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Wasted Synergy?

On Nov. 17, the Washington Post became a business partner of General Electric and Microsoft, arguably the biggest companies in the world, with a combined market capitalization of just short of $1 trillion.

The Washington Post Co. announced that it will be trading content, promotion, and technology with MSNBC.com, MSNBC Cable, and NBC News. (GE owns the broadcast network, and the other entities are joint projects with Microsoft.) From a business perspective, this latest round of brand-name Pokemon makes a neat parlay for the local media company. The alliance—no money will change hands—means that the Post Co. will get streaming video for its Washingtonpost.com and Newsweek sites, along with a ton of promotion in the form of Web links and television appearances by its cadre of writers at the Washington Post. (There will be another, as yet undelineated “news distribution” relationship with WRC-TV, the local NBC affiliate.)

Just as important, Washington’s major daily will finally have a global platform. Long a dominant regional presence, the Post has never had a country-wide circulation strategy along the lines of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. It does now. If all goes as planned—and it almost never does on the Web—the Post will partner itself into the national consciousness.

“It provides a significant opportunity to reach a national audience for the first time without the prohibitive costs of producing an ink-on-paper product,” says Christopher Ma, executive editor of Washingtonpost.Newsweek.Interactive. “We are looking for traffic, visibility, and to use the power of television to heighten our brand visibility and solve our long-term need for quality video coverage of the news.”

There’s something both predictable and mortifying about the consolidation of titles into one big we-are-the-URL world that’s owned by the same fat cats who own everything else. The Web’s promise to let a million idiosyncratic flowers bloom has morphed into a few well-branded gardens, fertilized by gobs and gobs of old-media advertising purchased with stock-market money. When wealth is concentrated, we pay at the cash register. When information is consolidated, we pay in ignorance. The process of news momentum, in which an important story is picked up by one media outlet after another until it enters the public consciousness, gets stilted when the outlets share a site, a voice, or business interests. In this blend-a-brand world, how far can a story roll before it bumps against the interest of some integrated giant?

“It’s a little shocking to me how the media structure of the future looks an awful lot like the media structure of the present and past. It flies in the face of what everybody was talking about when the Internet first came into being,” says Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Media.

In an attempt to hold and advance its place among major media outlets, the Post is hedging its bets by placing them all over the table. Washingtonpost.com is every damn thing—global, local, a portal, a news site. In its current iteration, the site allows users to enter a ZIP code, thereby programming their own micro-local version of the paper. At the same time, the company expects to commodify all those national hits that will be flowing in from its new alliances.

“There is a real and attractive audience for the Post nationally. In the past, that has always been just a windfall. They are attracted to the Post brand and coverage for more narrow reasons, but they are nevertheless a very real interest [of ours],” Ma says.

So the Post Co. is perfectly positioned for the future—unless the future changes, as it did during the paper’s Digital Ink experiments just four years ago.

In truth, the strategy at the Post Co. is driven by the same thing that drives all old media—fear. The analogy that comes up again and again is the old railroad companies, which thought they were in the business of running big machines on steel rails, when in reality they were about moving goods. The Post Co. may currently be configured to plop a hefty pulp product on your doorstep, but it’s betting that it’s actually in the information-delivery business. In an age of convergence, where all media may end up popping out of the same appliance in your house, the Post Co. wants to make sure that it’s a part of the infostream. It needs distribution partners for that—which is where companies like GE and Microsoft come in.

But the reason that GE and Microsoft are in the media business is the same reason that those rail barons started buying up newspapers once they made a bunch of dough—to purchase influence and give them a means to pimp their other products. The postindustrialists—like their turn-of-the-last-century doppelgangers—haven’t been raised on the same journalistic pieties that have made the paper’s name so important. And where do all these splendid synergies come from if the media components of the colossi are so unassailably independent?

The nexus between horizontal and vertical integration can be a perilous place. GE CEO Jack Welch, in a now-infamous inside play, called the chief of news at NBC on Black Monday in 1987 and told him that the reports about the free fall in the market were killing the stock price of the parent company. Even beyond that, GE is a particularly odious ally, with a well-documented history of industrial pollution, an entrenched position in the nuclear-power industry, and an intimate relationship with the defense establishment. (Well, at least GE has something in common with the Post.)

But Post Editor Leonard Downie reminds that he does not work for Jack Welch or Microsoft CEO Bill Gates—the companies share content, not accountants or shareholders.

“This is not a merger or anything like that that links us with these large corporations. I don’t believe that it’s going to be difficult for us to cover them exactly as we have before. People here are not confused about that,” says Downie.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who distinguished himself and the paper he works at by his rigorous coverage of the Microsoft antitrust trial, isn’t worried either.

“It is not going to affect the way that I go about reporting on or writing about Microsoft. As far as I am concerned, it’s business as usual,” says Chandrasekaran.

The public, of course, couldn’t give a rat’s ass about any of these issues—it’s inured to consolidation by now, whether the companies make newspapers or widgets. Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, says that’s partly because the negative externalities of synergy are invisible: “I don’t think that the Washington Post is going to go easy in its coverage of Microsoft, but there are more subtle aspects, like self-censorship, like a reporter asking themselves if, in the long run, whether a story will hurt or help their career.”

Even if you trust the paper to stay out of obvious conflicts, the alliance does create troubling adjacencies. Bill Gates can feel free to dial up Post Publisher Donald Graham and talk about business they have in common. Maybe those osmotics will dictate that Gates will come to understand that a high wall between commercial and journalistic enterprises is a sound business model. Or maybe Graham will have an epiphany that monopolies are actually a source of business innovation.

