An oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, 1980 to the present

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The Riptide blog

The Bubble’s beside the point (Part II)

Today, The New York Times reports a “major expansion” at the Washington Post. We spent a lot of time interviewing folks at the Post for Riptide. We went back to their earliest online investments in things like LegiSlate, the proprietary online business to business service covering government legislation. We talked to the family scion, Don Graham, as well as Alan Spoon, who was instrumental in setting up Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), and Chris Schroeder, who ran LegiSlate then moved over to be WPNI’s first President. We spoke with Caroline Little, Schroeder’s successor and now the CEO of the main newspaper association, the NAA. Even though we decided early on to focus exclusively on the business-side leaders (hence, our desire to see others come in and focus on new interviewees across the broad spectrum of disruption in journalism), we did interview Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Post.

It’s worth reading Baron’s interview as a backdrop to The Times story. I’ve known, and worked with, Marty for many years and respect him enormously, although he can be a prickly business partner at times. He’s a great defender of quality journalism and has worked tirelessly during an era of newsroom downsizings to sustain the kind of journalistic “muscle” required to hold the Big Boys, from the priest abusers in the Catholic Church to the Governor of Virginia, accountable. Now, according to The Times, he’s about to add a lot of strength to the Post’s newsroom.

The Post will introduce several initiatives this year, Mr. Baron said in a memo to his staff on Wednesday. There will be five new politics reporters as well as photo editors, data visualization specialists, news desk staff and web designers. It will add a breaking news desk and a Sunday style and arts section, as well as a revamped Sunday magazine that will be “bigger in dimension and in the number of pages, with a new design and a range of new features.”

In the context of the Riptide, of course, we’d want to explore how this new investment will ultimately pay for itself. My post yesterday summarized three reports on how new entrants like Buzzfeed and Business Insider are rapidly gaining audience and advertising share from the incumbents. We asked the question, can these new players, by applying the techniques of the tech-driven web, build a bridge to the kind of quality investigative reporting that newspapers like the Post are known for? Can they develop the economics to do that?

Jeff Bezos seems to be betting that his newsroom investment will revitalize the sagging fortunes of a once great paper. There are only three ways that he will get there:

1. He can simply run the Post as a philanthropy, absorbing whatever losses he runs as a rounding error against his billions in net worth. If you like this approach, read David Bradley’s Riptide interview. Bradley, the chairman of Atlantic Media, makes a compelling argument that running a place like the Post as a charity is a road to ruin. And I don’t think that’s what Bezos has in mind. He will accept losses, maybe for a long time, but there will be a path.

2. He can go big, chasing Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post for 100+ million monthly users.  And that’s just a start. That’s an interesting path, but one that will require Baron to adapt himself to the rules of the web jungle. If you look at the practices that many of the larger new entrants have followed, they will be anathema to Marty. Not all of them, of course, but there can be no compromises when it comes to this path. Either you play or go home.

3. He can chase The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. These guys are betting that there’s a big enough paying niche on the global stage for the kind of high quality journalism they offer. Arthur Sulzberger discussed this model with Paul Sagan and me at some length. This would be the most natural course for the Post, but it’s no slam dunk. To support the kind of newsroom that Marty runs, he will need at least a million subscribers to pay him a decent subscription fee each month. He’ll also need to give the kind of people willing to pay for The Times and the WSJ a reason to subscribe beyond “quality journalism.” The Post has a unique niche in American politics, and they could build on that, but there is vast competition in that space.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens at the Post. I’ve been excited ever since I heard that Bezos had agreed to acquire it. He’s one of the great entrepreneurs and business leaders of our time, right up there with Steve Jobs. That’s why I’m also hoping that the very next interview that gets done for Riptide is with Jeff.



January 30, 2014, 11:30 am