The not-so-gentle ejection of Marcus Brauchli from the top editor’s chair at The Washington Post has cast a bright spotlight now on senior leadership, including his boss, Katharine Weymouth, the newspaper’s publisher, who pushed him aside, and her uncle, Donald Graham, chairman of the parent company’s board.
That the editorial change was awkwardly implemented is one thing. But much more important is the Washington Post Company’s—that is Weymouth and Graham’s—strategic failure in failing to install a paywall around the paper’s digital content. Every day this simple, ameliorative step is not taken is a day wasted.
I’m discussing the newspaper part of the business, because the broader company is separate issue. But no one believes the paper can sustain losses at anything like its current pace—$60 million-plus in the first three quarters of the year, on pace for a fifth straight loss year.
Make no mistake: the paper has become the American newspaper industry’s poster child for the folly of clinging to a free digital strategy. This would be great cautionary tale if only the Post itself—and its 500 plus -strong newsroom —were not such an important institution in its own right. Anyone who thinks that the public interest is not harmed immeasurably by the Post’s not-so-slow decline, or that Politico or buzzfeed or some such will pick up the slack, is dreaming.
The Weymouth/Brauchli fallout, according to very plausible reports in the Times and the Post itself, centered on staff cuts—and well it might. Just look at the revenue trends of the newspaper publishing group:
Print ads have been falling at a double-digit rate for six years (with a six percent decline in 2010 the exception), which is the industry norm. While much hope was invested—back in what seems like a different era—in the idea that digital ad growth would eventually make up the slack, the reality-based community has now moved on. Digital ad growth has tapered off at disappointingly low levels. The newspaper publishing group includes Slate but there’s no reason to believe that’s a plausible growth story in the WaPo’s digital ad model.
Put it this way, digital ads pulled in $115 million in 2007. It will pull in about that this year. It may go up a bit next year. But for all intents and purposes, it is flat. It is not growing enough. As Monty Python would put it, the free strategy is a dead parrot.
The illogic of giving away something online that you charge for elsewhere is now coming home to roost.
Believe me, I wish this were not the case. If there were a real growth story there, that would be one thing. But there isn’t. There’s no secret sauce. And what’s required is not just growth but rapid growth, since to avoid drastic newsroom downsizing digital ads must offset the massive decline in print ads.
In the case of major newspapers, pursuing a digital-ad-only strategy while riding a downward slope of print ad revenue is a glide path to a desiccated newsroom. I don’t mean smaller. I mean much smaller. It’s like that old joke: How do you make a nice little local-news startup? Start with a great national news organization.
To say, in the absence of supporting data, that the answer for the Post is to “commit” to an anti-paywall strategy, to “push the innovation meter to 11,” and make “digital first a core mandate” is to say nothing at all. There is nothing in the PostCo.’s publicly released data to support that case. At some point, belief must yield to evidence. Even Clay Shirky, who needs no one to vouch for his network-theory cred, has recognized the obvious in the case of the Post.
“Digital First,” in the sense of refusing to charge newspaper readers for a subscription, is bankrupt, both literally in the case of the main unit of the so-named American newspaper company, and, in the wider sense, as a strategy for newspapers generally. The Guardian—another digital firster—is yet another walking, talking cautionary tale against the free model. It is a financial basket case, subsidized by Auto Trader, a profitable trade publication. The unit that owns the Guardian posted a loss of £33 million in the year ended last March, after a loss of £34 million the year before. And, no, siphoning profits indefinitely from other corporate units is decidedly not a strategy.