Washington Post publisher William Lewis retains ties to past business ventures

A small digital start-up launched by Washington Post publisher William Lewis has entered into an agreement with The Post that allows the two companies to pursue deals together, even as Lewis still holds a financial stake in the firm.

The News Movement, which Lewis co-founded in 2020, recently developed pitches for two major advertisers, Rolex and Starbucks, to engage in commercial partnerships that would involve The Post, according to documents and interviews.

The Post’s relationship with the News Movement represents one of several ways in which Lewis remains connected to his previous business endeavors and associates. The Post said the arrangements conform with its conflict-of-interest policy.

The privately owned News Movement specializes in what it describes as “creative storytelling” for youthful consumers on social media. Ramin Beheshti, who succeeded Lewis as its chief executive, said in text messages Thursday that the firm reached a “light framework agreement” with The Post in the past few months.

“There is no requirement or obligation in that framework — just a formality that would allow us to operate as a team if needed,” he wrote. Beheshti said Lewis had no part in setting up the arrangement.

Kathy Baird, a spokesperson for The Post, also said that Lewis was not involved in the agreement. She said Lewis stepped down as CEO of the News Movement before coming to The Post in January and has no operational involvement in the start-up, but remains a “proud shareholder.”

The Post’s conflict-of-interest policy stresses the need to eliminate or manage situations in which an employee could benefit from the company’s outside partnerships. Those scenarios include cases in which an employee “has a substantial financial interest” in “any business entity which does business with or which seeks to do business with [The Post] if the employee is involved in the transactions in any way.”

Lewis declined to respond directly to a list of questions about his business interests and how he has managed potential conflicts.

Patty Stonesifer, a Post adviser and former CEO of the company, said in a statement Saturday that “I have full confidence that all aspects of The News Movement partnership with The Washington Post have been handled well within the guidelines of our conflict of interest policy and are to the benefit of The Post.”

In a separate statement, Baird said that Lewis has personally “adhered to all aspects of our conflict of interest policy, including for the News Movement,” and that he has “documented his ownership share” in the start-up.

She noted that The Post had a relationship with the News Movement before Lewis joined the news organization, saying it “is not dissimilar to other partnerships on the business side.”

“There has been no financial impact from the relationship and since Mr. Lewis’s joining, all aspects have been managed and are consistent with our conflicts of interest policy,” she added.

A January 2022 company filing by The News Movement Holdings Ltd in Britain, the most recent that details the company’s ownership, identified Lewis as its controlling shareholder. That company is directly owned by The News Movement Inc. in Delaware, which is not required to publicly identify its shareholders.

Beheshti said the information in the British filing was outdated. He said Lewis “is not a majority shareholder nor does he have a controlling interest.” He declined to specify the size of Lewis’s current stake.

Lewis hired another co-founder of the News Movement, Eleanor Breen, creating for her a new position as his chief of staff at The Post.

Breen stepped down as chief operating officer of the News Movement in May, around the time she started working at The Post, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her name has been added to The Post’s masthead, the roster of senior editors and business executives that appears in print and online.

Baird, the Post spokesperson, said Breen retains a shareholding in the News Movement of less than 5 percent.

It isn’t unusual for business executives to be involved with more than one company at a time, but they need to be careful with how those interactions are perceived by investors and employees, said Andrew Wicks, an ethics professor at the University of Virginia’s business school.

“If I am an employee and I know this person has an affiliation with another organization, that could raise doubt in my mind about whether this person is acting in the best interests of the organization I am a part of,” Wicks said.

Lewis was hired by Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Post. A spokesman for Bezos did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Lewis has come under growing scrutiny in recent weeks after reports that he sought to discourage The Post from covering a British civil case regarding a phone-hacking scheme involving Rupert Murdoch’s media company, where he once worked. Lewis is not a defendant in the case and has denied wrongdoing. He has also denied trying to interfere with Post coverage.

On Friday, a British editor who had been tapped by Lewis to take charge of The Post’s core newsroom later this year decided to withdraw. The move followed coverage in The Post and elsewhere examining past newsgathering practices by the two men, who had previously worked together in Britain.

Before venturing into the world of start-ups, Lewis led much larger companies, including the Wall Street Journal as its publisher and CEO for six years. He previously worked as a top executive with Murdoch’s News Corp. and as a journalist for multiple British publications, including the Telegraph and the Financial Times.

Lewis founded the News Movement in 2020 with other investors — including Breen — who together put up $15 million in capital, company executives have said. The company began operations with a handful of employees in London and says it has since expanded to about 50 staffers.

Early last year, the News Movement acquired the Recount, a New York-based digital news start-up that produces short videos for Gen Z audiences, in a deal for an undisclosed amount of equity.

While Lewis ran the News Movement, it forged a partnership with the Associated Press, where he serves on the board of directors, alongside other news executives. The News Movement also took on additional investors, including a fund controlled by a member of the royal family of Qatar, a gas-rich Persian Gulf country.

Weekly emails to friends and associates

Since coming to The Post, Lewis has maintained a connection with another company that he once led and controlled: WJL Partners, a London-based consulting firm that bears his initials.

Lewis sold his shares in WJL Partners in December, according to records and interviews. He still sends out weekly email newsletters titled “What To Read,” with his personal take on current events, to friends and associates of the firm, using his WJL Partners email address. Some of the missives, which have corporate sponsorship, have emphasized the valuable connections he has made since becoming The Post’s new leader.

“Dear Friend,” he wrote in his Jan. 27 newsletter, “I feel immensely privileged to have had two parties thrown in my honour this week. … It was a pleasure to meet so many pillars of Washington’s political and media communities.”

