QUICK TAKES: Some things I’ve Learned from a Year at The Washington Post


The below is a personal brain dump, not intended to be coverage or Washington Post editorial. Quick Takes are intended to capture thoughts at a moment in time for further exploration. For coverage by the professionals, I follow Nieman Lab, mediagazer, mediabistro, and the Eric Wemple blog amongst many others.

A year ago, I left a job I loved at Bloomberg, a company I love, to join The Washington Post, a little over half a year into its era under the ownership of Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos.

I’ve been fascinated with newspapers dating back to the age of ten when a paper route funded my Pac-Man and jelly bean habit at the local 7-11, along with whatever else on which a 10-year old could blow a few dollars.

Despite a career that started in the bloody-knuckled trade show business (a partnership in my own little company, then management at COMDEX), then transitioned to the genteel world of blue-chip magazines (Time Inc.), then the daily whiplash of an all-of-the-above-and-then-some media company (Bloomberg), I was surprised to be surprised by what I have seen at The Washington Post.

Without divulging any secrets, or presuming to deliver groundbreaking insight on the media industry, here are a few of the many things I’ve learned.

Great Journalism is a Great Way to Drive Traffic

WaPo is bigger than you think. In March, 52.2 million unique visitors stopped by to read our digital content. 95% of those who visited from their desktop came from outside of the Washington, DC metro area. That’s a huge digital presence. Guess what else? 19.5 million are “millennials” – that under-35 generation about which marketers are head-scratching. Digital nerds ask what SEO strategy created that growth. For non-nerds and nerds of the non-digital type, “SEO” is “Search Engine Optimization” – or things you do to make your web site show up when someone Googles, Bings, Yahoos, crawls, bots, aggregates, or otherwise digs up content. Well there has been an engineering team feverishly re-building the entire washintonpost.com web site from the first bit of the first byte on the server. That helps a lot.

Then the Nerd asks – “That’s how they find it, how do they make them click?” For a lot of sites that means making lots of lists like “10 Amazing things you need to know in the next 10 seconds or you will definitely die — #7 is the most important!!” (otherwise known as clickbait). For the less-honest media company  there are also “click farms” where low paid employees in say, Bangladesh it somewhere (maybe on an actual farm or on a boat or in a warehouse) and click on things for a fee (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/01/06/click-farms-are-the-new-sweatshops/).

I’ve observed at The Washington Post, that great journalism is the best way to cause people to click on a link. The day before I visited Washington to meet the executive team during my interview process, WaPo had won three Pulitzer Prizes, one being the prestigious Public Service Prize for the paper’s role in the Edward Snowden story. This year another for breaking the story, then chronicling the Secret Service’s troubles. One of the highest-traffic stories of 2014 for WaPo was a human, and emotional story about the extraordinary fall from comfort by a woman who ended up on SNAP (“I drove my Mercedes to pick up Food Stamps” http://wapo.st/1vWBsFb). The Washington Post has broken story after story after story in the past year. Many of these are long-form stories – not a quick graphic or list. Each time driving significant readership.

Sure, I also enjoy the pieces like the occasional “The Wealthiest Zip Codes in America” (http://wapo.st/1IzIVng) on our Wonkblog section (which also produces brilliant content beyond that type of thing), but quality journalism, ethically produced, energetically pursued and brilliantly told is a pretty great traffic driver.

I Have Made my Peace with Social Networks

Anyone who has worked with me in the past has heard me snarl at the mention of social networks as “media” or as a way to accomplish anything other than the occasional distraction during the day or witty exchange with ‘friends’. I’m wrong.

Social drives huge traffic. At WaPo, I’ve observed the phenomenon of “sideways traffic,” meaning that people don’t enter a site through a front page, but directly to a story they discovered somewhere, usually on a social platform. Now, the challenge is getting people to dig around further, beyond the story they visited to read.

Social also offers a richer story-telling experience. Within its article pages, WaPo integrates video, Twitter and other assets to add texture. Often times, these article pages grow, are updated, and additional elements included. This goes way beyond embedding a link in text, and instead embeds the related content right into the page your reading.

There’s a Lot More Going on than you Think

I’ve seen and heard about a lot of the experiments going on here, but recently, sitting through a few hours of project after project after project being presented, it finally got through my thick head — the disruption of the news business isn’t about transitioning from paper to a web site or mobile web platform, it’s a transformation of every single way we consume news and in every single way individuals interact with their world.

It’s not just about finding new revenue streams. That’s the eternal search in media. (My odd little niche of the media world, for example – editorial conferences – frequently comes into vogue as a way to drive new revenue as print declines – the handful of us who specialize in this type of product, along with its associated digital and print outputs go through spurts of calls from recruiters trying to staff up this or that company who have decided events & conferences are their next big thing – I’ve given up keeping a contact file of industry colleagues and just let LinkedIn keep me up-to-date – it’s almost humorous) . My parenthetical aside, aside – it’s about reaching the reader. If you’re not reaching consumers, with things of interest to them and in the way they love to engage most, you won’t generate revenue.

Gamers use specific types of technology to do what they do (the news will be there). Office workers use certain technologies to do what they do (the news will be there). Gadget enthusiasts – well, they’re gadget enthusiasts (the news will be on their wrist, in their eyeglass or wherever they decide to attach the next gadget). People who read a lot use e-readers (the news is there). People who ride in cars a lot use still different technology (the news will be there). People who like to gather in person and discuss will gather in person and discuss (supported by technology that prepares them better, networks them with each other, and enhances their conversations – the news will be there – furthermore, what they discuss will be edited, reported, crafted into multimedia storytelling and shared with others). And on it goes.

Stepping back from the lab and into things that already exist – take a look at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dre/features/the-n-word — which will make you a 122-second custom documentary about use of the “n” word based on questions you answer; take a look at the Washington Post “Rainbow” app (the lore is that the name comes from the fact Jeff Bezos and Marty Baron saw one while discussing the project) – which demonstrates what a fresh pair of eyes can do to mobile apps; look at your Apple Watch and read a few WaPo headlines.

I still enjoy my cup of coffee and morning papers (I read four a day and 15 magazines a month), but am a voracious reader of digital news as well. Some on my desktop. Some on my phone. Streaming radio? Yes. TV? Rarely TV. Sorry, TV. You’re there to entertain me. Your news is old by the time you share it.

Journalism is Still Dangerous

The stories of attacks and flogged bloggers steal the headlines. Beyond that – The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2014 that there were 221 journalists jailed worldwide. One of them is Jason Rezaian, an Iranian citizen who is a journalist based in Iran for the Washington Post.

He and his wife were arrested without explanation, she freed, he sitting in a notorious Iranian prison for nearly a year. He did not hear the formal charges until about a month ago, when he was finally allowed to speak to a lawyer. There he still sits, in prison – for nothing more than the crime of covering the lives, the news and the events taking place in Iran so the rest of the world can be informed. WaPo executive editor, Marty Baron has invested incredible energy in the efforts to free him. The President mentioned him during the few serious moments of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner this year. Much negotiation and pressure has been applied from many parties outside of WaPo to win Jason his freedom. Yet his future is still uncertain. Follow #freejason on Twitter.

A year at the new Washington Post is difficult to summarize and could be much longer with at least 52 more lessons. We’ll leave it here for now.