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HomeTRENDING NEWSThe Washington Post Has a New Publisher. Here’s Some Unsolicited Advice.

The Washington Post Has a New Publisher. Here’s Some Unsolicited Advice.

When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million, he promised a “runway” of financial support that he hoped would restore the battered paper to greatness. A decade later, it seems that he needs to keep paving. Having invested millions of dollars in the franchise — losing a reported $100 million in 2023 alone — Bezos signaled his willingness to begin again by hiring a new publisher and CEO, Will Lewis, who took command of the paper’s control tower last month.

It’s a given that Washington and the nation need the Post to survive. No matter how you feel about the paper, it provides essential coverage of politics, power and governance for national readers and still does its best to do the same on the local scene. As a news competitor, it keeps outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal sharp, and feeds firestarter to the local news ecosystem of TV and radio.

Is Will Lewis up to the job? He arrives possessing all the tools you might want in a publisher. Conversant in both the editorial and business language of the job, he’s labored as a financial journalist, edited the Daily Telegraph in London, logged two stints as a digital publishing entrepreneur, and served as publisher of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and CEO of Dow Jones and Company. Sir Will outranks all other U.S. publishers by virtue of his knighthood, conferred in 2023 by the King of England.

In person, Lewis projects charisma like a peacock displaying its colors, and he has used that charm in his talking tours of the Post newsroom. Although he has yet to publicly unveil his plans for the Post, he’s conveyed a sense of urgency to the staff, telling them that the paper must boost subscribers from the current 2.5 million mark to 3 million in this calendar year.

Nobody, not even a knight of the realm, can refashion a paper by himself. Fortunately for him, there’s no shortage of advice out there for what he can and should do. What follows is unsolicited advice from 14 former news executives, journalists, authors and academics, as Lewis begins construction on the Washington Post’s latest runway. Their comments have been sparingly edited for clarity.

‘Cover the American political meltdown we are living through with an intensity’

By Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson is the former executive editor of the New York Times and author of The Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts.

Infect your staff, especially your newsroom, with passion. This does not mean endlessly celebrating the legacy of Watergate. It means strengthening the paper’s core, the deep reporting on politics that has always defined the Post’s news report and growing from there in ways that complement (and monetize) its established strengths.

Half of the voting population is seriously considering returning a man facing 91 criminal charges to its highest office. This is an urgent, epochal story. The Post needs to throw every resource it has into being the go-to news report to understand and keep up with what’s happening to our government and what really does seem like a true crisis of democracy. Give your executive editor resources to hire some marquee writers and reporters and assign them to this megastory. Find and appoint an inspirational managing editor to lead the core politics/government team on a daily, focused basis, without the distraction of having to attend business meetings with you or deeply engage in product design. You already have journalists who can make the Post’s news report uniquely insightful and, dare I say, exciting. They are already working for you (I’m thinking of reporters like Ruby Cramer). Hire a few new marquee columnists, maybe raid a few from the Atlantic, which seems to have too many. (Calling McKay Coppins).

Grow from a strengthened core. (That was the key takeaway of A.G. Sulzberger’s Innovation Report). Cover the American political meltdown we are living through with an intensity unlike any other news organization in both the news and opinion realms, keeping them scrupulously separate. Readers will come. Paid subscriptions will follow. And please, never call the Post a brand. It’s so much more than that.
 

‘Think about interests beyond news’

By Richard J. Tofel

Richard J. Tofel is former president of ProPublica and author of the Second Rough Draft newsletter.

Having been a publisher, I know how much fun unsolicited advice can be, so apologies to Sir Will for this.

The first big question is whether the owner is up for more investment. My answer below is premised on a modest “yes.” If the answer is “no,” I think taking the job was likely a mistake.

The first key, I think, is to address and redress what former Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron notes toward the end of his book, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post: that the New York Times stole a march on the WaPo by building out its bundle with cooking, then games and now (they hope) sports. I think the Post needs to divine where its own analogous opportunities lie. The easiest piece is that I wouldn’t cede games — there are infinite possibilities here, and a few great ones could make a big difference. But you’ll also want a few distinctive offerings in other areas. The key is to think about interests beyond news that unite your particular audience. Investing in some creative research should help figure this out.

Separately, if not already too late, I would look at trying to be the first national pub to use generative AI to very inexpensively create new versions of almost the entire core offering, perhaps including one at a simpler reading level. I believe the first mover along these lines could reap significant rewards.

‘Read/Watch/Listen to the news report and show it’

By Vivian Schiller

Vivian Schiller, vice president and executive director of Aspen Digital, previously held leadership positions at CNN, the New York Times, NPR, and NBC News.

Build bridges with the newsroom. Whatever dreams you have for the Washington Post won’t happen if the newsroom is not with you. So, spend time with the editors and reporters. Read/Watch/Listen to the news report and show it. Listen to their concerns. Be accessible. Think out loud. Share any/all information that is not confidential. It’s so simple and yet so surprisingly hard for so many in similar roles.