But even if the masses won’t just shun a newspaper that plays footsie with Bill Gates, the partnering may bring more practical problems—like reporters’ finding the time to actually do their job. I used to work with a very forward-thinking guy who had a radio background. His theory was that if we got the decal of our weekly newspaper in enough places, it would build “consumer awareness.” (This was before words like “brand” and “synergy” became the equivalent of conjunctions in business discourse.) I spent a lot of time on the radio talking about the paper, we got our logo on every damn thing in sight, but our actual franchise suffered from lack of attention and funding. The paper is no longer in existence, although I have a swell pack of commemorative stickers I’m trying to sell on eBay.

Between reporters’ filing for the Post- and Times-owned International Herald Tribune, doing afternoon shorts for Washingtonpost.com’s “P.M. Extra,” and getting dolled up and going on MSNBC to talk to Brian Williams, one Post reporter wonders whether his paper’s core enterprise will suffer.

“At some point, it’s all going to get disruptive and may begin to impede what I’m pretty sure is still our mission, which is to produce a morning paper,” says the reporter. Downie says that that’s nonsense, that nobody will be pressured to do anything other than “produce great journalism. That’s the only thing that counts around here.”

The reporter admits that he and his colleagues will get a little more excited about synergy about the time it begins to fold and go into their pockets. “The first reaction around here wasn’t about weightier media issues; it was about ‘What’s in it for me?’” he says, noting that reporters at the New York Times, which had a relationship with MSNBC before the Post elbowed its way in, were receiving $500 per appearance. Downie says that issue remains to be settled and that the money, when it comes, will be coming from NBC.

Partners tend to meet in the middle. I’d like to think that NBC’s Will and Grace will gain intellectual gravitas and Howard Kurtz will start doing his hair like Julianna Margulies, but I don’t think that’s the way the synergy will flow. Partnerships, meant to amplify respective strengths, can just as often serve as transmission lines for weakness. The first, most convergent technology of the current age—USA Today—is a newspaper that looks like a television set, and it hasn’t done much to improve the intellectual life of the country it covers.

The greater threat from a newspaper that becomes a source of content as opposed to a reservoir of first historical drafts is the spread of banality. If everybody partners into mega-portals with killer aps and spurting, streaming video, the words—the journalism, that is—will begin to become homogeneous. When Downie harrumphs about independence, he is to be believed, but what about Version 2.0 of digital journalism and the next generation of journalists? If the Washington Post is busy unbecoming a newspaper, what is it that it will become?

The Best Defense in Washington Although Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hasn’t seemed to inspire a lot of loyalty among the people who wear burgundy and gold on Sundays, he can rest assured that the editors at the Post will play better defense for him than the team he bought.

For instance, in every other paper in America that carries him, Norman Chad’s betting advice column on Nov. 25 read thus:

“Eagles at Redskins (-10 1/2): When Redskins foul up and TV shows punk owner Daniel M. Snyder in his box, he’s got that ‘Where’s my rattle?’ look on his face…Eagles G Jeff Dellenbach to start magazine ‘Holders Aficionado.’ Pick: Redskins.”

The Post ran a flattened version:

“Eagles at Redskins (-10 1/2): Redskins owner Daniel Snyder rarely looks happy when TV cameras zoom in on him…Eagles G Jeff Dellenbach to start magazine ‘Holders Aficionado.’ Pick: Redskins.”

Just a one-time anomaly, right, not an indication that the Posties are in the tank for an owner who, among other charming audibles, has suggested that his punter is a liar? But the week before, Post defenders showed up to block that kick, excising the modifier “punk” from in front of Snyder’s name in Chad’s column. Every other pick ran exactly as it did elsewhere, so the Post seems to tackle only prose that threatens to sack Snyder.

And don’t think that the team doesn’t appreciate the 12th man. A birthday cake showed up on the seat of Post columnist Michael Wilbon in the press box during the Eagles game. Wilbon was actually not at the game and says, “The notion that I could be bought for a cake is ludicrous. A [Redskins] secretary—a nice, private person—baked that cake for me.” Wilbon works on the Channel 4 summer broadcast team that Snyder has veto power over, and his picture hangs large in the press box at FedEx Field, but says, “I don’t give a shit what Daniel Snyder thinks of me. I want a good working relationship with the team, but that’s all I care about. I write what I want, and say what I want. Period.” —David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.

Dead Icon

Michael KirwanHsing-Hsing

ModusFed thousands of District residents Ate bamboo in front of millions.

Operandiout of a house on T Street with Bad lover, poor father. Since 1972,

private money. Operated a West lazed around the Panda House in

Virginia farm to house and provide the lap of governmental luxury.

respite for the homeless. Since Fat and cute.

1978, worked and lived among

the poor. Relentless.

Lasting The 51-acre farm with barns and Will be stuffed and put on display

Memorial an 18-bedroom house will continue in the rotunda of the National

to provide housing for those who Museum of Natural History:

have none. Residences for men and “The process of preparing

women in the District will continue Hsing-Hsing for display

to operate.will involve placing his skin

over a man-made frame that is

designed to appear lifelike,”

says the Washington Post.

Patron SaintDorothy DayRichard Nixon

Number of Words 1,5524,624

the Post Spent

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