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British tabloids have taken over at The Washington Post — whose top hires are under fire

Bezos losing big money -- to say nothing about reputation -- now at the Post

… From Woodward and Bernstein to The Daily Telegraph

Jeff Bezos has been a very successful businessman and has made billions at Amazon to make his the wealthiest person in the world — prior to his divorce.

However, he had zero knowledge of the business of journalism — and it is now biting him as subscriptions to The Washington Post have plummeted in recent years, more than a decade since he took over in 2013.

Initially, his involvement at the paper was minimal and the paper made big bucks, but a hands-on approach increased over the past few years as digital readership number have dropped significantly.

Now, some of his major hiring practices are under fire, and things are so bad that they dropped the price of an online subscription for a year by two-thirds.

I know because I canceled a subscription that I have had for decades — and its is wooing me back with a special of $4 a month for the next year. That would save me almost $100 a year.

It is too late. I blocked their emails.

The “Trump Bump”

Just a few years ago, Bezos and the New York Times were enjoying tremendous success. The reason?

Ironically, Donald Trump.

After Trump was elected in 2016, subscriptions to the liberal-leaning publications literally tripled,

[T]he Post is nearing 3 million digital subscribers, a 50% year-over-year growth in subscriptions and more than 3x the number of digital-only subscribers it had in 2016. The New York Times now has more than 6 million digital-only subscribers, nearly 3x its number from 2016 …

Why it matters: Both companies are growing at an impressive pace, especially given the bleak outlook for media amid the pandemic.

Sarah Fischer, “Trump bump: NYT and WashPo digital subscriptions

tripled since 2016,” Axis, November 24, 2020

In 2020 after Trump lost to now President Joe Biden, the future appeared to be glowing for the Post, but after the election, the paper lost more than half a million of its three million subscribers.

After Trump was gone, the paper struggled to maintain that readership, though the Times has not.

So, Bezos made what many have called an ethical Hail Mary.

The Murdoch effect

To call British publications “journalism” is generally a huge stretch. So, Bezos hiring of a new publishers and editor with sleazy resumes,

New leaders of The Washington Post are being haunted by their pasts, with ethical questions raised about their actions as journalists in London that illustrate very different press traditions in the United States and England.

An extraordinary trio of stories over the weekend by The New York Times, NPR and the Post itself outline alleged involvement by Post publisher Will Lewis and Robert Winnett, his choice as a new editor, in wrongdoing involving London publications as much as two decades ago.

The Post said on Monday that it had brought back its former senior managing editor to oversee the newspaper’s coverage of the matter.

David Lauder, Associated Press, June 17, 2024

Lewis had been involved in a phone-hacking scandal in Britain, something that he tried to coverup a month ago and prevent the Post from publishing a story about it.

He failed.

And it highlighted his involvement with one of the sleaziest British publishers, Rupert Murdoch, now known for his involved with Fox in America,

The coverage revealed Lewis’ sensitivity about questions involving his role in a phone hacking scandal that rocked the British press while he was working there. Lewis has maintained that he was brought in by Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers to cooperate with authorities to clean up after the scandal. Plaintiffs in a civil case have charged him with destroying evidence, which he has denied.

The public revelation of phone hacking in 2011 led to the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid and sparked a public inquiry into press practices that curbed some of the worst excesses.

David Lauder, Associated Press, June 17, 2024

Lewis maintains that he was brought in because the Post had lost $77 million last year. That amount is likely to increase significantly after the hiring scandals.

Winnett bought story for 100,000 pounds

Lewis hired Winnet at “The Daily Telegraph” despite a tremendous controversy that took place in 2009. It is something that makes ethics experts cringe in the U.S.,

[Winnett] will arrive at The Post after 17 years at The Telegraph, a center-right paper associated with Britain’s Conservative Party. Some of his past practices, including the payment of a six-figure sum to obtain the documents crucial to the expenses investigation, run counter to the more stringent reporting ethics followed by American news organizations.

In 2009, somebody called the Telegraph offices with an enticing offer. The tipster was in possession of a small red hard drive containing thousands of documents that revealed widespread abuse by legislators of their parliamentary expense accounts. Taxpayer money had been used for personal mortgage payments and home upgrades like a moat.

It was an explosive story with the potential to upend the British political establishment. But when the tipster met with Mr. Winnett at a London wine bar, he asked to be paid for the information, calling it a way to protect the livelihood of his source. The Times of London and The Sun had turned down this offer; The Telegraph accepted it.

“We said: ‘Look, while The Telegraph doesn’t pay for stories in this way — we’re not a tabloid newspaper, it’s not something we do — but this is sensational. These people need some insurance. They could lose their careers,’” Mr. Winnett said in “The Disk,” a documentary produced by The Telegraph in 2020 to mark the 10th anniversary of the investigation.

At the time, Mr. Lewis was The Telegraph’s editor in chief. According to the film, when Mr. Winnett and a colleague approached Mr. Lewis with the notion of paying for the documents, they thought he might be persuaded to offer 30,000 pounds. Instead, Mr. Lewis threw out a higher number: £100,000. (A different Telegraph editor later described the amount as £110,000.)

Michael Grynbaum, “The Low-Key British Newshound Taking Charge of

The Washington Post,” The New York Times, June 3, 2024

This is a far-cry for what takes place in American journalism, though as the Stormy Daniels trial showed, it was common at American tabloids.

That is what has the Post under fire for its hiring of these two men,

The British press has long been considered freewheeling in its pursuit of scoops, willing to tolerate behavior frowned upon by its American counterparts. For example, when Lewis and Winnett worked at The Daily Telegraph in 2009, they cooperated on stories about politicians’ extravagant expense-account spending. They paid for data that revealed the spending, a reporting practice that would be considered a substantial ethical breach in the U.S.

The Times reported on Saturday that both Lewis and Winnett worked on stories in the 2000s that appeared to be based on fraudulently obtained phone and business records.

Michael Grynbaum, The New York Times, June 3, 2024

Even the Post itself reported a scathing headline about the scandal, “Incoming Post editor tied to self-described ‘thief’ ” on Monday.

So, the paper that became famous for its Watergate coverage by Woodward and Bernstein and for its explosive report on “The Pentagon Papers” has now found itself mired in a scandal of its own making — by its billionaire owner.

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