The Washington Post is pumping its fist after a year of gushing accolades and record online growth, surpassing The New York Times’ number of monthly visitors for the first time this October. The triumph comes as competition for audience and influence is heating up between the two storied publications. But the 140-year-old Post is fighting as a website, not a newspaper.
The Post’s present incarnation of content is a mashup—Woodward and Bernstein meets BuzzFeed. Deep investigations and scoops sit alongside an expansive network of blogs geared for social media speed, like the Morning Mix, PostEverything, and WonkBlog, which are increasingly important traffic drivers. This storm of pithy content is altering The Post’s DNA from that of a legacy newspaper to something more like that of a digital native, but it’s unclear how the convergence of serious news and lighthearted, Web-friendly stories are affecting the brand.
Watch this plane bail on a landing at the last moment because of wind https://t.co/WmhT72FKl7— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) December 1, 2015
“I’ve seen us go from one very simple strategy, which was owning Washington, to now a strategy of owning the world,” says Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, managing editor in charge of digital, “and it’s a completely different approach and a completely different place.”
An example: The most-read story at the time of this writing runs under the headline, “The Elf on the Shelf is preparing your child to live in a future police state, professor warns.” What follows is a run-down on a report about the normalization of surveillance, yet the article’s tone and presentation are anything but grave. Look no further than the third paragraph, a response to the paper’s biggest takeaway:
I mean, obvs, right?
Here’s the kicker: The Elf on the Shelf piece was published almost one year ago. The reporting and structure make for a captivating, if unsettling, read. But its longevity is a testament to a story—its subject, headline, voice, and multimedia element—built for, and with help from, the social Web.
It’s conceivable the connection to Washington-instituted surveillance programs would have prompted The Post to cover this story before Amazon owner and tech evangelist Jeff Bezos bought the publication in 2013. Garcia-Ruiz is adamant that much of its coverage today would have been overlooked then only because the paper was strictly “for and about Washington.” The website hosts enough aggregated pieces and fluff (“David Hasselhoff claims he’s now ‘David Hoff’ ”) to call that claim into question, though.
Ink-and-paper devotees may mourn the burning of the Beltway Bible. But The Post isn’t too worried about isolating those readers. The publisher isn’t abandoning traditional, shoe-leather reporting in favor of hot takes. Indeed, it smartly tackles national and international news, from the 2016 presidential election to racial issues to the rise of the Islamic State.
Softer stories still come with news pegs and promote high journalistic standards. Readers are hard-pressed to find a “check out this cute animal” post, as they can elsewhere. The Post is simply unapologetic in fusing the old and the new. “We think we can combine really, really great journalism with great engagement strategy and create an audience of massive scale,” Garcia-Ruiz says. “It’s not a choice. It’s not about doing one or the other.”
Technology is a significant part of the Post’s viral success. In-house tools like Chartable help reporters quickly build charts, maps, quizzes, games, polls, and even bingo boards. These types of content are key not just to telling a good story, but to pushing it off the ground. Consider the digestible WonkBlog map that went viral this summer, outraging Minnesotans and eliciting laughs from the rest of the country.
This is not to say The Post is without its critics. Readers are quick to cry clickbait.
@washingtonpost Click bait. Is this the same newspaper Woodward and Bernstein worked at?— burble2 (@Burble2) November 8, 2015
@washingtonpost Stop with the click bait headlines!!!— Molly Ariotti (@mollyshewrote) September 26, 2015
Of course, the term is subjective. It certainly appears to fit The Post on occasion, but that seems to mean little to the publication. The New York Times published a story in August on a move among publishers “toward repetitive, trivial journalism,” which singled out The Post.
Two months later, The Times announced the launch of its Express Team, a small, scrappy department responsible for general breaking news, explainers, and stories about social media phenomena, or as editor Patrick LaForge says, “things that catch New York Times readers’ attention, but they would come and search our site and not find anything about them.” Like The Post, some of these stories are serious and others jovial, like this wrap-up on piecaken.
The work of the Express Team doesn’t live under one banner, as those items do on The Post’s blogs. Instead, stories circulate to the most relevant desks. While the voice and headlines are more relaxed than the typical Gray Lady tone, they’re not quite as liberated as those of The Post. The bar for story selection is still high, LaForge says. “We have to do it in a way that isn’t jarring to our more traditional readers but seems native to the Web.”
But it’s no wonder The Times is diving deeper into digital cultures. In The Post’s victorious October, it welcomed nearly 67 million visitors, more than a million above its rival. The top performer was a piece titled “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting,” which highlighted gender inequity in the workplace. With more than one million views, the story underlines the benefits of intelligently exploring themes that already have life online. While The Times maintains that its chief commitment is to paid subscribers, clicks and unique visitors matter to every newsroom and ad department.
Online standouts like The Times’ revolutionary 2012 longform piece “Snow Fall” are deeply impactful, both in terms of technological progress and journalistic storytelling. But going digital—and going viral—can be done much smaller and much simpler. Touting numbers from comScore, The Post says 40 percent of its online readers are millennials. And audience growth has exploded—The Post’s October traffic jumped 60 percent from last year, compared to only 2.4 percent at The Times.
Each step forward has caused The Post to declare itself “America’s new publication of record.” Yet The Post has likely had an easier time embracing digital because it doesn’t distribute its print product nationally, and few have ever considered it the country’s unofficial paper of record. That tag, worn by The Times, signals high importance and bulletproof standards. Times journalists haven’t been shy about mocking The Post’s new self-imposed title on Twitter.
The Post, it seems, is laughing just as hard.Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha