Marcus Brauchli’s impossible task

The Post's ultimate problem is the business side, not the newsroom

I can’t think of any editor whose last few years ran headlong into the financial collapse of the newspaper industry more than Marcus Brauchli’s.

Brauchli got the top job at The Wall Street Journal hours after learning that Rupert Murdoch had made the Bancroft family an offer they couldn’t refuse. That hapless bunch presided over the unlikely fall of the once-mighty Dow Jones, which—weakened by two decades of disastrous business-side missteps and drained of capital by the dividend-hungry family—had little defense left when News Corp. laid siege.

Defenestrated with a $6.4 million golden parachute, Brauchli landed as top editor of the Washington Post, hardly a step down.

But his timing, again, was awful. He took over a week before Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the plunging economy turned an advertising downturn at newspapers into a rout. That made cost-cutting (read: layoffs) an early part of his tenure, which is an awkward way for an outsider to come into a newsroom. The Post’s newsroom under Brauchli is at least 25 percent smaller than when he got there.

None of which is Brauchli’s fault. Ultimately the Post’s troubles are a business problem, not an editorial one. You just can’t do more with less.

We don’t know yet all the details behind his exit, but The New York Times plausibly reports that Brauchli had fallen out of favor with publisher Katharineryn Weymouth for resisting cuts beyond the 25 to 30 percent he’d already had to institute. For that he at least deserves an Audit hat tip and click of the heels for standing up to short-sighted budget cutters—the same ones who have gutted its newsroom while squandering more than $1.1 billion since the start of 2008 on share buybacks and dividends.

But cuts are an inevitability when you have a division gushing red ink with no end in sight and no apparent turnaround plan. A new editor isn’t going to fix that. What the Post needs is a new business strategy. Giving its journalism away isn’t working and it’s not going to work.

It’s clear now that the reason the newspaper industry, all over the world, is moving to a subscription system is because it recognizes that the free model left serious, newsroom-sustaining money on the table.

The Times and others have shown that you can charge core readers for digital subscriptions and shore up print circulation while maintaining almost all of your digital ad revenue. A leaky paywall isn’t going to restore newspapers to their heydays—nothing can—but it is a way to stanch the bleeding and to hold out some hope that news organizations can cross over to all-digital operations without becoming

Look at the Times last quarter, where all that kept its earnings report from being an unmitigated disaster was the sturdy, growing revenue stream generated by digital and print subscriptions.

Clinging to its free website is making matters worse for the Post, and that’s ultimately on Weymouth and her uncle, Donald Graham.

As the Post notes in its own report, “Senior executives in the newsroom were recently at odds with the newspaper’s business side, led by President and General Manager Steve Hills, over what the newsroom saw as insufficient initiative in generating additional revenue” (emphasis mine).

Brauchli now will, in the Post’s words, “become a vice president of The Washington Post Co. with responsibility for evaluating new media opportunities.”

At base, this isn’t about personalities: revenue losses of the sort the Post is experiencing will strain any relationship. It’s about a misguided strategy that trumps every other problem the Post has and will continue to dog the company no matter who’s editor.

At this point, all we can do is wish his well-regarded successor, Marty Baron, all the best. It looks he’ll be handed the same impossible task given Brauchli: Leading an already diminished newsroom waiting for the outsider’s ax to fall.

Further reading:

The Washington Post Co.’s Self-Destructive Course. Dividends, share buybacks, and an anti-paywall stance help bleed the paper dry.

A Rocket’s Trajectory. Marcus Brauchli at the Washington Post.

The WaPo Ombudsman’s Faulty Paywall Analysis. The NYT’s meter is saving or adding more than $70 million in revenue a year already.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,