The Washington Post: An Innovative Force in the Digital News Industry

How did a 139-year old newspaper successfully alter its DNA from that of a regional newspaper to a massive digital news platform?

Over the last three years, The Washington Post (or “the Post”) has successfully transformed itself from a regional, D.C. area print newspaper into a national digital media company. So how did the Post make this dramatic transition and move up in the pack of national news providers? With help from a somewhat surprising partner, Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos. In October 2013, after a constant downward decline in average daily circulation and ad sales, the Post was acquired for $250 million with Jeff Bezos’ personal funds [1]. Bezos bought the paper with the intention to reinvent the once 7th largest daily newspaper in the U.S. by ushering the Post into the digital age.

The story of the Post is not just a story of a single newspaper, but rather a reflection of the print industry as a whole. Newspapers have struggled to adapt to the new digital realities of today’s information age. The internet has dramatically changed the way consumers receive information; readers now expect real-time news and updates across all of their digital platforms at all times. The print industry has been unable to keep up with these rapidly increasing consumer demands resulting in a constant decline in print readership and ad sales over the last two decades. From 1985 to 2014, paid daily circulation of newspapers in the U.S. fell from 62.8 million to 40.4 million (Exhibit 1) [2]. Print advertising revenue of U.S. newspapers plunged from $47.4 billion in 2005 to $16.4 billion in 2014 [3]. Specifically, the Post’s average daily circulation dropped 38% from 2004 to 2013 [4]. It was evidently clear that the prior print only newspaper business model was no longer relevant with the news consumption habits of the 21st century.

Exhibit 1 [2]
Exhibit 1 [2]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 2013 take-private of the Post initiated a complete overhaul of the paper with a significant focus on growth through the investment in technology. In their efforts to take the Post digital, the following key changes were initiated [5]:

  • Revamp of the design and layout of all digital platforms (Exhibits 2 and 3)
  • Faster loading website and mobile apps
  • Content available on a variety of distribution platforms including Twitter, Google AMP, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook
  • Actively communicating with users through email, social media sites, and mobile apps
  • Considerable amount of multimedia content, heavy emphasis on video
  • Post app pre-loaded onto Amazon Fire and Kindle tablets
app-2
Exhibit 2: The Washington Post App
print-style
Exhibit 3: The Washington Post Print Edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These initiatives seem to be working. In October 2015, for the first time ever, the Post exceeded The New York Times in digital visitors claiming 66.9 million unique users compared to 65.8 million for The Times (Exhibit 4) [6]. In February 2016, the Post reported 890.1 million page views, beating out the Times (721.3 million) and even BuzzFeed (884.0 million) [7].

Exhibit 4 [6]
Exhibit 4 [6]
There are a few key reasons why these technology initiatives were successful for the Post:

  1. “Get Big Fast” Strategy: The Post took a page straight out of Amazon’s playbook and focused on growing their digital audience quickly. To reach this broad market, the Post needed to drastically widen their customer acquisition funnel by driving traffic to their platforms through variety of touchpoints (e.g. Facebook ads, email, Twitter or blog post). Once customers were brought onto the site, The Post needed to ensure they had compelling and relevant content to keep them coming back, and eventually, convert them into loyal visitors willing to pay for a subscription to a digital bundle [5].
  2. Investment in New Technologies: The Post invested heavily in building out their data analytics capabilities. Most notable was their in-house engineered content-management system called “Arc Publishing” which handled all web publishing, blogging, video and mobile [8]. Not only did the Post use Arc Publishing internally, but they found a way to monetize the technology by licensing it to other news organizations, technology teams, and digital businesses [8].
  3. Freedom to Innovate Under Private Ownership: The private backing by Bezos gave the Post the freedom to experiment without the pressure from shareholders to produce profits in the short-term. Many of these technology initiatives are risky, hard to measure success, and difficult to monetize, especially at the onset.

The Post took control of its technological destiny by creating a media ecosystem built around new digital platforms and innovative technologies. For this strategy to be sustainable in the long run though, the Post will need to focus on (i) maintaining their strong journalistic arm with high quality content, top-tier talent, and a distinctive voice, (ii) growing their digital audience, specifically millennials who make up 40% of their current online readers [9], and (iii) investing in innovation and entering new digital mediums, such as virtual reality, to stay at the forefront of digital storytelling.

 

[795 words]

 

[1] Paul Fahri, “Washington Post closes sale to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos,”The Washington Post, October 1, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/washington-post-closes-sale-to-amazon-founder-jeff-bezos/2013/10/01/fca3b16a-2acf-11e3-97a3-ff2758228523_story.html, accessed November 15, 2016.

[2] “Paid circulation of daily newspapers in the United States from 1985 to 2014 (in thousands),” Statistic, https://www.statista.com/statistics/183422/paid-circulation-of-us-daily-newspapers-since-1975/, accessed November 15, 2016.

