The Washington Post is missing out on a great editor

Robert Winnett is recognized as a journalists’ editor, precisely the kind of guy you want battling at the front during a fight for the future of news

Washington robert winnett
Robert Winnett (The Daily Telegraph)
Share
Text
Text Size
Small
Medium
Large
Line Spacing
Small
Normal
Large

When Robert Winnett was named the new editor of the Washington Post, it made a lot of sense to me. He’s deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, perhaps best known for being the driving force behind the Britain’s Members of Parliament expenses investigation. His judgment and energy have been pivotal to making the Telegraph such a strong commercial and editorial success in a world that seems full of newspapers in crisis. The Washington Post is fast turning into one of them which is why Jeff Bezos, its owner, turned to former Telegraph editor Will Lewis as CEO. And why Lewis, in turn, headhunted…

When Robert Winnett was named the new editor of the Washington Post, it made a lot of sense to me. He’s deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, perhaps best known for being the driving force behind the Britain’s Members of Parliament expenses investigation. His judgment and energy have been pivotal to making the Telegraph such a strong commercial and editorial success in a world that seems full of newspapers in crisis. The Washington Post is fast turning into one of them which is why Jeff Bezos, its owner, turned to former Telegraph editor Will Lewis as CEO. And why Lewis, in turn, headhunted Winnett.

But one thing I couldn’t quite work out: why would Rob want to take the job? It’s far from clear that the WaPo’s crisis is recoverable. It has a reputation of being a bit of a viper’s nest. So why not stay and build on the profitable, growing model he has created with Chris Evans and Allister Heath at the Telegraph papers — with great potential in the US? 

This rebellion against Winnett was not even against him, but an unrecognizable caricature of him

It emerged Friday that Winnett isn’t going after all. “It is with regret that I share with you that Robert Winnett has withdrawn from the position of editor at the Washington Post,” Lewis told staff in an email yesterday morning. The warmth of the reaction to this news in the Telegraph says much about how Winnett is recognized as a journalists’ editor, precisely the kind of guy you want battling at the front during a fight for the future of news. 

The Telegraph — like The Spectator — is for sale right now and its financials came out a few days ago: $76 million profit for last year, on turnover of $340 million. When Lewis announced Winnett to WaPo staff, he had a very different story to tell: that the newspaper was losing more than $1 million a week and that its audience has halved since 2020. Such figures risk massive cuts in the not-too-distant future. My hunch is that the WaPo staff sensed that the ax was coming — and got it into their head that Winnett was the ax-man. If they could stop him coming, maybe they’d avoid the ax. So a massive campaign was launched to smear and stop him. It was astonishing to watch. 

There are well-known culture differences in newsrooms in the US and UK. They regard journalism as a profession; we regard it as a trade. They covet awards; we regard gongs as a bit of harmless fun. In Britain, readers are the only judges that matter. Our journalism tends to be profitable; theirs not so much. TIME magazine is losing $20 million a year. The Los Angeles Times is losing about $35 million a year; WaPo is losing twice that. All three titles were bought by billionaires who are struggling to work out how to reposition them. 

We also see a kind of lawlessness in certain American newspapers with staff often in open revolt against the management — and each other — in a way that would strike British journalists as not just disloyalty but a collective act of self-harm. 

When Bari Weiss quit the New York Times she said she described being:

the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist… My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need lto be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick is one of the most successful magazine editors in American history, but even he had to cancel an on-stage interview with Steve Bannon after a staff revolt. When Gerry Baker edited the Wall Street Journal he had to answer to an angry staff meeting after sending an email asking them for more restrained, accurate language when reporting Donald Trump’s policies. 

This rebellion against Winnett was directed against unrecognizable caricature of him. The hacking scandal was subject to the biggest police investigation in British history with hundreds of people investigated: Winnett was not one of them. Trying to belatedly add him as a character to this drama was desperate and implausible, but even the WaPo did so. The New York Times claimed he is nicknamed “rat boy” by colleagues (he isn’t and never has been). The NYT also spoke in shocked tones about the payment of $140,000 for the disc of members’’ expenses. Perhaps this is unusual in America, but the scandal there was how a broadsheet newspaper with supposedly smaller budgets got hold of this goldmine for such a small price.

The expenses scandal was historic because of the way Winnett oversaw the investigation and how effectively he investigated every single piece of the story. The Matt Hancock WhatsApp files was another one of his hit decisions: to devote huge resources in service of the public’s right to know. I’m not sure I can imagine any other newspaper having the inclination of the ability to expose the lockdown files in the way the Telegraph did. 

And this is what was so wrong-headed about WaPo staff complaining that Winnett was not of their “culture.” In the Watergate days, this is what it did best: fearless, politically-neutral investigations. But when it went down the “democracy dies in darkness” route in 2017, positioning itself an anti-Trump political project, it chose another road. This strategy, I’d argue, was at odds with its traditions. Hiring Winnett would have marked a return to those roots.

Winnett believes in holding power to account and that very much includes the Conservatives in Britain’s government. The idea of the newspaper being the “Torygraph” is now out of date. Recently, I’ve had to explain to people who think the Telegraph is somehow positioning itself to back Reform UK that its coverage is designed not to any political purpose but to serve readers: reflecting their exasperation with the Tories and reporting the news rather than banging the drum or saving the blushes of any politician or party. This closeness to the readers helps explain why the Telegraph is profitable. 

When Lewis first announced Winnett to the WaPo newsroom, he was asked by one reporter whether “any women or people of color were interviewed and seriously considered for either of these positions.” This was met with applause. “People are not reading your stuff,” he told them at that meeting: “I can’t sugarcoat it anymore. So I’ve had to take decisive, urgent action to set us on a different path, sourcing talent that I have worked with that are the best of the best.”

That’s a fair description of Winnett. Chris Evans, the Telegraph editor, neatly summed it up well in an email to staff: “their loss is our gain.” As a Telegraph columnist, I’m delighted. As a subscriber to and admirer of the Washington Post, I commiserate — and wish them luck. It sounds like they’ll need it.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.