Is The Washington Post Closing In on The New York Times?
Could it be? An old-fashioned newspaper war, but one fought in the digital trenches? Neither venerable news institution wants to call it a head-to-head battle, but the numbers are beginning to tell us otherwise. Meanwhile, we can only begin to speculate about the business implications of the numbers we see.
Just now, The New York Times announced it has reached a pinnacle of the digital news age: One million digital-only subscribers.
A generation ago, The Washington Post competed with the Times at the top echelon of American journalism. Flush with Watergate– and Pentagon Papers–inspired pride and with profits, the two papers set the gold standard of the business.
Then, the two took separate paths, the Times going first national and then digitally global, and the Post became a super-regional D.C.-area behemoth, embracing a market position of being “for and about Washington.” As digital disruption changed everything about the business, we seldom heard the Times and the Post mentioned in the same sentence, except maybe on certain beats—like Washington. In the Times’ now-famous Innovation Report, published in March, 2014, the Post got but a single mention; Vox Media got seven. The next generation of Times staffers who put the report together quite rightly felt the ever-hotter breath of the Voxes, Buzzfeeds, Vices and Business Insiders on their necks. The Post seemed a pretty distant concern.
First published at Politico Media
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Now, word out of 620 Eighth Avenue,
a little more than a year after the report’s publication, is that the Times is paying significantly more attention to the competition rising from the other end of the northeast corridor.
The Post now can claim 90% of the monthly U.S. unique visitors of The New York Times, according to Comscore. Though under owner Jeff Bezos, the Post has become a fairly private company, we can see how it has moved up quickly in the pack of national news providers.
In the chart below, note that the Post landed its greatest number of unique visitors ever in June at 54.3 million—about five million fewer than The New York Times, at 59.7 million.
Compare that to October, 2013, when Bezos bought the Post. Then, the Post could count only two thirds of the Times’ audience count. Six months earlier, it could claim only 60%. Back then, the roll-up of Tribune Company newspapers usually bested the Post, as sometimes did Hearst’s newspapers.
Now, the Post finds itself comfortably third, just behind the Times and the No. 1 quasi-news brand: Mail Online’s U.S. edition.
The growth prompts one easy question and several more involved ones.
The simple one: Could the Post top the Times in unique visitors by this time next year?
Of more interest: What sense do we make of the Post’s rise and this 2016 digitally led competition? Is this the simple updating of an old competition, or something likely to play out far differently? Finally, can the Washington Post regain a status it once had as a must-read?
“Growth is the fundamental goal,” Steve Hills , president and general manager of the Post, and a 28-year veteran of the place, told me. That’s a differentiation from most of the rest of the legacy news pack that more carefully balances revenue growth and audience growth.
Does that growth mean that overtaking the New York Times in unique visitors is a prime goal?
Invoking Bezos, as he often does, Hills said: “Pay more attention to your customers than your competition.” Then: “The national audience growth speaks for itself.”
To the question of more direct Washington Post competition, the New York Times declined to comment.
Is some of that Post traffic coming from The New York Times? “We haven’t looked at where traffic may be coming from,” Hills said. “That would be a distraction.”
How has the Post done it? It’s simplistic to say new owner Jeff Bezos’ money has juiced the numbers, but, without his “I will give you runway” funding the Post certainly wouldn’t be making the gains it is today.
Hills cites three driving factors behind the Post’s 65% audience growth year over year.
1. Investment in the newsroom. That investment, well chronicled in interviews and talks with Post Editor Marty Baron, saw a stabilizing of the newsroom in 2014, and strategic additions to it. As Post editors point out in private conversations, it’s hardly a blank Bezos check, but the Amazon founder indeed shored up the place.
This year, word is, there’s more concentration on minimizing operating loss than on build-out. Still, the newsroom has been built for growth, the second largest among general interest newspapers at about 600, adding about 50 full-timers. (We can compare that complement to the about 1,300 at the Times, after buyouts and re-hiring. The two “papers” then would employ about six percent of the U.S. daily news workforce, which has almost been halved, down to 32,900.)
