When Fred Ryan was named publisher of the Washington Post Sept. 1, 2014, his role as the architect of the Washington Post’s future was both metaphoric and literal.
Metaphoric because he was charged with charting a new course for the paper. Literal because the sale of the Post to Jeff Bezos had not included the iconic building on 15th Street NW. So as the wrecking balls readied, among Ryan’s first challenges was to find and design a new home for the paper.
“We looked at a number of places, but Jeff was insistent that this was a D.C. paper and should stay in downtown,” he said.
They settled on 250,000 square feet on six floors, three blocks away at 13th and K. But how do you recreate the aura of a building that had seen so many historic journalistic moments — from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to Snowden’s infamous document dump — that it almost qualified as a national monument?
“There were many people who had had their whole careers in the old Post building. But I found a receptive organization that had embraced our digital future. So we said, let’s not just build a new newsroom. Let’s build a newsroom for the 22nd century.”
Create a newsroom for a century yet to arrive. Chart a new course for a newspaper, the very future of which had been in question just months before. And do it all while winning over journalists, who, as a species, are hardly known to be a compliant lot.
None of that was what was really worrying Fred Ryan, however. That’s because, while an army of builders was removing whole floors and installing the latest technology, a much smaller army was simultaneously renovating the house his wife and he had purchased in Georgetown’s East Village.
Ryan chuckled recounting how his staff pointed out it had taken about a third as long to build out the Post’s new headquarters as it had taken to remodel his 3,000-square-foot row house.
“Which did I feel more pressure doing? Depends how you evaluate matrimonial affairs,” the four-time Georgetown resident said. According to Georgetown architect Christian Zapatka, Ryan was heavily engaged in the design and drawing stages, but left the construction oversight largely to his wife, Genny.
Ryan first came to Georgetown in 1982 to join the Reagan administration as deputy director of scheduling and appointments. He was 26.
“I first lived above the Guards and Geppetto on M Street. You would go to the red sofas on the second floor for civilized talk — or hang by the fire on the first floor if you were a college student.”
His earliest memory of D.C. is not of politics, but of kindling a fire in his fireplace, not knowing that the chimney was sealed. The smoke went back down and smoked out the restaurant. “The landlord and I agreed I would not have any more fires after that.”
When he heard that the sign for the now-closed Guards bar and restaurant was for sale, he logged onto eBay and bought it. Georgetown is more than just a residence, it is his home.
So while the Post’s construction and engineering crew was making a 22nd-century information hub downtown, Zapatka and his craftsmen were replicating doors and trim from the 1880s based on original designs. History counted, not just for the Old Georgetown Board, which had to approve the remodeling, but for Ryan as well.
“The house had belonged to Lucy Moorhead, who had been married to a congressman. There was history in that house and we wanted to honor it.”
Only the lighting and AV got the hi-tech touch.
In the three decades since Ryan arrived, he has watched his adopted city grow, both culturally and economically. Ryan is particularly fascinated by what is happening in the burgeoning neighborhoods like NoMa, and by the new generation of millennials, who seem to be putting down roots in D.C. rather than moving on.
It is that story, he says, his paper is committed to covering, even as new owner Bezos has made clear he wants the Post to have a global identity. Ryan dismisses criticism that the Post’s local coverage has suffered recently, prompting other news organizations, including public radio’s WAMU, to develop a plan to boost their newsrooms and coverage to fill the gap. Instead, he welcomes additional coverage of his city.
The story of the Post’s rebirth after the Emperor of Amazon plunked down a personal quarter-billion dollars is hardly news any more.
The newsroom is buzzing again. Staffing is up from its low of about 500 in the immediate pre-Bezos era. Today, Ryan oversees 700 journalists “with more to come,” plus a growing tech team that Bezos himself has said “rivals anything in Silicon Valley.” Ryan takes particular delight in the irony that one of the new techies lured to the Post came from Amazon itself.
And while the number of paid print subscribers (including this writer, at the insistence of his wife) is down from a high of around 750,000 to closer to 500,000, the monthly unique web views, according to Ryan, are up around 76 million a month.
Sitting in his remarkably modest publisher’s corner office, it is clear that Ryan is enjoying this next act, having worked for Ronald Reagan during his time in office and as Reagan’s chief-of-staff after the presidency; served as COO of the Allbritton Communications stable of stations, including the local ABC affiliate, WJLA; and overseen the birth of Politico as CEO. And yet he is reluctant to indulge the personal, using “we” even when pushed to give a personal perspective.
But when your owner handpicks you, makes it clear he wants you to build and is willing to support your plans with new-media cash, that has got to be the best job in town.
Add to that this election, where one presumptive presidential candidate has made the media almost a third party, calling a press conference just to call the press sleazy. Considering that Post reporters provoked this outburst with their coverage of Trump’s donations — or non-donations — to veterans, that would make Ryan Sleaze Número Uno.
Proving his political roots are still strong, Ryan gave a cryptic rebuttal. “If you are in journalism, you need to be thick-skinned,” he said, leaving the sense that he was as much talking to the candidate as to the interviewer.
The one area that seems to draw from a deeper vein is Ryan’s nostalgia for the values for which he believes his White House boss stood. Despite conventional wisdom that the Gipper didn’t like D.C., Ryan said that Reagan actually liked the city, particularly the friends he developed here, including Ryan’s legendary predecessor Katharine Graham.
What Reagan did not like, says Ryan, was the way things worked. But the difference, according to Ryan, was that Reagan always sought to appeal to the best in people — unlike today, when so many of those who invoke the former leader’s name seek to exploit people’s worst fears.
One surprising insight about Reagan that Ryan offered was that the president would have been comfortable with the pace of today’s technological change. Ryan pointed out that Reagan was a fan of technology, and always an early adopter, first of radio and then of television.
The turn to technology brings back the smile of one who knows not many get to do what he is doing now. Ryan is embracing the new with gusto.
His focus now is not just on journalistic excellence but on user experience and speed of delivery. Engineers are working to shave, and count, milliseconds off the responsiveness of the site. It is the front end of where he is looking to lead the Post, both in content and in the way that readers, or viewers, interact with and benefit from that content.
That focus is clear as Ryan shows off his managerial-cum-architectural statement, the new Washington Post offices, as if the facility were a living organism and he the proud father. He eagerly points out the marriage of people and technology; displays with second-by-second metrics on audience engagement are ubiquitous, although decidedly not determining editorial content, he says. There is also an event space to rival any in the city.
Yet throughout the building there are quotes and acknowledgements of the events and people who made the Post into one of the nation’s great papers — names like Graham and Bradlee — lest history be forgotten in the tsunami of the new data journalism.
Ryan finishes the tour by walking over to a railing and pointing down a floor to the most traditional of metrics, the one that counts as much in the new building as it did in the old: the Pulitzer wall with all of the Post’s past prize winners displayed.
But the space is only half-finished. The other half of the wall is conspicuously a work-in-progress, left empty for those to come.
“Marty [Baron, the Post’s editor] and I went back and forth on how much space we should leave for that.”
Ryan clearly enjoyed that conversation. Who wouldn’t?