‘Newsletters and more newsletters’

By Chris Roush

Chris Roush is a journalist, author of The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters for Wall Street and Main Street, and former dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University.

The Post needs to strike content-sharing agreements with every small paper within a 100-mile radius of D.C. It will improve its name recognition and help struggling community newspapers. It will go over well from a PR perspective, and it will likely boost revenue as people outside the Beltway will want to read more.

Newsletters and more newsletters. It’s how people are getting their news. The more specialized the topics, the more Lewis can charge. Newsletter about the FDA. Newsletter about the DOT, etc. Company executives would pay thousands and thousands for that content.

Bloomberg, Reuters, the AP, etc. are using software — AI — to help them write basic stories, which allows their journalists to focus on more in-depth coverage and analysis. Spend the money on developing AI, and it will pay off in the long run.

Hire a more diverse newsroom! Reporters of color know how to tell the stories the D.C. community wants and needs. The District is about 40 percent Black, but the Post newsroom is not. Give them the coverage they want, and they will subscribe.

‘Restore trust to news brands in these divisive times’

By Gordon Crovitz

Gordon Crovitz, co-CEO of NewsGuard and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

Will was one of my successors as publisher of the Wall Street Journal, so while this may make it easier for him to dismiss my unsolicited advice more than most he’s getting, I encourage him to be bold in applying what he learned there to the Washington Post. He’s off to a strong start, bragging to Ben Smith of Semafor that the Washington Post is “the most objective news organization in America.” Wall Street Journal folks would dispute this ranking, but many publishers these days would be mau-maued even for claiming to aim for objectivity. Fairness, accuracy and transparency are the only ways to keep or restore trust to news brands in these divisive times.

Trust is also the foundation for the biggest business opportunities for a news operation like the Washington Post. Will has said he’s planning to apply the latest in dynamic pricing technology so that different potential subscribers will only ever be asked to pay the amount that reflects the value — including in the trusted journalism — they each get from access. Like Dow Jones, which operates many information businesses beyond the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post could branch aggressively beyond daily newspaper-style news to create more specialized trusted products for professionals. The business of Washington is government, and government somehow is still expanding in size and influence (for better or worse). This leaves plenty of room for the Washington Post to publish for the ever-growing number of professionals who are in any way reliant on government. Its alumni at POLITICO and Axios are successful pioneers.

Think of it this way: At a time when trust in virtually all American institutions is at all-time lows, if the Washington Post can stand apart for trust, its work can be extended to serve government officials and business executives who value trusted information relevant for their work and to a wider audience looking for news to trust. These new revenue streams can then help keep the Washington Post newsroom fully staffed as the journalists make good on Will’s promise of a reputation for objectivity so strong it powers business opportunities built on trust.

‘Don’t turn your nose up at the middle of the country’

By Evan Smith

Evan Smith is co-founder of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, former editor of the Texas Monthly, and current faculty member at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

I’d invest in partnerships with local news like what the New York Times is doing in Mississippi through the local investigative journalism partnership fellowship that Dean Baquet is supervising, which is holding the sheriffs of Mississippi accountable. If you partner as a national news brand and don’t turn your nose up at the middle of the country, you can produce meaningful local news.

Invest in events, which was my sweet spot at the Texas Tribune. Go to these communities where you can make the “live journalism’ of events into a platform. All of these communities have thought leaders and are receptive to a serious conversation about the things that matter. Lean in. Play offense instead of defense.

‘Redouble its efforts to cover politics as a beat, in all its theatrics’

By Janice Min

Janice Min is CEO and founder of the Ankler. Previously, she was co-president and chief creative officer of the Hollywood Reporter and the editor-in-chief of Us Weekly.

The problem with the scale game is that trying to be everything for everyone, as the cliché goes, turns you into something for nobody. D.C. is a viper’s nest of personalities, egos, high stakes and drama. It would be far more interesting to me, as someone in Los Angeles, to see the Washington Post redouble its efforts to cover politics as a beat, in all its theatrics, and be the true hometown paper again. I’d like to read that. I don’t need the 100th version of the same story I see everywhere else from the Washington Post. Even the Style section, in its heyday, was tart and unflinching about the machinations of the social world there; now, it’s giving me yet another internet story about Taylor Swift.

Buy Punchbowl News, a really smart business that knows how to swarm its beat covering Congress and make money. And then consider how to create other “products” and sub-brands around other essential parts of the government following that model. Then I would spend big (journalism big, not Bezos big) and steal back some of the big-name political reporters that left, but also bring in new ones that reveal a renewed ambition and flex. It somehow feels like the Washington Post became a follower, not a leader. They could easily reverse that.

‘Hire voices that sing, voices that zing’

By Gustavo Arellano

Gustavo Arellano is a Los Angeles Times columnist, and author.

