Jeff Bezos has picked a founder of the digital news organisation Politico as the Washington Post’s next publisher in the most visible change at the US newspaper since the Amazon chief bought it for $250m last year.
Fred Ryan, 59, is a former Reagan administration official and founding chief executive of Politico, launched in 2007 by former Post journalists as a direct competitor to the paper’s political coverage of the US capital.
He replaces Katharine Weymouth, 48, a fourth-generation member of the Graham family. Her departure marks the end of the family’s 81-year involvement with the paper, which began when her great-grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post for $825,000 in a 1933 bankruptcy auction.
Mr Ryan’s appointment underlines US newspapers’ digital emphasis at a time when many of them face existential questions about the future of their business models.
The Post and its peers are grappling with declining circulation and print advertising revenue as well as a new crop of digital upstarts that compete on leaner budgets without legacy print operations.
“Few areas of our lives have changed with technology more than media,” Mr Ryan said. “The opportunity is to embrace it and to use the opportunities that technology presents to expand our reach. That’s part of the model that Jeff [Bezos] has advocated.”
Mr Ryan helped create one of the forces that has reshaped the media landscape. While working at Allbritton Communications, a television company, he launched Politico with Post reporters John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei. He left Allbritton last month when the company sold its TV stations.
Asked about competing with Politico, Mr Ryan told the Financial Times: “Journalism is not a two-horse race. There’s room for many winners.”
Previously, he worked on Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign and joined the White House staff in 1982. When Reagan left office in 1989, Mr Ryan became his chief of staff and oversaw the planning and construction of the Reagan presidential library outside Los Angeles.
In the 12 months since he bought the Post, Mr Bezos has injected some of his wealth into the organisation, hiring more than 60 people in the newsroom – some to replace people who have left – and underwriting digital initiatives and international expansion.
The Post has started a new online opinion section, opened a development and design office in New York, expanded its “native advertising” offers, and hired a sales team in London.
It has also opened up free access to its paywalled website to subscribers of more than 100 local newspapers around the country. Analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell said the move pointed to the Post “laying a groundwork for becoming a national news brand” that could help it sell advertising and other products across a network of papers.
Online readership at the Post’s website hit a record 39.7m visitors in July, up 63 per cent from a year ago, according to ComScore data cited by the paper. But print ad sales fell 6 per cent in the first half of 2013 – the final period reported as a public company.
While online ad sales rose 21 per cent in that time, total revenue from the company’s online publishing efforts was $55.6m, compared with $103.1m in print ad sales, highlighting how print dollars are being replaced by digital cents.
Seven straight years of revenue decline helped prompt Ms Weymouth and her uncle, Don Graham, to explore a sale. Her grandmother, Katharine Graham, served as publisher from 1963 to 1979, overseeing its acclaimed coverage of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal.
On Tuesday, Mr Bezos praised Ms Weymouth, saying: “She has successfully led many new initiatives and assured that the first ownership change of this great institution in 80 years has been done smoothly and without skipping a beat.”
Of Mr Ryan, who becomes publisher on October 1, Mr Bezos said: “I know he’s excited to meet the team and roll up his sleeves.”