[3] “Digital and print advertising revenue of U.S. newspapers from 2003 to 2014 (in billion U.S. dollars),” Statistica, March 2015, https://www.statista.com/statistics/189844/online-and-print-advertising-revenue-of-us-newspapers-since-2003/, accessed November 15, 2016.

[4] Felix Richter, “The Gradual Decline of The Washington Post,” Statistica, August 6, 2013, https://www.statista.com/chart/1333/circulation-at-the-washington-post/, accessed November 15, 2016.

[5] Dan Kennedy, “The Bezos Effect: How Amazon’s Founder Is Reinventing The Washington Post – and What Lessons It Might Hold for the Beleaguered Newspaper Business,” The Shorenstein Center, June 8, 2016, http://shorensteincenter.org/bezos-effect-washington-post/, accessed November 15, 2016.

[6] Jordan Valinsky, “Washington Post tops New York Times online for first time ever,”Digiday, November 13, 2015, http://digiday.com/publishers/comscore-washington-post-tops-new-york-times-online-first-time-ever/, accessed November 15, 2016.

[7] “The Washington Post surpasses 890 million page views, 73 million users in February,”WashPost PR BlogThe Washington Post, March 17, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2016/03/17/the-washington-post-surpasses-890-million-page-views-73-million-users-in-february/, accessed November 15, 2016.

[8] Arc Publishing, https://www.arcpublishing.com/, accessed November 17, 2016.

[9] Jack Murtha, “How the times have changed for The Washington Post,” Columbia Journalism Review, December 1, 2015, http://www.cjr.org/analysis/washington_post_vs_new_york_times.php, accessed November 15, 2016.

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6 thoughts on “The Washington Post: An Innovative Force in the Digital News Industry

  1. I find this a fascinating example of digitization, as the founder of arguably the most successful internet company of all bought a flagship of one of the industries under the most pressure from the internet. Given the drastically declining readership and revenues of traditional print papers, despite their online efforts, I don’t think it is too controversial to say that the newspaper industry has yet figured out the best way to monetize its content in the digital age, especially as it struggles with the mix of free vs. paid content and quality and accuracy of reporting vs. being first to report against intense internet competition. I suspect that the star power of Bezos in and of itself is helping to attract more high-quality web engineers to the Post [1]. Amazon has several powerful tools at its disposal that it could use to try to improve the Post’s performance, not least of which is its famed set of data analytics capabilities [2] which can help it determine what content is resonating most with readers and which is less effective.

    It seems to me that the most important elements that will ultimately determine the success of failure of the Post in this venture are whether they can simultaneously grow and monetize its digital presence – a challenge that has eluded, e.g., the New York Times [3] – and whether they can take a larger share of the mobile news space, which other competitors like the Wall Street Journal are investing heavily in [4]. Despite the great challenges ahead, I wouldn’t bet against many ventures heavily backed by Jeff Bezos, and as you say the availability of effectively infinite private capital from his and Amazon’s very deep pockets will give them a great deal of time and space to experiment and fail on a much more relaxed timescale than some of their competition may be facing.

    [1] Kim, Eugene. “How Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reinvented The Washington Post, the 140-year-old newspaper he bought for $250 million.” Business Insider. 15 May 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
    [2] Taylor, Harriet. “Amazon Super Powers Web Services with Data Analytics”. CNBC. 7 October 2015. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
    [3] Ember, Sydney. “New York Times Co. Reports a Loss, and a Fall in Digital Ad Revenue”. The New York Times. 28 July 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
    [4] Lichter, Joseph. “Why The Wall Street Journal is Cutting Print Sections and Refocusing on its Core Coverage.” NiemanLab. 14 November 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Jenna!

    The impact of technology on print media has certainly been transformative for the industry over the last few decades. The big question is, what’s next? As you mentioned in your last paragraph, there are many who seem to believe virtual realty journalism will be trending over the next one to two years. It seems some major news publishers have already begun betting on VR, creating “VRrooms” that offer 360-degree videos that can be viewed via smartphone app or Google Cardboard headset. Most notably, last Fall the NYTimes sent out one million Google Cardboard headsets to Sunday print subscribers in an effort to encourage use of its VRroom [1]. Initial users seem very satisfied with the quality of their VR news experience, but it may still be hard to justify significant investment in VR for now, as it may still be too early to gauge the longevity and feasibility of this platform.

    [1] http://www.niemanlab.org/2016/03/report-2016-will-be-critical-for-growth-of-vr-in-journalism/

  3. This is an interesting article – great to see how Washington Post has rediscovered itself. You have mentioned the transition from text to multimedia content – this is something the newspapers have traditionally struggled with as they always think in terms of text reports. Moreover, in the information age – the attention span of people is constantly reducing. Twitter has put us in the habit of reading 140 characters so do we expect people to read full news articles. There is an Indian startup called ‘inshorts’ which publishes news story no longer than 60 words [1]. They are becoming really successful and I believe this is what the future is going to be. It will be interesting to see how conventional news organizations will respond to this challenge.

