The Blind Leading The Blind

The Washington Post's new publisher has no new ideas in a Portfolio profile

Portfolio’s long profile of new Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth is a pretty good read. It would be hard not to write an interesting story about someone with the life she’s had, having tales like the whole Norman Mailer punching Gore Vidal at a family dinner party thing.

But if you’re looking to Weymouth for answers to the newspaper industry’s woes you’re not going to find them. That’s a lot to ask of anyone right now, but it’s disappointing to find the new leader of one of the country’s best papers without new ideas, or at least one that makes its way into this profile, which went to press before her pick of Marcus Brauchli as editor. And no, merging the print and online news divisions doesn’t count.

It is not encouraging to hear her buying into the Murdoch/Zell tart-things-up approach. Her quote in this piece has been discussed already, but it’s worth pointing out because it’s so arresting coming from the head of The Washington Post: “To some degree, it is puppies and Iraq,” she said, referring to Sam Zell’s infamous cussing of a Orlando Sentinel photographer about what readers want. She also complains that the front page of the paper boring—that “There are days on Saturday that I think maybe somebody is trying to not have people buy the paper.”

To what extent can the biz really blame its woes on content, especially those of one whose content is as good as anyone’s? There are bad papers, of course, and dumb papers, but just about everyone acknowledges that nearly all are more widely read than they were five or ten years ago. Newspaper Web sites, after all, got seventy million different visitors in May, according to the industry and Nielsen Online, or more than four out of ten on the Internet.

Add at least some of those online readers to papers’ still-substantial print circulation and that’s more readership than ever. Newspapers just have to find a way to monetize that online readership—and keep it on their sites longer. The Nielsen study found the average Web visitor spends just forty minutes a month on a newspaper site, not much more than the average per day for the print copy.

The Washington Post, for instance, somehow drew 9.2 million readers to its Web site in May without the Weymouth-approved puppy slide shows that may be on the way. That huge number is about fourteen times the Post’s daily print circulation of 673,000 (the comparison is complicated by the fact that not all 9.2 million Web visitors came every day—that’s total “circulation” over a month. Plus each newspaper copy is read by an average of at least two people).

The New York Times maybe should corner the market in kitty-cat multimedia blowouts, but if it doesn’t it’ll still probably be all right. It got 21.3 million unique visitors in May—far less than Yahoo News’ 35.8 million, but far more than that vaunted threat Google News with its 11.4 million. For the record, that’s about twenty times its 1,077,000 print circulation.

The point is lots of people like what newspapers offer and like to read them. This doesn’t mean they can’t do a better job of giving the people what they want and need—that’s always going to be the case. And I’m not arguing there’s no place for puppies. There’s just no place for reallocating dwindling hard-news resources to puppies.

But it does mean this is fundamentally a problem with the collapse of newspapers’ monopoly of a certain sizeable segment of the advertising market. Weymouth, being from the business side of things, may be in a better position to help fix that than someone from the news side. We’d love to hear her ideas, whenever she has one.

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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.