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The Washington Post issued a fairly routine press release recently that noted the success of its digital partner program as it surpassed 240 newspapers worldwide.
When it began two years ago, the program seemed like a logical, digital extension of something the Post has done for years through the old L.A. Times–Washington Post News Service, but instead of hefty syndication fees, the Post collects data and traffic. It works like this: Subscribers to a partner paper with a premium digital service (i.e. paywall) get a Post digital subscription for free; local papers from the Dallas Morning News to the Erie Times-News to Haaretz use the Post as a lure to their sites; and the Post gets more traffic (one of the factors that helped it trumpet beating Buzzfeed, by one metric) and app users.
But now one digital partner is using the Post as part of a campaign to damage a local newspaper.
WCPO-TV in Cincinnati is offering Post content to premium subscribers for just $10 per year. Additionally, they will get the work of a team of digital journalists—mostly former newspaper reporters and editors—for exclusive, web-only content. The name of the campaign? #dropthepaper, a reference to the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer, the city’s daily newspaper.
If it seems a little weird for a TV station to use one newspaper’s work in an effort to damage another one—because, let’s be frank, #dropthepaper, complete with an icon of a crumpled-up paper, is about undercutting one of the main sources of revenue for the Enquirer—it hasn’t been lost on the folks working for the paper:
This has to be the crassest campaign I have ever seen in news media. Sorry for my ex-colleagues who now work there https://t.co/VWzlFLgfD2— Cheryl Vari (@cherylvari) March 22, 2016
Ironically, WCPO’s call letters come from the now-defunct Cincinnati Post. The ABC station is owned by Scripps, which recently divested itself of newspaper holdings in a spinoff deal with Journal Communications. WCPO beefed up its digital operation substantially over the last couple of years, but even this feels over the top. Do newspapers, which have been in the toilet financially for years, run #TurnOffYourTelevision campaigns in response to local news? Even with digital content making direct competitors of TV stations and newspapers, it is rare to see a station attempt to kneecap a paper.
City Desk asked the Post if it condoned a partner using Post content to put another newspaper out of business.
“Thanks for your patience while we looked into this,” came the reply from a Post spokesperson on Friday after three days of digging around for details. “Unless a partner’s marketing campaign is about the digital partner program, the Washington Post is not involved.”
But doesn’t using Post content as a lure to cancel a print subscription involve the Post, whether they want to be part of this or not? They are, literally, a partner in a campaign aimed at reducing print subscribers.
“Steve, I don’t see how you can make that argument,” replied Kris Coratti, the Post‘s vice president of communications.
WCPO is the only broadcast partner in the program.