Fred Ryan, the publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, told employees on Monday that he was stepping down, ending his nearly decade-long run as the newspaper’s top business executive. He was appointed by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of The Post.
In a note to staff, Mr. Ryan, a former Reagan aide, said his next job would be leading the Center on Public Civility, a new project by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute that is backed by Mr. Bezos.
In an interview, Mr. Ryan said he was proud of his business record at The Post, which included increasing the newspaper’s digital subscribers to 2.5 million from 35,000.
He also said he was proud of a new partnership on press freedom — Mr. Ryan successfully lobbied Iran for the release of the Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and spoke out forcefully against the murder of the former Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I think if you look back over the arc, it’s been one of the most remarkable transformations in a news organization that was primary print and local, becoming primarily global and digital,” Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. Bezos thanked Mr. Ryan for his service in a note to employees, saying he led the newspaper through a period of “innovation, journalistic excellence and growth.”
News of Mr. Ryan’s departure stunned the newsroom. The masthead and senior editors were notified about Mr. Ryan’s departure on Monday morning, shortly before the official announcement, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
Mr. Ryan has had an uneven track record at The Post. Tapped shortly after Mr. Bezos acquired the newspaper in 2013 for $250 million, Mr. Ryan teamed up with Marty Baron, the paper’s former executive editor, to replenish The Post’s newsroom and expand its journalism, leading to a surge in digital subscriptions.
The Post has remained a premier journalistic institution, and this year won two Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting and feature writing, and two Post reporters won a Pulitzer for a nonfiction book.
But subscriber growth has been sluggish in recent years, as the heightened reader interest in politics waned from its boom times during the attention-grabbing administration of former President Donald J. Trump, and The Post has struggled to maintain momentum. The current number of subscribers — 2.5 million — is roughly unchanged from a year ago and down from the three million The Post said it had in 2020.
In interviews with The New York Times, many Post employees have expressed frustration with what they describe as a turgid business culture led by Mr. Ryan, mired in endless meetings and dead-end strategy memos. There has been friction between Mr. Ryan and Sally Buzbee, who joined The Post as executive editor nearly two years ago, over the direction of the publication.
Late last year, Mr. Ryan accused Cameron Barr, the second-most-senior editor, of leaking unflattering information to the press and sought his ouster, according to three people familiar with the episode. Mr. Barr, who announced his departure from The Post this month, declined to comment. The Post declined to comment on their interactions.
A person familiar with Mr. Ryan’s accusation said there was no evidence to support Mr. Ryan’s claims.
Mr. Bezos made a rare visit to The Post in January, after reports about the publication’s struggles. He met with editorial leaders and business executives and made it clear he was there to listen rather than to ask questions.
In those meetings, numerous employees raised concerns with Mr. Bezos about a lack of business strategy for The Post, and how Mr. Ryan had managed the newspaper, according to a person with knowledge of those meetings. Mr. Bezos told the employees that he planned to be more involved and had no plans to sell the newspaper. His appearance reassured some staff members who were worried he was no longer committed the publication.
Shortly after his visit, The Post laid off 20 journalists and shut down its popular video-gaming section, while saying it would not fill a further 30 positions, blaming the “economic climate.”
The Post has continued to lose top talent since then, including its chief revenue officer, Joy Robins, and its senior culture editor David Malitz, who both joined The Times. High-profile reporters like Eli Saslow, Robert Samuels and Stephanie McCrummen have also departed The Post this year for other publications.
The Post is close to replacing some of the executives who have left, according to a person familiar with its recruitment efforts.
Some employees expressed relief on Monday upon hearing the news of Mr. Ryan’s impending departure. In an instant messaging chat for employees in the Washington Post union, one staff member suggested a party playlist for the occasion, and another sought a volunteer to procure champagne.
Katie Mettler, a co-chair of The Washington Post Guild, said in the chat that the past few years had been “extraordinarily trying” for employees at the newspaper.
“There is a lot we don’t know about today’s news or what comes next,” she wrote, “but I, for one, am cautiously optimistic.”
Mr. Ryan’s successor will be faced with jump-starting the newspaper’s subscriber growth as well as facing down industry headwinds in the digital advertising market. The coming presidential election could provide a tailwind, as readers turn to The Post for its authoritative political coverage.
There are signs Mr. Bezos has been more involved with the operations of The Post. This spring, he conducted regular meetings with Post managers, asking pointed questions about finances, online strategy and other issues.
Patty Stonesifer, the former chief executive of Martha’s Table, a provider of food and clothing for low-income people, will be The Post’s interim chief executive, Mr. Bezos said in the note to employees.
“You’ll soon see for yourself why I admire her,” he said. “Her skills, judgment and character all stand out. She also understands the importance of our mission and has a deep respect for the work we do here.”
Ms. Stonesifer will help lead the search for the permanent successor to Mr. Ryan, who will remain publisher for the next two months.
In a meeting with the newsroom on Monday afternoon, Ms. Stonesifer said she expected to be in the role for six months to a year.
She called herself “the No. 1 fan of The Washington Post,” and she assured the staff that Mr. Bezos “loves The Washington Post,” according to an audio recording of the meeting.
“The Post is a big part of his DNA now, I think,” she said.
Ms. Stonesifer said there were no plans for any additional layoffs.
“I don’t think it’s right for an interim to overhaul,” Ms. Stonesifer said, adding, “I’m here to keep this operation-building momentum.”
Ms. Stonesifer said she would remain as an independent director on Amazon’s board, a position she has held since 1997.