2. Technology: We’d expect that an Amazon-inflected Post would fully embrace technology, and it has. It has recently won notice for much faster page load speeds, to 1.7 seconds —85 percent better than its previous velocity. The tech investment – undisclosed in numbers or dollars – focuses on audience knowledge, a prerequisite to audience growth. Predictive analytics lets news companies better understand the dynamic changing audiences and tune features like recommendation engines to boost reading time, and making reader paths easier to navigate.
“It’s hard to be easy,” Hills said (reciting another Amazon saying). “The editors and engineers are like Lennon and McCartney,” he added, echoing much of what we’ve heard about the Times’ success doing the same (“New York Times C.I.O. Marc Frons to Leave the Company”).
“If you have a two-by-two matrix, we have quality journalism on one axis and technology on the other. We can be the people who can potentially be at the top of that upper right hand quadrant.”
3) Playing the Game of Ubiquity: It’s the Age of Distribution, when many faces turn toward Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News and Snapchat. The Post has poured resources both into its social and analytics teams and into social-aiming editorial work, borrowing pages from the Buzzfeed playbook. It feeds the social whirl, endlessly. “We have people doing their take on journalism, looking at things done elsewhere and combining it with their own journalism,” says Hills.
Watching the upstarts, it has adapted its own audience development, applying tricks of the trade to increase audience. Critics say the Post is now playing clickbait games, but one man’s clickbait is another’s intelligent navigation of the socialized news world. Further, the Post rewards management, both news and business side, on how well these Comscore numbers report.
While it has engaged in similar distribution partnerships — Flipboard, MSN and the like — as its peers, it has also benefited from top placement on Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire.
Then, there’s the Washington Post newspaper network, a semi-stealthy game plan to extend the Post’s brand nationwide very cheaply, and to ride along on the coattails of the All-Access (print + digital) trend of the last half-decade.
More than 300 titles, overwhelmingly U.S. ones, have now signed on to the network. That means that more than 10 million subscribers to newspapers have found a new offer in front of them recently: Click here to get free access to WashingtonPost.com.
So, how many have signed up? That’s one of the many new pieces of the puzzle the Post won’t divulge. We can, though, figure that it may run three to five percent of subscribers. So at four percent, that would be 400,000 newspaper-loving readers that have gained new access to the Post.
No money changes hands between the Post and the publishers; I’ve yet to hear about complaint about the program from publishers who consider it a good tool to retain their own paying subscribers.
Then, there are the partnerships to come. While the Post, like the Times, Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and, now The New Yorker, are all authenticated for full-content reading on Flipboard, Steve Hills says that’s not a requirement for deals of the moment. Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News have captured next-stage distribution potential; expect the Post to be a significant player in both.
What’s the Value of That Traffic?
The unique visitor number tells one story quite well – and begs another. What is the business value of that traffic increase? How’s it doing in monetizing those new readers?
Clearly, the Post has closed one gap, in total unique visitors. These top-line audience numbers demand a headline, but without the release of key financials in revenue and in audience engagement — which the Post doesn’t share — we can only speculate.
Our best speculation: While meaningful, the overall unique audience growth simply offers the price of admission to compete, and it now struggles to make its way into the league I’ve called the Digital Dozen. Those would be the national/global legacy news companies – think the Times, News Corp, FT/Nikkei, NBC Universal, BBC, Axel Springer, Guardian, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, AP, CNN and NPR among them — that compete at the top rung of the business.
Still coming out of that super-regional focus, the Post finds itself at a prove-it stage with major advertisers and paying digital-only subscribers.
Let’s take that question of digital-only subscribers. Like most of the regional press, the Post has used its two-year-old paywall to help secure its print subscribers. But how many digital-only subscribers has it signed up?
Steve Hills won’t say, and the company’s official Alliance for Audited Media report largely omits the number, only counting 6,828 older Nook and Kindle (not Kindle Fire) vestigial subs for the second quarter of 2015.
Hills told me that’s not the actual number, that it represents some subset of digital-only subscribers. He said the company withholds the actual digital-only subscriber number, though it does report its print numbers still integral to its ad sales. For digital sales, Hills said that Comscore audience and usage numbers prove relevant enough to advertisers.
So, in reader revenue, we know that the Times now towers over the paying digital general news world with its one million digital onlies – and close to 90% of its print subscribers having “activated” their online access.