Among the party guests that Lewis named in his email: Jamie Dimon, the chief executive at JPMorgan Chase; Julie Sweet, the chief executive of Accenture; former treasury secretary Hank Paulson; and several foreign ambassadors.

Baird, the Post spokesperson, confirmed that Lewis no longer holds “ownership or financial interest” in WJL Partners. She added that he does not receive any pay for his weekly WJL Partners emails and that he disclosed the arrangement in accordance with The Post’s conflict-of-interest policy.

Breen, Lewis’s new chief of staff, also previously worked at WJL Partners. She resigned as a member of the firm in April, British company filings show. Baird said Breen no longer holds shares or any financial interest in WJL Partners.

Earlier this year, The Post hired Richard K. Clark — who is listed in British company filings as a member, similar to a partner, of WJL Partners — as a consultant to help prepare a new business framework for a strategic plan intended to stem financial losses and put the company on a path to growth. Lewis last month unveiled the plan, which includes a tiered-price approach to increase the number of subscribers and generate fresh streams of revenue.

Clark did not respond to emails seeking comment about his consulting work.

Baird, the Post spokesperson, said in a statement that he was “brought on for a five-month assignment” to help develop the company’s new business strategy. She said Clark’s contract was through another consulting firm, RKC Advisory, and ends this month.

Eight companies in Britain

Before he arrived at The Post, Lewis had created eight businesses related to media or public relations in Britain since 2020, though some are no longer active, according to publicly available company filings there.

WJL Partners reported net assets equivalent to $356,000 in early 2023, according to financial records. The News Movement reported negative net assets for 2022 equivalent to $2.8 million but has not posted updated figures since then.

Lotte Jones, the chief marketing officer for the News Movement, said in a brief phone interview that the company and The Post “have a loose agreement to bring brand partnerships together … that hasn’t manifested yet.” She declined to comment further.

In March, the News Movement proposed to The Post a six-figure deal with Rolex to create a video campaign about climate change, according to a summary of the plan.

A four-page presentation proposed collaborating with The Post to develop “rich branded content” for Rolex that engages younger audiences. The document was provided by a person outside The Post who shared it on the condition of anonymity because the information has not been made public.

The deal did not materialize, the person said. Rolex declined to comment.

This month, the News Movement made a pitch to Starbucks to produce content for the coffee giant on Instagram and TikTok in conjunction with The Post, documents show.

A Starbucks spokesperson confirmed that the News Movement made a proposal involving potential media partners including The Post. The company reviewed it and decided not to move forward, the spokesperson said.

Some Post employees who are familiar with the News Movement see it as a possible template for what Lewis has cast as the key element of his plan to revive The Post’s financial fortunes: the creation of a “third newsroom” in addition to its core news operations and its opinion section.

Baird said The Post has no plans to acquire the News Movement.

Though Lewis has not fully defined how a third newsroom would function in practice, he has said the goal is to reach younger readers and other untapped markets by focusing on social media and consumer journalism.

Beheshti said he stopped by an event at The Post’s headquarters in Washington last month, where Lewis unveiled the outlines of his plan for The Post’s growth in an employee-wide meeting. The News Movement CEO said that he was there to visit Lewis as a friend while in town on other business and that he watched the first five minutes of the publisher’s presentation before leaving to make calls.

The News Movement operates a small newsroom in which journalists — most in their mid-20s — create videos about current events for distribution on a variety of social media platforms.

The company’s in-house studio, called “The Collective,” produces youth-oriented videos for advertisers and corporations. Executives have said the studio’s work is a key revenue generator.

Beheshti, the News Movement’s CEO, said the start-up hoped to benefit from its collaboration with The Post because of the newspaper’s stature.

“We do social media well and have an established reputation amongst younger audiences. The Post has an excellent reputation and reach with a completely different demographic,” he said. “There are opportunities with advertisers where those two things come together and form a very strong pitch for clients.”

Beheshti said the News Movement began discussing possible partnerships with The Post last year, several months before Lewis left the start-up. On Wednesday, the two companies jointly sponsored a panel discussion about how to reach Gen Z voters at a major advertising conference in Cannes, France, similar to one they held together at the same conference in June 2023.

“My conversations with them about the News Movement have happened completely separately to Will Lewis’s appointment and at a purely commercial level,” he said.

Beheshti said the News Movement has similar agreements with two other publishers. He declined to identify them, saying the start-up had agreed to keep the deals confidential.

The News Movement has disclosed limited information about its investors.

In 2022, the firm revealed that Lewis, Beheshti, Breen and two other executives had contributed seed money, with the rest coming from unnamed investors including “friends of the founder and a small number of established media groups,” according to the Press Gazette, a British journalism trade publication.

Qatari investors have taken a stake in the company, as The Post previously reported. Heritage Advisors, the London-based investment firm controlled by Sheikh Sultan bin Jassim Al Thani — a former Qatari government official and member of the country’s royal family — listed the News Movement on its website as one of its investments until early this year.

The size of the stake was not disclosed. A Heritage Advisors spokesperson said Friday that the investment remains in place.

In addition to his other media roles, Lewis has served on the board of directors for the AP since 2017. In 2022, the AP announced that it would partner with the News Movement in an effort to engage young audiences by producing TikTok videos and other content.

The arrangement with Lewis’s company was approved in accordance with the AP’s policies and was ratified by its audit committee and reviewed by the board of directors, said Lauren Easton, an AP spokeswoman.

She said the AP ended the partnership this year. “They helped us launch some social media efforts, but we now have our own capacity,” she added.

One of the article’s authors, Jon Swaine, worked as a Daily Telegraph reporter for nearly three years under William Lewis when Lewis was editor in chief. Lewis left the Telegraph in 2010. Swaine left in 2014 and has been a Post reporter since 2019.

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