The Washington Post publisher and chief executive Fred Ryan, who presided over explosive growth during the Trump years but couldn’t avert the effects of the industry’s downturn over the past two years, said Monday he’s leaving the publication after nearly a decade.
Ryan, 68, will lead the newly formed Center on Public Civility at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the newspaper said. He’ll be replaced at the Post on an interim basis by Patty Stonesifer, formerly chief executive of the Gates Foundation and a member of the Amazon board, newspaper owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said.
Ryan, the former CEO and a founder of Politico, oversaw the appointment of Sally Buzbee — the former Associated Press executive editor — as the Post’s top editor, replacing Marty Baron, in 2021.
A year after Bezos bought the newspaper in 2013, Ryan was appointed to lead The Washington Post, taking over from Katharine Weymouth — granddaughter of legendary longtime CEO Katharine Graham — and ending the Graham family’s eight-decade tenure as leaders of the largest newspaper in the nation’s capital.
Under the motto “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Post aggressively covered the ascension and presidency of Donald Trump with flair, essentially doubling its newsroom staff and sharply boosting its digital footprint.
While it’s never easy to be at the top of such a large organization, “if you step back and look at the last nine years, it has been an excellent period at The Washington Post and for the journalism it holds dear,” said Neil Brown, president of the Poynter Institute, a news industry think tank.
“He took an exceptional brand and modernized it with vibrant and important journalism,” Brown said.
If the Post benefitted from a “Trump bump” like other news organizations, a Washington-based news organization was also susceptible to the problems that would come with that ending, said Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran Washington journalist and now professor at the University of Maryland.
Its list of digital subscribers grew to three million at the end of the Trump administration but has since dropped. Its digital site had 139 million visitors in March 2020, and was down to 58 million in December 2022, according to the Post.
“Did it make the full transition (to digital) that the (New York) Times has made?” Rosenstiel said. “By all measures, you would have to say no. And the last couple of years have been a lot harder.”
The Post went through rounds of layoffs late last year and in early 2023, and saw cutbacks including the ending of its Sunday magazine. The pandemic and inflation has sorely impacted the news industry; the Los Angeles Times said last week it was cutting some 10% of its newsroom staff, and NPR said the same thing earlier this year. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, has laid off hundreds of journalists.
Ryan angered several at the Post late last year when he refused to take questions about layoffs from his own company’s journalists at a newsroom meeting.
Ryan told the Post that his departure has nothing to do with the recent downturn.
“I have no doubt that the high-quality journalism of the standard of The Washington Post will always be successful,” he said.
Ryan has led the Post “through a period of innovation, journalistic excellence and growth,” Bezos said in a memo to the newspaper’s staff. “His focus on the intersection of journalism and technology has been on great benefit to readers and has laid the foundation for future growth.”
With Bezos bankrolling the Post, the organization and a new leader would appear to have ownership in place committed to keeping quality intact, Brown said.
Ryan also served as chief of staff to Reagan after he left the presidency until 1995 and is currently chair of the board of trustees at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
“If you think the news business is a challenge, taking on the challenge of bringing civility to public debates might be the only job Fred Ryan can find that would be potentially more daunting,” Rosenstiel said of Ryan’s destination.
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