Newsonomics: Is the Washington Post Really the Newspaper of Record?
Companion article: Q and A: Marty Baron shines a Spotlight on journalism
It seemed like a boast out of ancient times, prominently displayed on WashingtonPost.com and given big house promotion play in the digital pages of the Post. Then, the same aspirational claim (“What we’re doing with the Post is we’re working on becoming the new paper of record”), reiterated by the digital commerce guru of our time, Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Post: The new Post, publication of record for the 21st Century.
Overall digital audience leadership is driving the Post’s new marketing position, with ads prominently thanking readers for making the Post the new “publication of record.”
In October, the Post posted a bigger overall unique visitor total than the New York Times in the United States — for the first time, according to Comscore. When Jeff Bezos bought the paper a little more than two years ago, the Post could only claim 60 percent of the Times’ total. Its ascent has been steady and rapid, and well-tracked here (“Is the Washington Post closing in on the New York Times?”). In October, it surpassed the Times by a million uniques, up to 66.9 million monthly, according to Comscore.
First published at Politico Media
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With no need of embellishment: its digital audience growth is astounding.
We can welcome the Washington Post as a revitalized national news presence, and all benefit from it. Still, let’s put that one audience number in perspective and ask which metrics may really determine national news leadership these days. Before we do, though, let’s consider that promotional term, seemingly pulled from the last millennium.
Paper? Record? These are terms we thought went out with fat newsrooms and plump profit margins. Who didn’t love the Boston Globe presses running the Spotlight church child abuse series (nicely re-offered to us now), but seriously — a newspaper war in 2015?
What are they thinking in Washington D.C. these days?
The single-word exhortation of Jeff Bezos to his Post troops: “Bigger.” And, indeed, they’re thinking big, and they are confident, two qualities in very short supply across the global newspaper landscape.
So when, Bezos and his new leadership sat down to figure out what “big” meant, it settled on beating the New York Times, and if successful, trumpeting that hoary term “newspaper of record.”
The Times is as close to national newspaper of record as we’ve ever had, with The Wall Street Journal performing a similar role in business. And, yet, with all its many print-to-digital innovations, the Times hasn’t trumpeted that kind of pre-eminence.
Still, when the Post looked for a competitive target as it grew and grew and grew its digital audience, it looked to the leader, the New York Times. It’s noteworthy that the slogan they targeted wasn’t “Bigger Than Buzzfeed!” That’s in part because it can’t; Buzzfeed still enjoys a 13 million unique visitor lead on the Post, bringing in an audience of 79 million in October.
More importantly, though, the Post very consciously chose a news standard that instantly twinned its quality to its new quantity.
That’s one lesson here: a news standard endures. No matter how much good new work is being done by the Voxes, Quartzes and Business Insiders, it is the proven, trusted-over-time names that we commonly fall back on to define a standard of excellence, even in this new mainly-digital era. Stamina and longevity, and through-the-decades commitment to the news business, through thick and thin, still connote value.
Then, there’s Marty Baron’s updated definition of the term. “As I think about ‘publication of record,’ my view is that it’s a record of the most interesting stories, not just any story that might be dutifully covered, Baron told me this week. (“Marty Baron shines a Spotlight on journalism”)
So the Post targeted the Times, as it set out its internal first goal-line of audience growth.
The Post picked “newspaper of record” as a way to rally the troops. In pre-digital times, the term conveyed official, authoritative, and officially authoritative. In other words, if you wanted a look-it-up version of what really happened on what day, that’s where you’d go, most likely to crumbling paper files or microfilm.
Now, there is no “day” of publication, but some timestamps and lots of through-the-day updating. It is a readers’ nirvana and a librarians’ nightmare. In one big digital generational stroke, the whole notion of archives has been blown apart, and only reassembled piecemeal.
Some would say the Internet itself is our record of news, if not our news of record. It, though, is filled with as much garbage as timeless reporting, with the differentiation between the two much blurred by the nature (so far) of digital media.
So, in one sense, the Post is on to something with its boast. Newspaper of record — one big, institutional news source that is commonly trusted — still makes sense today.
But what of the contest itself, and the measure the Post uses to create that contest?
Unique visitors do tell us something about a news media company’s success, but only at the topline. Ask Mail Online how satisfied it now is with its revenue progress, despite its own claims to be the “leading online newspaper.”
In talks, I’ve often said that counting a monthly unique visitor is like counting as a newspaper print reader someone standing in Times Square who catches a page of flying newspaper, whipped up by a wintry wind. The web, through social (light and dark) and search provides so many one-and-dones as to be almost laughable — but countable.
If uniques are one headline accounting, let’s consider six others in this would-be head-to-head battle. Within those, we can see the building blocks of success in the next several years.
