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The Washington Post has a proud history of internal debate. Propose any kind of change to the 131-year-old institution, and watch the newsroom’s committees, task forces, and gossips chew on it. Every benefit and every conceivable pitfall must face the scrutiny of some of the best minds in the business.
Post history furnishes plenty of cases in point. Careful deliberation swallowed a proposal to install a Wall Street Journal–style news digest on the front page of the Post. It survived for a decade on meeting agendas. More than a few discursive conversations have addressed the timeless notion of consolidating the paper’s movie reviews, which are split between the Style and Weekend sections. And for how long has the newsroom been churning speculation on a merger of print and online operations?
Corporate strategy is the latest initiative to board the Post’s slow train. From its news desks to its leadership and digital operation, the newspaper is organized pretty much the same way it was when 28.8K baud modems ruled the world. In June, top executives visited Harvard Business School to begin contemplating the jargon and mentality of mission overhaul. The leadership conferred throughout the summer and fall with a committee of more than 30 Posties, with the goal of producing an agreed-upon strategy in October.
Way too ambitious: When the committee reviewed the plan, it balked, citing the need for more details, more marching orders. We’ll have a better plan by December, came the response.
If you buy that line, well, I’ll be happy to sell you some remnant space on my Web site. The Post isn’t going to rewrite an entire corporate strategic plan—not right in the middle of the holiday season.
While the paper’s top people fiddle with their strategy memo, the industry and the economy are tanking like never before. It would be best to have the new strategy in place before the Dow dips under 5,000.
So Washington City Paper, forever a friend to local media institutions, is hereby stepping in and taking charge. We’ve taken the time to interview key media strategists, examine the Post’s assets, and knit together a strategic plan for the ages. It’s all written up in corporatese, sans copyright, so the Post can just cut, paste, send to ALL, and gauge the reaction on FishBowlDC. It’s even in memo format, and it comes with “off the record” boxes that will help Post employees sort through the mumbo-jumbo.
Tip: Move your mouse over the highlighted text to reveal “off the record” boxes with explanatory notes.
FROM: Katharine Weymouth, Marcus Brauchli, Stephen HillsRE: New Corporate Strategy
The Washington Post has reached a critical point in its evolution. For decades, the paper has achieved great things, both as a producer of journalism and as a business. When Len Downie recently retired as our executive editor, we celebrated the 25 Pulitzer Prizes that the paper won during his 17 years of leadership. For most of that time, the great journalism has come concurrently with the paper’s healthy bottom line. Generous profit margins, stable circulation, strong advertising sales—all of these were mainstays of the Washington Post Co.’s annual report for years.
That rosy picture, of course, has darkened. We will not belabor here the business climate that has buffeted the Post, as well as the entire newspaper industry—you are all too well aware of what has happened in recent years.
The Washington Post Co. has attempted to meet the challenging financial environment in a way that enables us to continue producing top-notch journalism. Though we have undergone three rounds of early-retirement offers this decade, the packages have been funded from our pension fund, not from the newsroom budget. We have taken other measures—including a companywide attempt to crack down on needless expenses—to protect our core reporting mission from the cyclical and secular trends in the information business.
Our collective efforts to date, however, will not properly position the Washington Post to take on the challenges of the 21st century. Our print and online operations still operate from separate offices; our downtown newsroom is still organized for the pre-digital world; and many of our journalistic products overlap with one another.
The stark reality for all of us is that the Washington Post has to change, as the following paper discusses.
The Big Picture
The Washington Post Co. is proud of the dialogue on corporate strategy that our employees have maintained in recent months. The discussion has been rich with innovative thinking and driven by a sincere desire to help the Washington Post—and, indeed, the entire news business—find a profitable model that accommodates our commitment to great journalism.
Along these lines, a few different schools of thought have emerged.
Focused Coverage: A lot of newsroom talk has centered on identifying the Washington Post’s core competencies, with the leading candidates being the federal government and the Washington metropolitan area. Under this model, the paper would concentrate staff around these two areas and would cut costs by reducing beats that lie outside of them, such as travel (outside of the region) and national coverage of topics such as books, entertainment, health, and the like.
Exclusive Coverage: A close cousin of the above approach, this strategy would evaluate everything the Post does from the standpoint of exclusivity. If the Post is providing information that can be accessed easily from other sources, we should consider dropping it from our offerings. Deborah Howell, our beloved ombudsman, delivered a vote for this approach in a recent column, writing that all such content is “fair game” for trimming.
