In April, six months after her family sold the newspaper it had controlled for eight decades to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth walked onstage in the paper’s auditorium to reverse what had been the signature strategy of her six years at the helm. Since she was named publisher in February 2008, a year the newspaper division of The Washington Post Company declared a loss of $193 million, Weymouth had sought to codify the Post’s identity as a paper “For and about Washington.” While touted as a strategy to leverage the Post’s brand of national politics reporting in the digital era, “For and about Washington” was, in the grand tradition of Beltway wordsmithing, a phrase meant to put a positive spin on a period of retrenchment.
As a practical matter, “For and about Washington” meant the Post no longer covered stories beyond its circulation area unless they had a direct link to political Washington or a federal government interest. Exceptions were made for impossible-to-ignore events, like school shootings and other catastrophes, but all domestic bureaus were closed and correspondents were called home. Digital growth was certainly a goal, but the deeper logic of the strategy was that the relative value of a print subscriber trumped that of a digital subscriber. Print continued to provide the vast majority of the paper’s revenue, and newsroom employees were told repeatedly by Weymouth and her deputy, Post president and general manager Steve Hills, that preserving this revenue stream was the organization’s central priority and hope for continued solvency. Digital growth was encouraged to the extent that it fit with the goal of continuing to be the dominant news outlet in the DC region. In fact, the Post achieved impressive digital growth and a major increase in its national audience under this strategy. But it was all achieved under the banner of narrowing ambitions, and no amount of Pulitzer Prizes or popular new blogs or experimental infusions of digital stem cells could make up for this paradox.
At the time of the sale to Bezos, Donald Graham, Weymouth’s uncle and the chairman of The Washington Post Company, explained that he and his niece felt unsure of the direction in which to take the paper, or how to reverse years of declining revenues. He had approached Bezos as a buyer, he said, because the billionaire could offer deep pockets, a digital brain, and, between the two, a way forward.
At some point, the newspaper that brought down a president bowed out of the competition to be the best newspaper in the country.
Now a Bezos employee, Weymouth’s task onstage that April day was to explain to the newsroom that the new way forward was effectively the opposite of the course she had charted. According to a number of people who heard the talk, Weymouth recounted the paper’s efforts under her “For and about Washington” strategy before announcing that the Post was now “pivoting” to a strategy that focused on dramatically building its national and international audience. She pumped her fist in the air for emphasis and declared, “This is the number one priority for the entire company.”
Later in her presentation, Weymouth displayed a chart of the Post’s Web metrics, with time plotted on the horizontal axis but no numbers on the vertical axis. (The famously secretive Amazon uses such charts to show trends without revealing its sales numbers.) The chart tracked unique visitors and pageviews quarter by quarter starting in 2009. The trend line crested slowly toward a peak at the height of the 2012 presidential election, then continued through peaks and valleys until April, the date of the presentation. From there, the line shot upward into the Post’s newly imagined future, quadrupling its current Web traffic and nearly breaking the bounds of the number-free Y axis.