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WaPo must transform to survive
Ryan Chittum’s “The Washington Post Co.’s Self-Destructive Course” is a blistering attack on the paper’s management of its journalistic mission and its economic viability. Chittum examines the financial structure of both the The Washington Post and its parent, the Washington Post Company, most of whose revenue (and all of whose profits) come from Kaplan, the test prep service.
Chittum notes that, despite the paper’s declining readership and revenues, the company is not investing in the Post itself, but is instead using the profits generated from Kaplan to issue shareholder dividends and buy back stock. Chittum instead wants that money plowed back into the paper, so that it can again become a profitable business that creates great journalism. Unfortunately for him, those two goals are increasingly incompatible.
Chittum comes closest to admitting this when he writes:
By handing all that cash back to shareholders while disinvesting in its newspaper, the company is effectively saying that spending money on the hallowed Post is like throwing it down the rathole—it sees no possibility of making a return on any net investment there. That may actually be true, but it’s bad for the country, and it’s not very Swashbuckling Capitalist of them.
Chittum is of course correct that when the Post Company cuts back on journalism, it’s bad for the country. He’s also correct that investing in the Post would be money down a rathole. He fails to mention, however, that the logic of these two observations point in opposite ways.
If, as a citizen, he wants investment in journalism, then he doesn’t want more capitalism from owners, especially not the swashbuckling kind. If, as a shareholder, he wants more profit, then the last thing he wants the Washington Post Company to do is spend more on the newsroom. Chittum comes so close to arriving at the obvious conclusion—in its current configuration, the Post is basically screwed—then doesn’t follow his own logic all the way through. If he did, the animating theme of his piece—blame management—would be harder to support.
Yet Chittum’s own observation about the investment rathole points to deeper, more secular changes than mere financial nous could quickly remedy. The problem the Post faces, the deep problem, isn’t bad management (though good management would be useful right about now). The problem is that the odd logic of newspapers, where the owner of a reliably profitable advertising platform would be willing and able to subsidize a newsroom, doesn’t work as well as it used to.
The Post has responded to these grim realities with significant newsroom cuts, but they have dissembled about the effect of these cuts, which Chittum rightly calls them on:
The Post would like you to think that it’s doing more with less, but that’s hamsterized nonsense. Then-managing editor Raju Narisetti’s assertion last summer … that he had slashed the newsroom by 25 percent “without overtly impacting quality” was as bogus as it was offensive.
This is right—merely cutting headcount from a traditional newsroom just forces more work into fewer hands. But no matter how papers respond, making do with less is a forced move. Chittum is right that the Post Co. management should stop propping up its share price. (The New York Times’s greatest financial misstep in 50 years didn’t have to do with acquisitions or real estate, but buybacks.) He’s also right that they should turn to their most loyal readers for income, via a digital subscription service of the sort the Times has implemented. But even successes like that don’t replace past losses.
Furthermore, lost revenue isn’t the only change befalling what we used to call the news industry. It’s not even the most significant change. To adapt to the current ecosystem, the Post (like all papers) will have to alter the way it works, not just the way it makes money.
A good example of altered process has sprung up in the Post’s back yard: Homicide Watch. The website covers every murder in DC. (Contrast the Post’s embarrassingly selective coverage.) The front page lists breaking news on homicides and updates on existing cases; there is a page for every victim as well (and one for every named assailant). Every update tied to a particular murder is posted on the victim’s page, providing a chronology of the investigation and any subsequent trial. The comments on the victim pages, heartbreaking and vital, serve as a rolling eulogy for one of most murder-prone cities in the country.
Because the content is so intertwined (the pages of multiple victims in the same assault are linked, as are the pages of the victim and the accused), Homicide Watch is more like a database than a news wire; each additional detail posted raises the value of the whole collection, a pattern that copies more from Wikipedia than from the traditional newspaper coverage.
Homicide Watch provides far broader crime coverage than the Post, coverage of clear value to the community, and does so in a way that makes that value cumulative, rather than just spinning out updates on the hamster wheel. In comparison with the Post, though, the most important thing about Homicide Watch is that they do all this with two employees: Laura Amico as the editorial voice, and her husband, Chris, who developed the platform and works part time.
When a two-person outfit can cover such a critical issue better than the reigning local paper, with much less overhead, it’s evidence that doing more with less is possible, but it’s also evidence that this requires far more than reducing expenses. Homicide Watch isn’t just a tight operation (though it is that); it’s a brilliant re-imagining of what it means to be a news outlet.
Once you accept that all that free money from the middle of last decade is never coming back, you are left with two visions of newspapers’ future: diminution or re-invention. In the Post’s case, if you believe it can only be as good as it used to be by becoming as rich as it used to be, then you believe it will remain diminished, forever stuck doing less with less.
If, on the other hand, you imagine a Post that returns to, or even improves on, its best work, then by definition you are imagining it can somehow do more with less. This problem is not financial—it is foundational. It requires asking anew what good journalism looks like, in a world where the Internet exists.
What ails the Post isn’t just a loss of income, but a loss of imagination. To adapt, they will need to start treating stories as part of a larger stream (like Homicide Watch), or how to turn to the public for raw material (like PoliceMisconduct.net). They will need to try new things: better ways for their readers to talk about news (as The Huffington Post provides), or automating the writing of formulaic stories (asNarrative Science does). They could become more collaborative, partnering more to get access to expertise not on staff (as papers have done with organizations ranging from NPR to ProPublica to Wikileaks.)
Changing the way the Post works will be painful, of course, and there’s no guarantee that any re-invention of its structure and processes would work. There is a guarantee, however, that, left in its current configuration, merely stanching the bleeding, without an accompanying transformation, will merely move them out of emergency room and into the hospice.