Tensions boil inside The Washington Post amid union standoff, questions over new CEO

Will Lewis, founder of The News Movement, at the publisher's headquarters in London, UK, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

Will Lewis, founder of The News Movement, at the publisher’s headquarters in London, UK, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.Carlotta Cardana/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesCNN — 

The Washington Post’s incoming chief executive and publisher will start the job with a mess on his hands.

William Lewis, the veteran media executive who is set to take the reins of the renowned newspaper in January, will arrive to a newsroom in turmoil with sagging morale as contract negotiations between the Post’s leadership and unionized staff remain deadlocked, hundreds of employees depart, and questions are renewed about Lewis’ role in a decade-old phone hacking scandal.

On Wednesday, members of the union that represents roughly 1,000 newsroom employees stormed the Post’s daily editorial meeting, clashing with executive editor Sally Buzbee and interim chief executive Patty Stonesifer over the contract talks stalemate, a person familiar with the matter told CNN.

Workforce tensions

The Washington Post Guild, the union that represents staffers, has been negotiating with executives on a new contract for a year and a half, but it has yet to reach an agreement. Wages and staff reductions have remained a major sticking point between the two sides, causing dismay among union members with the newspaper’s management.

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Adding to the frustrations, The Post, which aimed to slash its workforce with 240 voluntary buyouts by the end of the year, has now exceeded its goal, prompting the newspaper’s management to offer financial incentives in a bid to retain some employees, the union told its members this week in an email obtained by CNN.

A person familiar with the matter told CNN that the Post had resorted to offering some staffers generous bonuses to remain at the newspaper. Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Washington Post pointed to a memo sent by Stonesifer to the newspaper’s staff on Tuesday emphasizing that “the number of people accepting the Voluntary Separation package has met our goal for 2024.” The spokesperson did not respond to further questions concerning the offers to retain staff.

“The company wants us to believe that hitting its caps meant that 240 of our colleagues saw the buyout as a gift,” the Guild said in the email. “They were threatened with layoffs and made to feel undervalued, disrespected and disposable.”

“And now, because of those threats, the company seems to have exceeded its buyout goal — and is now panicking,” it added.

The Post’s management has so far rejected the union’s wage demand and has yet to directly confirm whether remaining staffers’ positions are safe from cuts, the union said.

One Post staffer on Thursday described the atmosphere to CNN as “emotionally raw,” with numerous departing employees sending goodbye notes. The staffer, who sympathized with the need to be more financially stringent, said management however had behaved in a “tone deaf” manner as emotions coursed through the newsroom.

Hacking scandal cover-up?

Amid the union standoff, tensions at the Post were inflamed once again on Wednesday after a widely-read NPR article reported that Lewis, the newspaper’s 54-year-old incoming chief, allegedly assisted in the cover-up of “criminal activity when he was acting outside public view” while working a decade ago for Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire.

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The allegations stem from recent lawsuits brought against News Corp.’s U.K. newspapers by Prince Harry and Hugh Grant, which allege that Lewis attempted to hamper government officials and deleted incriminating emails to shield Murdoch’s outlets from the sweeping fallout from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Lewis, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph and publisher of The Wall Street Journal — the latter of which is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. — also allegedly attempted to engage in damage control for Murdoch’s U.K. tabloid, The Sun.

Lewis addressed the allegations in an interview with the Post last month. “I took a view very early on that I’m never going to talk about it,” he said. “And it’s either right or wrong that I’ve done that.” He has previously denied the allegations.

Stonesifer, speaking to the Post for the same article, said that Lewis “didn’t shy away” from making tough decisions over the course of his 30-year career. “That kind of bold leadership was part of what we were actually looking for. And believe me, we did our homework to determine whether that leadership went too far,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Post did not comment on the allegations.

Both the buyouts and NPR report come less than two weeks after 750 Post staffers walked off the job in a historic 24-hour strike, protesting the staff cuts and applying pressure on management to negotiate on a new contract in good faith.

On Thursday, departing staffers were sent an email from management encouraging them to buy official merchandise emblazoned with the Post’s logo.

“Before your last day at The Post, https://tehmasnisdingin.com make sure you stop by The Post Store to take advantage of special employee pricing on products, including alumni gear,” it said. “You will not be able to access discounted rates after your last day at The Post.”

A spokesperson for the Post told CNN “the message was included in error and is no longer part of any Washington Post employee departure communication.”

Still, the email left staffers irritated, with some calling it “tone deaf” and “outrageous.”

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