You can invest in AI, pivot to God-knows-what, but what does every technology need? Voices that know what’s up. Hire voices that sing, voices that zing, voices that reflect the D.C. area, the country, and the world. And keep those voices happy by investing in a newsroom environment that treats them with dignity instead of as a line on a layoff summary.

‘Brand extension is the key’

By Edward Wasserman

Edward Wasserman is a journalist and former news executive. He’s currently professor of journalism at the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The most helpful step to ensure the long-term viability of the Washington Post is also the most obvious. That is to put its ownership in an appropriate independent foundation capitalized with $1 billion from Jeff Bezos’ sock drawer, and use the roughly $50 million in annual income to subsidize the Post’s magnificent editorial operation. Bezos would have no role, direct or indirect, in the administration of the money or the operations of the foundation.

Barring that, the Post’s business strategy needs to be to strengthen and monetize its brand through a network of money-making verticals across an array of informational, cultural and political realms. (Its brand also needs refreshing, and I would start by remaking All the President’s Men to air on Amazon Prime — where else? — and reacquaint the generations born in the past half-century with the Post’s glorious past.)

The New York Times has been aggressive, extravagantly so, in planting its matchless flag in everything from puzzles to consumer ratings to authorial podcasts, and the Post can similarly leverage its unique home court advantage in the ever-flourishing D.C. area to reach vast publics whose lives, futures and fortunes depend on what’s happening there. Some of this can happen through the acquisition of thriving newsletters and some through spinning off promising editorial initiatives that are ready for a semi-independent relaunch. I don’t live in D.C. anymore, and I can’t tell you which publications, companies and individuals who do business with Uncle Sam have to see — but if they’re not carrying the Washington Post brand they should be.

Beyond that, I would not give up on the idea that the Post’s editorial future is regional, defined by the region south of Philly, east of the Blue Ridge and north of Durham. That doesn’t mean becoming the local paper for that region, which seemed to be the strategy during the waning days of the Grahams. It’s by anchoring an indispensable informational emporium that licenses locally to produce cultural, commercial and lifestyle guidance and commerce.

Again, brand extension is the key.

‘Go beyond the horse race coverage’

By Sree Sreenivasan

Sree Sreenivasan is a former professor at the Columbia Journalism School and CEO of Digimentors, a social, digital and training consultancy.

As a subscriber since January 2017, I want the Post to be successful and to thrive. My advice:

Listen to your beat reporters and your editors. They know their stuff and can tell you where the resources need to go. Make your content mobile first and invest in interactives to make your stories more compelling. Go beyond the horse race coverage and explain properly why the 2024 elections matter — and what’s at stake.

‘More articles on the wide diversity of corporate welfare, subsidies, giveaways, bailouts’

By Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is an author, consumer and safety activist, presidential candidate and founder of the Capitol Hill Citizen.

There need to be more articles on the wide diversity of corporate welfare, subsidies, giveaways, bailouts and discriminatory market advantage out of Washington, D.C. There is no central repository or report on corporate welfare and tax expenditure that the citizenry can grab hold of. Comprehensive congressional hearings do not exist.

When it comes to business-driven technologies like military, AI, food processing and autonomous cars, refunding the Office of Technology Assessment inside Congress would be a good idea. Newt Gingrich defunded it in 1995, and since then, both the GOP and the Democratic Party have given the concerned scientific and engineering communities the back of their hand. We have more information on both of these topics, at Reporter’s Alert.

‘Expand obituaries’

By Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is co-founder of Belief.net, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, and co-founder of Report for America.

Embed where people are. People are as interested as ever in local info but they’re getting it from Next Door, Facebook local, Reddit local, etc. Embed reporters there, not just do gotcha on misinformation (though that is important) but to actually answer residents’ questions. Make it so the people there view the Washington Post reporter as there to serve them.

Expand obituaries. People are willing to pay more for a lousy 300-word death notice than for an annual subscription. That tells you something about what readers value — and how you could make a powerful connection. Really enable Washington Post users to create biographical tributes to their loved ones.

‘Back your newsroom’

By Robert Allbritton

Robert Allbritton is the former owner of POLITICO and founder of the recently launched NOTUS (News of the United States).

Trust your editor. Back your newsroom. They want you to win. Do your research and take your time to get to know your publication and the market. Then, make bold, decisive moves. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

‘I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do’

By Jim Brady

Jim Brady is a journalist, digital entrepreneur, former executive editor of the washingtonpost.com and suffering Jets fan.

Don’t listen to all the people offering advice.

It’s just a really hard business. I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do. None of us know what the Washington Post balance sheet looks like or what Jeff Bezos’ commitment is for the long term. Nobody understands a challenge like the guy who’s got his head in the books.

******

If Sir Will desires my advice, he can Venmo me at Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter and Threads accounts don’t give advice to anybody at any price. My expired RSS feed gives only bad advice.

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