Fred Ryan and The Washington Post Are Reshaping the Future of the News

Adweek’s Publishing Executive of the Year on journalism in the time of Trump

Publisher and CEO Frederick Ryan Photo: Philip Bermingham
Headshot of Chris Ariens

The new motto of The Washington Post may be “Democracy dies in darkness,” but publisher and CEO Frederick Ryan uses another maxim for the Jeff Bezos-owned company: “We always want to be the challenger, never the incumbent.”

Ryan believes that rallying cry will keep the 140-year-old publication striving into the next century and beyond.

Bezos recruited the exec to the broadsheet in 2014 as it was ramping up its digital transformation into a consumer-first publication. “Owning the Post for him is not just a hobby,” Ryan says of Bezos. “He has deep views about the importance of the First Amendment and the important role of the press in a free society.”

Part of the Post’s first-ever national branding campaign, “Democracy dies in darkness” was chosen after 18 months of research and stemmed from “hundreds of other alternatives,” says Ryan.

Since joining the Post, Ryan has packed the newsroom with “dozens of engineers” who “work side by side with the journalists to design and refine products to serve the newsroom,” he notes. The result: “Our subscriptions have doubled since January and tripled since last year at this time,” says Ryan. The Post was also named Hottest in News—Digital.

About three years ago, the company began producing its own technology—including the Post’s content management system (CMS), which powers the journalism. “The benefit of that is that you can constantly iterate,” explains Ryan, who finds himself in the newsroom “every day.”

The system worked so well for the company, it created a separate entity called Arc to make the product available to other news organizations, including Tronc, the New York Daily News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto and others. “It’s been great in terms of bringing in additional revenue,” Ryan says. “It’s been great in terms of helping us to recruit outstanding engineers to be part of something that is empowering not just The Washington Post, but others in the media business. As a result, today we view ourselves as a tech company as much as a media company.”

Prior to his 19-year run as president and COO of Allbritton Communications, Ryan was chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, and also worked in the Reagan White House. At Allbritton, Ryan co-founded Politico, staffing it with many journalists from the Post.

Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the publication in 2013, he’s added nearly 50 engineering, design and product staffers.

Ryan has had to make tough calls at the Post, like the 2015 decision to sell the community newspaper group and other assets, which he says was about making the Post a global brand. “We were able to find other owners who, for the most part, had similar properties,” he says. “It let us focus on our goal of reaching more readers across the U.S. and around the world.”

As for Bezos, while “he’s not involved in the day to day … he has brought enormous intellectual capital [and] this intense focus on the customer,” says Ryan. “He’s been amazing in helping us to recruit and retain the top technologists. If you’re working at The Washington Post and you’re in engineering, you’re going to be engaging with Jeff.”

Bought out of bankruptcy in 1933, The Washington Post had the Meyer-Graham family as its stewards for 80 years. “I believe that if there’s a first family of American journalism, it’s the Graham family,” says Ryan. Third-generation family member Don Graham, who sold the Post to Bezos, has got “a permanent entré anytime” at the Post’s new One Franklin Square headquarters, he adds.

Ryan, whose career has spanned law, public service and journalism, still gets inspiration from former boss Reagan, even as the news media continues to be under fire from the current administration.

“President Reagan was always forward-looking,” Ryan explains. “It was always about the future and not about the ways necessarily of the past. And that’s a lesson that we can apply to business and media and virtually everything we do.”

Check out our complete Publishing Hot List coverage:

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ChrisAriens Chris Ariens is the managing editor and director of video at Adweek.