Business of News

The WaPo-NYT newspaper war that wasn’t

March 17, 2017

Journalists love a heavyweight bout, particularly so when it’s two of our own tribe trading punches. The names Hearst and Pulitzer have been etched into our collective memory largely for their cutthroat battle for sovereignty in late 19th-century New York, while greybeards in Chicago and elsewhere still reminisce about the days their cities’ newspaper wars ran hot. Nowadays, with these proud prizefighters aging, such blow-for-blow exchanges typically devolve into petty disagreements on Twitter (Politico’s Jack Shafer keeps a running tally of journalist-on-journalist action).

But the age-old imagery of media institutions duking it out is occasionally resurrected. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times’s bout began in the late 2000s, when the former made a general-interest turn and added a locally focused section to draw blood from the Grey Lady. More recently, in Louisiana, an insurgent New Orleans Advocate made a play for disgruntled print readers of The Times-Picayune.

In the red corner today, so it is said, huffs the resurgent Washington Post, set to spar for journalistic dominance with its vaunted opponent in the blue corner, The New York Times. The narrative has congealed just as most else in the media has seemingly disintegrated, and it’s proven to be a PR coup for the Post as it awakens from a decade-long slumber. But does this showdown deserve such a billing? It’s time for a proper weigh-in.

Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post for a cool $250 million in 2013, the tech titan’s deep pockets have allowed it to reinvest in both its newsroom and new technology. Its digital audience has since skyrocketed—particularly on mobile—and late last year its publisher claimed it had returned to profitability. Perhaps most importantly, it has reestablished itself as the premier destination for political coverage through splashy hires, a multi-pronged editorial strategy, and a performance during the 2016 presidential campaign that was arguably without equal. It has continued to frequently beat its competitors in this regard with scoops on politics, national security, and the federal bureaucracy.

RELATED: The Washington Post‘s secret weapon

Taking a page from the digital upstart that threw it off balance a decade ago, the Post has meanwhile marketed itself as a national institution returned to former glory. A late 2015 promotional campaign labeled it “America’s new publication of record.” Months later, at a speech celebrating the Post’s new offices, Bezos called it “a little more swashbuckler, a little more swagger, and a little more badass” than its competitors. It recently unveiled a new slogan tailormade for our melodramatic times: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Each thump of the chest has shot yet more adrenaline into the veins of bloodthirsty media watchers, like me, who yearn for these fights.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Post’s renaissance is only good for America, especially given the rise of a new administration that has already displayed authoritarian tendencies. (Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin, who inspired this column, has a good rundown of the benefits here.) But to score the Times-Post bout solely on political grounds is to grant the latter homefield advantage. By owning coverage of the federal government, the Post is doing exactly what it should: covering the hell out of its backyard.

The Times’s scope—to say nothing of its mandate—remains broader. It outguns the Post with several hundred more journalists, which lends extra heft to the Goliath’s report. The result is sophisticated coverage of arts and culture, as well as more consistent and comprehensive dispatches from the nation and world. The New York Times continues to drive the news agenda unlike any other publication.

RELATED: Nate Silver unloads on The New York Times

What’s more, it’s in a somewhat different market than its counterpart in Washington, selling a different product to its audience. Whereas the Post has pursued massive digital scale a la Bezos’s Amazon—necessitating content to travel far, fast—the Times has increasingly moved toward a reader-centric model in which customers pay for its journalism. This requires it to maintain high quality control across its work, occasionally cringeworthy trend pieces notwithstanding. With the Post, there’s wide variation between its original reporting and a network of blogs whose takes range from useful and erudite to scorched, if not fully charred.

To give a sense of how these divergent strategies for digital sustainability stack up: The Times and Post both drew roughly 90 million unique visitors in February. But while the Post’s digital subscriptions have reportedly surpassed 300,000 for the first time in its history, the Times nearly matched that number with 276,000 new digital-only customers in the last three months of 2016 alone.

There will be no great 21st-century American newspaper war unless the Post can change those numbers, or find some alternative route to challenging the Times as a business. Until that fight is properly lined up, I’ll gladly continue watching the Post punch above its weight class in the current undercard in Washington.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.