Legacy Media Case Study: The Washington Post

By Cheryl Hayes

Background

The Washington Post existed as far back as 1877. The Meyer-Graham family owned the news organization from 1933 until 2013, which is when it was acquired for $250 million by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As of 2012, The Washington Post was the 8th largest newspaper in the US. As of 2011, it was the 2nd largest online newspaper website. In addition to being a local newspaper for the Washington, DC area, The Washington Post is a nationally-recognized brand for its political news coverage.

What has this organization’s response been to the changing media landscape?

  • Launched website in 1996
  • Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post from the Graham family in 2013.
  • Started a living laboratory of business model experimentation.
  • Staff has been given a “runway” for experimentation.
  • Started an initiative to build the reach of Post journalism through digital initiative. The goal was to carry the newspaper into a new era marked by expanded ambitions online and a determination to build a larger national and international audience.
  • Funding efforts to expand online readership.

What lessons they have learned as they work to adapt to digital landscape

  • The changing media landscape is not a death warrant for legacy news organizations, but instead is a means to innovation and growth.
  • Paying attention to their customers:readers, viewers and listeners.
  • If they don’t engage their customers with journalism they can connect with, the competition will.

 

What kinds of opportunities did they take?

  • Selling The Washington Post in 2013 after seven years of declining revenues versus cutting additional staff, which would have adversely hurt its news reporting.
  • Investment of $250 million cash to implement initiatives aimed at growth and digital transformation.
  • Hired 36 people with the goal of digital transformation.
  • Learned new skills from young journalists who already have the skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, energy and love for journalism.
  • Acquired Slate online magazine in 2005 from Microsoft.
  • Invested in R&D.
  • Issued a set of social media guidelines in 2009.
  • Partnered with The New York Times and Mozilla in 2014 to create tools to improve online commenting systems, which was funded by a $3.89M grant from the Knight Foundation.
  • Launched a blog called Story Lab in 2009, which experiments with new narrative forms in reporting and presentation.
  • Directly compete with Politico by launching a redesigned politics section that emphasized social sharing and interactivity.
  • Utilized Facebook via Trove, a news aggregator that mines users’ FB data to deliver personalized content.
  • First to launch social media app on Facebook.
  • Developed Truth Teller, a live fact-checking tool for audio and video content.
  • Created partnerships with the Texas Tribune and Medill School of Northwestern and the Knight Foundation to fund programmer-journalist scholarships.

 

What kinds of opportunities did they miss?

  • A new publisher with a background in Republican politics could have been used as an opportunity to impose new editorial policies at The Washington Post.
  • Not using paywalls for online content as a revenue stream.

 

What kinds of opportunities did they take to grow audience?

  • Offer an enhanced reader experience with new article formats that engage the reader.
  • Launched Washington Post Live in 2011, which hosts 20 – 30 discussion events per year that are free and open to the public.
  • Started a network of user-created political blogs called PostEverything in 2014.
  • Offer a division called PostTV that produces several web shows.
  • Partnered with Watchup, an online newscast that reinvents how news is watched, in 2014.
  • Released an iPhone app in 2010.
  • Released an iPad app in 2012.
  • Launched main app to include a replica of the print newspaper in 2013.
  • Launched social media app on Facebook which draw in 3.5M users in first two months as well as an Android app.

What kinds of opportunities did they take to build new revenue?

  • Initially charged $1.99 for iPhone app.
  • Charged $2.99 per month for full access to politics iPad app.
  • Launched a metered pay plan in 2013 with a digital subscription price of $9.99 and $14.99 per month.
  • Launched Sponsored Views in 2013 where people had to pay to post commentaries.

What specific challenges did they face?

  • Financial challenges due to the decline in revenues; especially from Kaplan Education.
  • The departure of several journalists to form their own online journalism ventures funded by Vox Media.
  • Downsizing of staff
  • Competition from new online media ventures
  • Competition from other internet news media

References

Baron, Marty. 2014. Optimism is the only option: The Washington Post’s Marty Baron on the state of the news media. April 7. http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/04/optimism-is-the-only-option-the-washington-posts-marty-baron-on-the-state-of-the-news-media/.

Coddington, Mark. 2014. Nieman Lab Encyclopedia. July 31. Accessed September 12, 2014. http://www.niemanlab.org/encyclo/washington-post/.

Craig Timberg, Chico Harlan and Peter Whoriskey. 2014. The Washington Post. September 2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/post-names-frederick-j-ryan-jr-as-new-publisher/2014/09/02/78f65bf2-329d-11e4-8f02-03c644b2d7d0_story.html.

Kennedy, Dan. 2014. Why is THe Washington Post holding a live event in Boston? May 12. http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/05/why-is-the-washington-post-holding-a-live-event-in-boston/.

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