New Corporate Structure: Various outside-of-the-box proposals would turn the news operation into a foundation with the mission of reporting the news and producing enterprise journalism or perhaps some kind of endowed trust with the same mission.
The leadership of the Washington Post Co. is wary of adopting any one of these three strategies, or any other attempt at reinventing the newspaper. Industry leaders have spent years trying to figure out this puzzle, with unimpressive results. Any attempt to revolutionize our business offers as much risk of discarding our assets as promise of saving the franchise.
Our strategy for the future could best be termed a nonstrategy. We will continue to cut expenses in the hope that we can squeak through these trying times. We will indeed reconfigure the Washington Post, though not in conformity with the latest management theory. Rather, we will make adjustments based on what we do well and what we don’t do well.
The Washington Post Co. is intensely proud of the Internet operations housed in Arlington under the banner of Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (WPNI). This enterprise manages a number of digital properties, including Slate, the Root, Sprig, and the Big Money. By far its most resource-intensive operation, however, is washingtonpost.com.
One of the most-discussed aspects of our corporate structure has been the geographic divide between washingtonpost.com in Arlington and the Washington Post newsroom at 15th and L Streets NW. Now is the time to merge our operations to foster greater cooperation and communication between the two entities.
Our managers have worked hard in recent years to resolve turf struggles and creative differences between washingtonpost.com and the newsroom. That hard work will pave the way for the physical merger of operations. Surely there will be some lingering disputes, but we trust they will be minor and easily resolved without intervention of our top managers.
Competing newspapers have followed a similar course. The New York Times, for instance, once maintained a separation of digital and print operations not unlike ours. Their merger began several years ago, and as nytimes.com makes clear, the results speak very well for themselves.
1) Move washingtonpost.com personnel to newsroom desks vacated by buyout takers.
2) Work together. Dominate the Internet.
3) Complete redesign of washingtonpost.com.
The Washington Post Co. takes tremendous pride in the organization of its newsroom: The national desk fills most of the front section, and other sections—Metro, Style, Sports, Food, and so on—are filled by their eponymous desks. Toward the end of his tenure, Executive Editor Len Downie took various measures to streamline the editing and copy-editing of the newspaper, measures that boosted the paper’s efficiency.
Is there a better way to organize the paper’s various news desks? Perhaps. The national desk’s political team, to cite one example, often runs into turf considerations with several other sections, including Metro, which covers politics, Style, which covers politics, and Business, which covers politics. Sometimes the sections’ top managers must intervene to resolve conflicts in a way that makes the most sense for newsroom resources and for readers.
We have heard some proposals to reorganize the newsroom around topic areas, such that politics would have its own desk, as would culture, finance, and so on. Yet wherever there are boundaries, there will be disputes: Politics reporters, for instance, will forever fight with business reporters about who’ll do the big write-ups on top Treasury officials, regardless of where the lines are drawn.
1) Reassure front-line reporters and editors that their newsroom is organized as effectively as possible.
The Washington Post Co. feels an intense sense of pride in the progress of the Sunday Source. This section, which runs each Sunday, takes innovative approaches to highlighting the interests and niches of our advertisers. Some key components: an “Eats” section, on spending money on eating; “Trendspotter,” on spending money on clothes and accessories; “Our Picks,” on spending money on culture; and “Media Mix,” on spending money on media.
The small staff at the Sunday Source works hard in scouring the region for bargains, good food, and other service-journalism scoops. Through a lot of experimentation and a dedication to excellence, the staff has made steady improvements to the product since its 2003 launch.
One of our longtime news staffers had this to say about the Sunday Source’s product-vetting process: “Editors call in new products; they try the products; they talk to the manufacturer; they talk to the retailer, to make sure it’s available; then they write it up in an entertaining fashion; then an editor goes over their work; then they have to think, ‘Is this the right mascara?’; then they send it to the copy desk, which double-checks the spelling and makes sure it’s all correct; and it ends up being two inches of copy, and that’s just for mascara.”
The problem for the commercial side of our operation is that mascara advertisers aren’t flocking to the pages of the Sunday Source. We’ve been lucky, in fact, to get anyone paying for the space.