    [1] https://www.inshorts.com

  4. Thank you for applauding the admirable efforts of the WP and Bezos to revive this struggling but entirely necessary news media industry. Exhibit 1, in particular, is a depressing demonstration of its decline, but there is hope. As you note, the WP and papers around the globe have pivoted their models to meet crucial objectives: (1) be profitable; (2) inform the public; (3) sustain and/or increase readership/clicks/viewers/shares; (4) serve as a check and balance for the industries and entities on which they report. Coupled with the constant tension between the advertising and editorial sides of media companies, maximizing each of these is hard to do without acknowledging some trade offs. When Bezos took over, for example, a number of critics were (and remain) extremely concerned about the paper’s ability to maintain objectivity. A prime example came last August when the NYT published a scathing exposé on Amazon’s culture [1], along with follow-up analysis and a response from the company. The story itself generated lots of follow-up conversation, but the Washington Post remained suspiciously quiet. This is relevant because as much as it matters to be digital-first/forward, maximizing online readers is fully dependent on readers’ belief in a publication’s objectivity. If people feel a media outlet is introducing bias, they are more likely to disengage from that outlet (Facebook serves as another recent example, as it has been doing damage control on this topic following the US election [2]).

    Overall, thrilled to see there is momentum for WaPo’s digital efforts at large and that it now rivals the Times, which is widely-regarded as another best practice in the digital journalism effort. Most recently, the Times deleted its paywall for three days during the election, from Nov. 5-7, offering readers an unlimited three-day glimpse into its reporting and analysis — brilliant marketing ploy. Early reports show that online subscriptions surged after the combination of this feature (and the election result itself) [3]. Continued focus on UX, interactive design and infographics, sophisticated data analytics and of course, simply great reporting, will not just keep the Post alive, but allow it to thrive.


    [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html?_r=0
    [2] http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/17/495827410/from-hate-speech-to-fake-news-the-content-crisis-facing-mark-zuckerberg
    [3] http://adage.com/article/media/york-times-wsj-subscriptions-surge-election/306778/

  5. Great post, Jenna!

    I think Bezos made a bunch of smart moves when he bought the post a few years ago as you described! It was very smart of them to focus on accessibility and user base in these early years to gain traction over the other traditional media companies that may have not been as forward thinking. However, I think the Post is hitting a turning point. Although we don’t know the details of their financials, it’s likely that they have taken a hit in this area in the past few years. Growing user base is great, but providing free content, and relying on mainly ad revenue is a dangerous strategy. Even if The Post charges for subscriptions, they will likely run into a similar problem to Netflix (and many other digital content-based services), where multiple people sign in with just one paid account. One possible solution could be to take a Spotify approach and see a list of curated articles based on what other people are reading. The Post could also potentially look into page customization for each person, but I think this could be dangerous because exposure to many types of headlines is important. It is critical that valid news sources continue to play a role in our society, and I worry about the future of journalistic integrity if these media groups cannot properly fund their operations.

  6. Hey Jenna– great post! A very interesting topic, and I agree with what other comments have noted about how important it is for media to remain vibrant to help educate people. A few thoughts that occurred to me after reading your post and the other comments:

    Rita Skeeter brings up questions about objectivity given that Jeff Bezos has such an influential role and plays such an important part in sustaining the paper. I think that’s a huge red flag in my book. In talking about his justifications for buying the Post, Bezos cites interest in turning the paper into a global powerhouse. He talks about how well positioned the Post is to play a critical role as a watchdog for American government officials (and for global leaders).(1) I agree that Bezos has helped the Post become a more financially sustainable institution and that it has been an important voice in this campaign season. However, is the Post positioned to be a watch dog of businesses if it is owned by a billionaire business man? The press should be a watchdog of politics but also of business, ideally.

    I also share Captain Koloth’s interest in talent. It does seem like getting the right engineers is critical. Beyond that, I wonder about how the talent needed to create the content that will be best adapted to digital settings. Will WaPo need to hire more bloggers? More millennials? It seems like an interesting challenge to hire both traditional journalists and this new profile.

    There’s been a ton of conversation recently about how digital media has created the opportunity for “fake news” to promulgate. This election season has seen fake news sharing be particularly problematic. Facebook has come under fire. (2). Will trend and conversation impact WaPo at all?

    Thanks for the post!

    1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/technology/jeff-bezos-riding-high-defends-decision-to-buy-washington-post.html
    2. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2016/11/the_problem_with_facebook_runs_much_deeper_than_fake_news.html

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