan is off his game!
In addition to this extremely loud whispering campaign against Ryan coming from within the Post building, he has recently been hobbled by the defection of a number of top executives. In his Wednesday evening dispatch, Puck’s Dylan Byers listed them: the paper’s chief information officer, its chief product officer, its vice president of audience development and analytics, and its chief communications officer.
The recent departures of top Post journalists to other outlets can’t be laid at Ryan’s feet, but the discontent of his hand-picked executive editor, Sally Buzbee, can. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that Buzbee first heard of Ryan’s new cuts the evening before the town hall, which, if true, was very short notice. When the Magazine was closed, Ryan was spared the newsroom’s ire because Buzbee said she took “full responsibility” for it. But how much longer will she provide Ryan a buffer? According to a Wednesday piece by Semfor’s Max Tani, Buzbee has “begun musing aloud to staff” about whether she should resign. He writes, “The fact that Buzbee would even float the prospect of stepping down in a meeting with rank-and-file staff lends credence to a newsroom perception of friction between her and Ryan at a moment when members of the publication’s union have tended to sympathize with Buzbee and focus the union’s ire on the publisher.”
The only time a publisher should want to be the face of the franchise is when he owns it. But Ryan is only a well-paid employee. Having painted a self-portrait of himself as a tactless, huffy autocrat facing internal rebellion from both Post reporters and leaky, business-side employees, Ryan has undercut his authority. By making himself the personification of the paper’s struggles, he could be the next to receive a layoff notice.
You haven’t lived until you’ve been laid off. I’ve lived twice. Send me layoff notices at Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is too important to fire. My Mastodon account has no seniority, nor does my Post account. My RSS feed sings, Take this job and shove it.
Editor’s Note: Jack Shafer’s wife works for the Post