How Will Lewis' Washington Post CEO appointment could shake up The Telegraph sale

Will Lewis as WaPo CEO could shake up Telegraph sale
Sir William Lewis, who founded The News Movement and is in the bidding for The Telegraph, was named CEO of The Washington Post over the weekend.

A Jeff Bezos-backed bid for The Daily Telegraph? It’s a stretch, but not impossible now that Telegraph bidder Sir William Lewis is CEO of The Washington Post.

Last month, InPublishing magazine carried an intriguing detailed interview with Sir William Lewis, the distinguished journalist and media executive.

His 33-year career in newspapers has ranged from Financial Times investigative reporter and editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph during the great MPs expenses exposure, to chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

In 2020 Lewis described how after “six magic years” at Dow Jones he decided to leave (he insists amicably) to do something entirely different in the news business.

The first signs of that new project emerged in London two years ago in The Victoria Stakes, a pub in London’s Muswell Hill closed at the time to business because of the Covid emergency.

Lewis and other journalists such as Kamal Ahmed, former editorial director of the BBC, met in the pub to plan something of a Holy Grail for many newspapers: how to reach the missing Generation Z with reliable news.

Finding the lost generation of readers

They are the sort of people who are getting their news from TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Snapchat, and were very unlikely to read The Guardian or The Times.

With the help of £15m, largely raised from high net worth individuals, they created The News Movement, launched last year. The organisation now has around 60 journalists based in the offices of the Associated Press in London and New York.

From experience gained at The Wall Street Journal when the paper launched Young Journal, Lewis was convinced that Generation Z could only be reached if young adults were telling the news to other young adults. The news also had to be delivered to where they were, in places such as TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Snapchat.

“You can only achieve that authenticity, that passion, that energy if you do it as a stand-alone business,” Lewis explained.

The News Movement has done well for an organisation that is little more than a year old, and has been advising other newspaper groups on how to find the lost generation of readers.

But Lewis also had other fish to fry. He spent the summer travelling trying to raise financial commitments to mount a bid to buy The Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine.

An auction process is already under way and Lloyd’s Bank has reportedly rejected a £1bn bid by former owners the Barclay family, perhaps because most of the money was coming from unnamed Middle East sources.

Lloyds is insisting that the many suitors lining up to buy the titles would have to overcome three regulatory hurdles: the scrutiny of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Competition and Markets authority and communications regulator Ofcom.

In the interview, Lewis set out his editorial plans for The Telegraph if his bid should be successful.

It includes the creation of what he calls “Newsroom 3.0,” a more flexible way of financing online than annual subscriptions, such as day or weekly passes and the use of AI to free journalists from mundane tasks.

Apart from incorporating the lessons of The News Movement, Lewis suggested a greater emphasis for The Telegraph on business, finance and markets in both the UK and the US.

The Postman

And then over the weekend as the auction was getting underway behind closed doors, there came an unexpected announcement from the world’s third-richest man and owner of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos.

William Lewis was to become, from the beginning of January, the new publisher and chief executive of The Post.

“Ten years ago I made a commitment to the future of the Washington Post, inspired by its ambitious and consequential journalism,” said Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

“Today, I stand confident in that future knowing it is in the hands of Will, an exceptional, tenacious industry executive whose background in fierce award-winning journalism makes him the right leader at the right time,” Bezos added.

If Lewis had already started talks with Bezos, who is worth more than £150bn, at the time of the InPublishing interview, unsurprisingly he did not drop a hint.

Equally unsurprisingly, when asked what impact his new appointment would have on The News Movement and the bid for The Daily Telegraph, answer came there none.

What is clear is that the Lewis appointment is part of a renewed enthusiasm for The Post on the part of Bezos, who has intervened in recent months amid reports of low morale and increasing losses.

Despite all of that, The Post has continued to deliver high quality journalism and won two Pulitzer prizes in May. Now more investment may be on the way.

Sally Quinn, a longtime Post columnist and widow of legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee said recently, “there’s a sense of hope, which we haven’t had for a long time.”

Is a Bezos-backed bid for The Telegraph a stretch?

But what impact — if any — will the Lewis appointment have on The News Movement and on the bid for The Telegraph?

It is inconceivable that during the Bezos courtship of Lewis such projects were not at least mentioned.

It is entirely possible that the Lewis task will simply be limited to reviving the fortunes of The Washington Post and increasing the number of its digital subscriptions, which peaked at 3 million in 2020 and now stands at around 2.5 million.

Yet again, the work of The News Movement could be central to any attempt by The Washington Post to reach younger audiences and help fulfil the longer-term strategy Bezos has for the paper. That is, to transform a regional American news organisation into a global one.

Certainly the funds needed to build The News Movement, which has already acquired The Recount, an American video service devoted to providing reliable politics, would be peanuts for someone like Bezos.

A Bezos-backed bid for The Daily Telegraph? It’s more of a stretch for the imagination but not impossible.

If Jeff Bezos is indeed back in love with the news in turbulent political times in both the US and the UK, to own an iconic English-speaking brand such as The Daily Telegraph (founded in 1855) to sit alongside The Washington Post (founded in 1877) might pique his curiosity.

If it did, Will Lewis, with his senior newspaper experience in both the UK and the US, would be uniquely qualified to advise on how such a thing could be done.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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