Snider’s Super Foods of Silver Spring is among the few advertisers who have found a home in the Source. This discount grocer has a 52-week deal with us, and they love what Sunday Source does for them. Store Vice President David Snider reports that his 5-inch ad is “effective” and appreciates the exclusivity that the section’s advertising drought affords him: “Most weeks, I think, we’re the only advertiser.” When asked if the grocer would stick with the Post if Sunday Source were folded, Snider replied that they’d have to “reevaluate.” Snider, furthermore, suggested that his ad for Home Roast Natural-Maple Turkey Breast ($5.88 lb.) and other products constitute a readership draw for the Source. “My customers just look for it every week.”
1) Cease publication of Sunday Source effective Dec. 21.
2) Have Katharine and Steve make a house call to Snider’s. We need them.
3) Frame a copy of the Sunday Source that contained the how-to article on making bookends from used cans of baked beans. That was something to preserve.
The Washington Post Magazine
The company is very proud of the work that the Magazine has produced over the years. For proof of its innovative thinking and storytelling, look no further than this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, which honored Gene Weingarten’s Magazine piece on violinist Joshua Bell’s rush-hour performance at a Metro station. The piece showcased how a team of reporters working together can present a compelling story that captivates readers on both platforms—print and online—and that prompts a debate among locals: Just what kind of a society are we?
The Magazine’sfeatures, of course, team up with weekly features that make the publication a star of Washington Post readership surveys. Foremost among the mainstays is Weingarten’s column, Below the Beltway. It is consistently fresh and funny, a clear destination for our Sunday crowd. Date Lab is another consensus-winner.
The Magazine has positioned itself as a conveyor of experiential journalism—a narrative reading pleasure unavailable elsewhere in the daily and weekly offerings of the newspaper. This strain of writing relies extensively on present-tense storytelling and on the high-quality photojournalism that thrives on the Magazine’s pages.
This product comes at a price. We have 13.4 full-time equivalents (FTEs) working on the Magazine, a tally that doesn’t include the contributions of food critic Tom Sietsema. The paper on which the magazine is printed costs far more than run-of-the-mill newsprint. And we pay freelancers for the magazine in the neighborhood of $3,000 for a feature story—far more than freelance rates in other parts of the paper. Though the publication ran a profit for several years this decade, it has slid back into the red, thanks to the advertising slump in real estate and related industries, like home furnishings.
To its credit, the Magazine staff has answered the call to produce outstanding theme issues that are attractive to Washington Post advertisers—the editorial calendar bulges with travel issues, education issues, an extra holiday issue, home and design issues and, on top of that, a house and home issue.
1) Kill magazine after the next house and home issue, or after the next home and design issue.
2) Create a blog on washingtonpost.com—“Navel Academy”—for staff writers to relate their personal narratives.
3) Sprinkle great magazine elements—Date Lab, Weingarten, long narratives—to other parts of the paper. Consider approaches to maintaining the heft of current Sunday edition without the Magazine.
The Metro Section
The Washington Post Co. is proud of its regional business model and the local news coverage that goes along with it. At the Washington Post, the Metro desk is the largest in the newsroom and will remain that way for many years to come.
Maintaining beefy Metro coverage is not only central to our business plan, it also brings glory to the Washington Post. Our Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, after all, would never have been possible without a well-staffed Metro operation.
Like other sections, Metro has sustained resource depletion in recent years traced to our early retirement offers and other cutbacks. Accordingly, the staff has had difficulty keeping the Metro Extras filled with the granular community news that inspired their creation. The Extras are weekly, tabloid-size inserts tucked into the paper. They are moderately profitable on the whole.
1) Fold Extras and launch them as new products on the Web. Though our Extra advertisers may be hesitant to make this jump, our future depends on our ability to move money from one platform to the other.
Sports, National, Investigative, and foreign Coverage
The Washington Post Co. takes a great deal of pride in the output of these operations. Sports is a newsroom leader in merging with washingtonpost.com, National works hard on politics, Investigative is an industry leader, and our foreign coverage is extremely precious to our readership.
1) Leave them be.
The Style Section
The Washington Post Co. could not be prouder of the heritage of its Style section, one of the paper’s greatest institutions. Launched in 1969, it has long provided a home for avant garde feature writing, gossip, and world-class criticism.
Contemporary Style carries forward many of the traditions of the past’s mythic, invincible Style. The criticism remains a strong suit—TV coverage, to take one vertical, is exceptional. The Reliable Source is just that—a reliable and well-reported daily gossip sheet written with character and verve.