1. Time on site: Here, I’ve learned, the Times still leads the Post, though the Post is catching up. On average, the Times clocks 14.8 minutes per month per visitor. The Post stands at 14.1. Time on site is the broadest level, with lots of useful sub-metrics, but it is a useful one.
2. Mobile growth: We can see that mobile has generated the Post’s new ascendance. While both the Times and Post have grown much faster than the average news net, the Post’s 51 million mobile unique visitor number is double what is was just a year ago, according to Comscore. Within the same period, the Times has grown ahead of the pack, but by only 25 percent.
3. Digital ad revenue growth: We know that the Times has made substantial digital ad revenue growth progress, driven by CRO Meredith Kopit Levien’s restructuring. The Times now drives about $200 million a year in digital ads. We don’t know the Post’s numbers, since it is now a private company. Given, though, the Times’ digital headstart, and its longer-standing, national standing, we’d believe it’s in the clear lead here.
4. Digital subscriber revenue growth: Famously, the Times can count one million digital-only subscribers. They account for about another $200 million in annual revenue. The Post’s paywall went up later than others’, and now its pay strategy emphasizes sign-ups as greater priority than actual revenue. The Post is one of the few newspapers that doesn’t break out its digital subscriber numbers in its quarterly Alliance for Audited Media reports. Here, too, we know the Times has figured out how to monetize its digital audience better than the Post — and at much higher price points.
5. Number of stories: The Post publishes more than double the number of staff-written or freelance-commissioned stories than the Times, on a weekday basis.
The Times clocks in with about 150, while the Post averages 390 a day. Marty Baron tells he hasn’t tracked the volume increase over the last two years, but says, “I suspect it’s sizable.”
So we have to wonder how much of the Post’s audience gain is driven by sheer volume.
“Our initiatives – Morning Mix, breaking-news team, new blogs in News and Opinion, PostEverything, greater use of live blogs, etc., have been major contributors to our traffic increase.”
That sums up an impressive playbook of editorial addition. Addition — rather than the widespread subtraction we’ve seen industry-wide — is the only thing that will lead to growth.
In this new traffic war between the contestants, we’ve seen accusations of clickbait production. Both the Post’s Morning Mix and breaking-news teams and the Times’ Express team respond quickly to the news, and both will talk about the added value they (often) offer. Post columnist Chris Cillizza just offered this balanced appraisal of that controversy, and he’s right. “The current debate in journalism circles reminds me of the long-standing conversation about ‘selling out,’” he writes.
My view is that both the Post and the Times have smartly adopted off-the-news practices from the fast-growing digital native news sites. If they can do it well – and we can let the readers decide that – they’re learning how better to innovate and compete. That’s a good thing.
6. Newsroom size: The Times’ newsroom stands at about 1,300, the Post about half that at 700. As the third largest newspaper-based newsroom in the country, its resources are formidable, but still that fraction of the Times’. (In my interview with Marty Baron, he defines well how the Post intends to differentiate itself.)
Is the Post-Times battle a head-to-head one? Of course not. The dozens of smart audience people at both the Times and the Post will tell you that time itself and all the news outlets, from Buzzfeed to Guardian to CNN count among the competition for eyeballs.
Further, the New York Times’ play becomes more global, rather than just national, year by year. By comparison, the Post’s big audience push in 2015 has centered on its “national edition.” That differentiation, if it remains, would be a key business driver through 2020.
Overall, we can recognize one key distinction in the current completion. The Times now focuses heavily on its core readers, whom it credits for 90% of its revenue. Engagement is the cry at the Times, better satisfying that core — and selling that core to advertisers.
At the Post, the top of the proverbial traffic funnel is top priority. Bigger audience first, monetization following as a second priority.
So consider the “newspaper of record” proclamation good promotion, but just a skirmish in the bigger battle for building sustainable, large, mainly digital national news companies.
I’d like to believe there’s room at the top of the charts for two large, high-quality, general newspaper-based large operations. Might the Post’s lower-price strategy (“Jeff Bezos (finally) pumps up the Post with Prime“) do damage to the Times’ higher-priced one, and take away some of its new base of one million digital-only subscribers? 2016 will give us an indication of that possibility. Of course, that’s not Bezos’ goal. He is focused on the Post, and as with the havoc Amazon has wrought on U.S. retailing, all the impacts are just collateral damage.
Who might be a next target for Jeff Bezos? The Post now comes in tenth for U.S. news audiences, according to Comscore, with the Times eleventh. TV networks all loom above, including ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. Of those, we’d expect CNN — way ahead by 44 million uniques — might be someday become the new nemesis.
While much of the press expected Jeff Bezos to innovate a new regional business model of news, he’s instead built upon the Post’s historic legacy. He’s made it a player again, a real one, in the news conversation. While the play is national, the playbook — investment in journalism, state-of-the-art-tech, must-read mobile, massive distribution, and social mastery — can be used by anyone in the business.