McDonough School of Business
News Story

Paper Chase: How Sally Buzbee (EMBA’97) Manages the Modern Newsroom

Sally Buzbee (EMBA’97) was an outlier during her time at Georgetown: The lone working journalist in her cohort, with no prior business know-how. But the case studies on developing strategy, leveraging financial data, and evaluating competitors quickly proved relevant. “I’d had a few editing jobs but no real leadership training before the program,” says Buzbee. “So when I went to Cairo to run the Associated Press’ coverage of the Iraq war a few years after earning my degree, my Georgetown experience was key in how to figure things out on my own.”

Today Buzbee is executive editor of The Washington Post — the first woman to hold that position at the paper — taking over the role in 2021 after spending more than three decades at the Associated Press. As the nation heads into election season, Buzbee spoke to us about the changing needs of the modern news audience, why storytelling is a vital constant, and how young journalists can navigate a field in flux.

You have said you got hooked on journalism during your first internship with the Associated Press, where you were covering the Kansas state legislature. What was it about that experience that excited you? And why do you think that interest has lasted throughout your career?

Journalists get to be endlessly and ferociously curious. I was drawn to government, policy, and politics, so walking around the Kansas statehouse (a beautiful, graceful old building) and asking questions all-day long was sheer heaven. Curiosity, a strong interest in investigative work, and a love of writing keep me hooked. I also — who are we kidding? — love the adrenaline rush of daily news. My colleagues pair these similar passions with both care about their work and the world around them. That speaks to me.

You began your career as a reporter and have made the transition to editorial leadership. What do you miss about being on the front lines? And what don’t you miss at all?

I miss reporting, and I miss the satisfaction of creating a piece of work from start to finish. When I was in the Middle East, I was able to both report and edit. Since then, I haven’t had the opportunity to be in the field — and I miss that. But at the same time, there is true satisfaction and fulfillment in helping those around me do good work and in tackling the hard problems together.

We are in the midst of an election season. As executive editor, how does that change the way you allocate your newsroom resources? And how do you motivate your team for this kind of critical challenge?

Politics and the campaign are at the core of The Washington Post. The majority of our newsroom is engaged in covering this election year, one way or another. We’re all working in concert to focus on the issues and the voters. We’re conducting polling, fact-checking, analyzing, and explaining to hold powerful people and institutions to account. We’re motivated to provide readers with critical information to empower their decision-making. We want to be essential.

How have reader demands for journalism — political and otherwise — changed during your career? What kinds of stories and content are modern readers gravitating towards?

The news industry is in constant flux for a variety of reasons, including technology and changing news habits. We are committed to meeting our readers where they are, whether on our website, our app, on TikTok, and other social platforms, through podcasts, in inboxes, and more.

Visual storytelling is also critical not just through video and photography but in data visualizations, graphics, and animations.

People still want to know about our politics and government, sports, and local news. Readers continue to appreciate a scoop — thank goodness — and want to read incredible writing. But above all, they also want useful information to help them live their lives.

There are growing demands on a reader’s time, so how we present our stories and where people read them continues to change. Yet despite these changes, our values remain constant: The Post’s standards, the importance of facts, and the unparalleled power of good storytelling.

How do you balance the needs of an existing, established audience with a younger, growing audience? And are there throughlines between all audiences that need to be considered?

It’s a balance we aim for every day, and publishing the best journalism we can is the biggest throughline. We do strive to consistently attract new audiences, including the next generation of readers. We understand their needs are different: They look for more transparency into who we are and how we do our reporting. They connect more with the personal brands of our journalists and less with our larger institution. Their desire to interact with us and to be in the conversation inspires us to regularly look for ways to grow that engagement.

When you were appointed executive editor at The Post, you said improving the diversity of newsrooms takes consistent, ongoing dedication. How did you approach this at the Associated Press, and how are you working to achieve that in your current role?

In our journalism, we seek out a variety of voices and perspectives to not just reflect the audiences we serve but to tell the stories that matter to them. In our hiring and promotion, we value and empower people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We don’t yet reflect the makeup of the country and we have work to do, but we do strive to ensure that those with different perspectives have a place at the decision-making table.

The journalism industry has faced waves of disruption and contraction in the past few decades. What advice would you have for an aspiring young journalist looking to navigate the industry?

Persevere. It’s a challenging profession, especially right now, but the immense talent pursuing journalism is extraordinary. Our own early-career journalists are incredibly skilled.

Work with good people, including your colleagues, your bosses, your mentors, and your editors. In journalism, you learn from those around you, so look for opportunities in which you can learn from smart people. Find a person or organization doing the work you admire and try to work with them. That’s more important than the vanity of a job that may look great on a resume or has a fancy title.

– Dan Morell

This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2024 Magazine, prior to Buzbee stepping down from her role at The Washington Post. Download the Georgetown Business Audio app to listen to the stories and other bonus content.

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