We could speculate that the Post may find itself in the top regional category, among papers like leaders Boston Globe and Star Tribune. Or, it could be significantly higher, given the Post’s experimentation with $19 a year digital subs, and its ongoing offer of $3.99 a month for Kindle Fire users. Wherever it now places, the total would be a small fraction of the Times’.
Then, there’s digital ad revenue. We do know that the Times will bring in between $180 and $200 million this year in that category, but here, too, we have no Post numbers. The Post, in fact, is still getting its ad management in place. In December, the Post hired Time Inc. pro Jed Hartman as chief revenue officer, ending the 18-month tenure of its first CRO Kevin Gentzel, who just three weeks ago took a similar job for the new Gannett.
Word is the ad-buying and selling communities is that indeed the Post’s brand is movin’ on up, but is still not included in Digital Dozen discussions routinely. That’s not surprising, given the Post’s later emergence as a would-be national/global player, but it will mean that the investments Jeff Bezos is making will take more time to pay off.
Then, there’s the squishier competition for attention.
“Engagement” drives both reader and ad revenue. Publishers tout those loyal, core audiences that can drive 50% or more of their page views. While the Times clearly bests the Post in both digital-only subscribers and digital ad sales, engagement data is more mixed.
The Times betters the Post in such engagement measures as the amount of time visitors spend per month and how many sessions they engage it weekly or monthly. In fact, the Times, and the F.T., both tend to focus more highly on engagement and serving loyal customers as seamlessly as possible across platforms. They also concentrate on selling higher-priced subscriptions to those most engaged readers, even as they enjoy all the new audience that wide top of funnel offers them as well.
One metric to watch over the next year: While the Times beats the Post overall in minutes per visitor, the Post has moved ahead of the Times minutes per visitor via mobile.
Bezos is playing a longer game at the Post than most of his peers want to, or can. The biggest unanswerable question today: What is the game?
Few would quibble with the modest investment in editorial quality and volume. Expanding audience makes great sense. Where, though, asks everyone in the industry is the business model innovation many fervently prayed for, when the news crossed the digital wires that the Amazon genius has bought the Post?
Said Hills: “If you double your number of experiments, you will double your inventiveness,” another Bezosism. “We need to know who is paying us. We know mobile is going to grow. Now let’s try a thousand different permutations of that….We don’t know which ones are going to win. We’re going to see what wins and do more of that.”
Take your choice: Either Jeff Bezos’ new business model is not yet publicly rolled out — or it is not yet thought out.
Is it a Prime-like play? Several years ago, I’ve heard that Jeff Bezos discussed with leading publishers the notion of greatly lowering subscription prices, multiplying “subscriber/members” and then building ARPU, or average revenue per user, or subscriber gradually. That’s been the Amazon Prime formula.
Get them in the door for $79 (raised to $99 last year) and …. sell them more stuff; Prime buyers buy as much as 150% more than non-Prime ones. Is the $19 a year gambit that Prime move, combined with the national network play, the effort to amass a huge database of readers? Maybe 100 million uniques, as an excellent CJR article speculated about last summer. That’s sensible, but then the question: What does Jeff Bezos intend to sell them? More reading matter? Products? Local or national services? That could be Act Two, waiting in the wings.
Or it could be that Jeff Bezos buys into the same growth-at-all-costs belief as Buzzfeed, Vox and Vice. Just as the Times has paid more attention to those companies than to the Post, maybe the Post watches them more closely than it watches the Times. That, too, would make a lot of sense. They share the build-it-and they-will-come attitude that Amazon literally wrote the book on.
All the audience growth advocates do the same math: One billion or more English speakers, near-free, socially goosed Internet distribution, and upside, upside, upside. Maybe that’s where Bezos will play, in a world that values free access as much or more than paid access.
Make no mistake. Even with Bezos backing, that elite competition – legacy and newer – remains brutal, and there will be losers as well as winners. Unlike as with Amazon, the Post races from behind rather than with a first-mover pole position.
So maybe, it’s a game of misdirection. We can rerun that familiar vision of newspaper war, but perhaps it has worn out its welcome, in this new battlefield of asymmetrical digital business warfare.