The Washington Post’s “magic bullet” problem

washpo newsroom

At first glance, two articles written by two separate media reporters this past week about the state of the Washington Post seem to reach entirely disparate conclusions. It’s been one year since the much-ballyhooed Jeff Bezos purchase of the paper, and in the wake of that purchase many were hopeful that a figure famous for disrupting multiple retail industries would be able to perform a similar feat for journalism.

Politico’s Dylan Byers takes a rather pessimistic view of the Post’s Bezos era. He paints the paper as “far from embarking on the radical reinvention that many thought Bezos would bring,” He argues that though it has added about 100 new staffers and launched a few new editorial products, these are mostly cosmetic changes, not the radical shift in direction that would allow the Post to corner a previously-unexploited market. “We’ve staffed up in a major way, which is reassuring, but I’m not sure anyone knows where that leads,” one anonymous reporter told Byers. “What are we doing that’s different? What are we bringing to the table? I’m not sure we’ve figured that out yet.”

But what Byers interprets as listlessness, the NYT’s David Carr sees as a renewed energy and vitality. After noting that the Post has been central to several major stories in recent months — security lapses with the Secret Service, the corruption case against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell — Carr informs us that website traffic is up 63 percent since last year.

Though it may seem at first that both Byers and Carr are looking at two completely different newspapers, they have at least one similar observation about the Post: Bezos has not unleashed any kind of “magic bullet” that will suddenly shift the paper’s prospects in a radical way. He hasn’t launched the journalism equivalent of the Kindle store, at least not yet.

When you look at the efforts to innovate within the news ecosystem, you see news outlets experimenting with new methods of extracting more money from their already-existing readerships. That may be installing a pay meter to charge your most devoted readers for access (New York Times), selling tickets to lucrative live events (Wall Street Journal with its All Things Digital conference), or offering up eCommerce products that you sell to your readers (Thrillist).

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But when you look at all the potential readership demographics for the Washington Post, you see competing publications that have already moved into those spaces, making for a crowded competitive marketplace. Here, let’s list them:

1. Political junkies. These are the folks who maniacally hit the refresh button on polls. They can list off the candidate names and districts for all the close races this year. They may either work for campaigns or PACs, or they’re just people obsessed with the Shakespearean drama of Right/Left politics in the same way that other people track baseball statistics or follow Justin Bieber’s every utterance. The problem for the Washington Post is that this is a well-fed constituency, one that is mined by The Hill, Roll Call, and, most dominantly, Politico.

2. Policy makers and lobbyists. This group has plenty of revenue potential. Like Wall Street firms that spend thousands of dollars on Bloomberg terminals, lobbyists and consultants are looking for an information advantage, however slight, and they have the money to pay for it. But it’s unclear whether WashPo would be too late to the game if it were to launch hyper-niche products for this audience. Both CQ and Politico PRO offer up information products that cost thousands of dollars a year. These lobbyists may have plenty of money, but are there enough of them who’d be willing to drop several thousand more dollars on a Washington Post PRO product?

3. DC metro inhabitants. These are the people who live both in the District and the surrounding counties, the citizens who would care about local elections or are searching out the newest trendy restaurants. Again, this is a saturated market. You’ve always had Washington City Paper, but now you’re seeing a variety of hyperlocal neighborhood blogs, food blogs, and even a vigilant crime blog.

4. The general public. The Washington Post also publishes more general-interest news, the kind that had real currency during the print-only era but has been hard to monetize once the internet removed all barriers to entry.

As you can see, the Washington Post doesn’t really have any of these markets cornered, and it may have difficulty competing with already-entrenched incumbents. Perhaps its market advantage, then, is that it’s the only publication that touches on all these constituencies at once. It has highly-experienced beat reporters in the politics, policy, metro, and general public realms. For the first three categories — politics, policy, and metro — there is significant overlap, and occasionally a story of interest to those demographics will blow up to the national level, like the Secret Service story for instance. If Bezos can find a way to monetize this more holistic spectrum, squeezing value from everyone ranging from the low information voter to the caffeine-fueled Hill staffer, then all together these multiple revenue streams may translate into a vibrant business.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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