The section has encountered some difficulties transferring its brand onto washingtonpost.com. As its various pieces move onto the site, they tend to fragment, and the section loses the name-brand appeal that it has in print. Washingtonpost.com managers, too, have struggled to channel Style’s great voices and personalities on the digital platform.
Managers in the newsroom still have troubles establishing Style’s feature-writing identity in a newspaper where good narrative writing has proliferated. The national desk, Metro, Sports, Business—all these sections have built feature traditions of their own in recent years, undermining Style’s position as the spot for storytelling at the Washington Post.
And so Style needs a new identity, a reinvention. The way to accomplish its reconfiguration is to embrace its soul. At the heart of the Style section are its legendary critics, from Shales to Givhan to Marks to Hunter to Hornaday. These people tell us how to make choices about our leisure time and our appearance. In short, how to be smart consumers of the things that only a metropolitan city has on offer.
Despite this core, however, Style has not fully embraced its ethos as the chief critic of the Washington region. Instead of featuring a “Critic’s Pick” of the day on its section front, for example, Style will showcase a piece by Howie Kurtz on a media figure. Of course, we’re proud of what Howie does, but it doesn’t belong in Style. And instead of visually attractive listings grids or a directory of critic’s picks inside the section, Style will run a news piece on, say, the latest development at the Smithsonian. Again, that’s the wrong mix.
Style needs to become a daily alternative weekly. Such a transformation entails more service journalism, conflict-driven feature stories, and a strong regional focus.
1) Redesign section immediately.
2) Merge with Weekend staff and Going Out Gurus of washingtonpost.com, Book World operation, and perhaps Food.
3) Prepare for backlash from wizened Style alumni.
The Washington Post Co. is immensely proud of its work as a provider of well-reasoned and thought-provoking opinion journalism. On all the pressing issues of the day—regionally and beyond—the Washington Post’s editorial, op-ed, and Outlook clusters furnish a wealth of thoughts and positions.
The Post’s main opinion shop, the editorial board, operates independently from the newsroom and is staffed by six editorial writers plus an editorial page editor (Fred Hiatt) and deputy editor (Jackson Diehl). The editorial board cooperates closely with an opinion pod at washingtonpost.com; together they have launched a successful blog, PostPartisan. The two entities are also now teaming up to create an online page featuring opinion pieces on local issues.
Both of these initiatives reflect a commitment to leveraging the Internet’s significant appetite for opinion. As our analytics have long proven, there’s nothing like a good op-ed piece to drive traffic to washingtonpost.com. If our writers alight on a hot topic, the site can expect hundreds of thousands of page views.
The traffic performance of our unsigned, institutional editorials, however, isn’t in the same ballpark. The page views of a hot unsigned editorial measure in the tens of thousands, a fraction of the traffic of a first-rate op-ed. The leadership of the editorial board doesn’t dispute the disparity in numbers but insists that the gap between unsigned work and signed op-eds would be slighter if washingtonpost.com did more to promote the former.
1) Out the editorial board members. For the longest time, we’ve been too fussy and self-important in shrouding the authorship of our editorials. The Web demands accountability and a name, a byline. Starting Feb. 1, we will let our online audience know who wrote which editorial and allow a conversation to ensue.
2) Fill the entirety of the Outlook section with content from Slate.
3) Make the Free for All page a daily feature and tear down the wall prohibiting online comments in the print product.
The Washington Post Co. is proud of how its flagship paper has delivered consumer journalism to readers via weekly lifestyle sections, such as Health, Food, and Home. The hardworking and barebones staffs of these sections put together features and columns and how-to pieces that captivate our readers.
Strategy discussions have centered on whether the Washington Post, in this difficult environment, can continue producing stand-alone lifestyle sections. The answer, as we all suspect, is no. The question then becomes how to present them and where to present them. One school of thought favors merging them with the Style section; however, such a meshing would make sense only for the Food section, which would add a nice complement to Style’s coverage of local entertainment and nightlife. The other sections bear a more natural kinship with the Business section, since they feature a lot of caveat emptor content.
1) Draw up plans to take these sections to a Web-only presentation.
2) Upgrade online interactive features of Health section’s annual drawings of the digestive system.
TV Week: Fold effective Jan. 1.
Travel: Advertisers have responded well to our regional travel features, and our staff has proven expertise in this area. Launch by June 1 a new, Web-first, regional product that borrows resources from current Travel section and other travel features that run in other sections.