Why Did Jeff Bezos Pick Fred Ryan to Replace Katharine Weymouth?

Bezos’s replacement for Weymouth as publisher at the Post is an old-school organization man in a digital age.
The Post has a new publisher. Photograph by Flickr user Dion Hinchcliffe.

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million last October, he promised to leave the paper’s leadership, publisher Katharine Weymouth and editor Marty Baron, in place for a year.

The year’s up. Weymouth announced this morning that she had resigned, to be replaced by Fred Ryan, who as president and CEO of Allbritton Communications helped to launch the web and print publication Politico, which has largely stolen the Post’s prominence in political reporting.

Veterans of Politico, as well as Allbritton’s failed attempt at a local news web outlet, TBD, found Weymouth’s departure unsurprising, but they were shocked to hear of Ryan’s appointment.

“I figured Bezos would eventually replace Weymouth with a great innovative leader who would transform the Washington Post,” says Stephen Buttry, who worked under Ryan when Allbritton started TBD. “I was wrong. I think Fred’s old school, and the Post needs someone innovative.”

“At Politico,” added Buttry, now a visiting scholar at Louisiana State University’s school of mass communication, “I never got the sense that any innovative ideas came from Fred.”

Buttry’s view is widely shared among Politico journalists, one of whom called the news that Ryan would take over the Post “jaw dropping.”

It’s true that Ryan is not an obvious choice to run a legacy media company. Despite Weymouth’s contention in her resignation memo that “we have made the transition to the digital era,” the paper still lacks a viable business model. Ryan, 59, is neither of journalism nor digital media. Before being appointed by Robert Allbritton’s father, Joe, to be the corporate face of the company, Ryan was Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff after Reagan left the White House.

In age, temperament, and background, furthermore, Ryan little resembles his new boss in Seattle. Bezos is a entrepreneur, a classic tech disrupter; Ryan is a California lawyer who became the quintessential Washington insider. He is chairman of the board of trustees for the Ronald Reagan Foundation and is still very close to Nancy Reagan.

Though Ryan helped invent Politico from scratch—in part by luring away a talented trio of Posties—Jim VandeHei, John Harris, and Mike Allen—he will face a much more daunting task in his new job. Politico, a startup, could be agile in its hiring and coverage, and drew attention for its aggressiveness and its sheer novelty.

At the Post he’ll be charged with making a profit on the digital side as he shores up declining revenues from the print publication.

One explanation for Ryan’s hiring is that Bezos is feeling more comfortable as owner of the Post. Word in the industry is that Weymouth did not choose to resign, an indication that Bezos feels the Post rank-and-file have come to look to the paper as his enterprise, rather than a media company still run by the family that’s held it since 1933.

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