Public Editor

How the Washington Post pulled off the hardest trick in journalism

January 23, 2020
Via Adobe Stock

It would be trite to force an Amazon metaphor onto the Washington Post in my first column just because they are both owned by the same rich guy. And for that reason, I will do it. The Washington Post is the media equivalent of Amazon’s chain of physical bookstores: it pretends it’s a cleaned-up version of a beloved old thing, but in fact that beloved old thing is now propelled by a new engine. 

We are past the era when the American press was defined primarily by its biggest newspapers. But those national papers that carried enough prestige to survive the last 20 brutal years—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times (barely), and the Post—still retain enough influence to be worth scrutinizing. These papers have a few things in common, albeit to varying degrees: they are all run by very rich people more concerned with status than with profits; they have all emerged from the internet apocalypse; and they are all among the very few media outlets that still invest heavily in the expensive business of in-depth reporting. 

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But, more than any of the others, the Post has pulled off theneat trick of combining prestige journalism with a shadow clickbait factory that puts out a steady flow of fast-turnaround, aggregated stories grasping at virality. (“An orphaned boy moved into his grandparents’ home. The homeowners association wants to kick him out.”) And it’s done so without losing its storied reputation. Though BuzzFeed gets more scrutiny, the Post, especially in the world that exists at the bottom half of its home page, is by far the media’s most enthusiastic user of the classic two-sentence headline construction that signals clickbait. (“Officials said he died in a fall. Then his wife admitted to poisoning his water with eye drops.”) 

Every for-profit news operation must, to some extent, subsidize important work with fluff, because fluff tends to attract readers much more reliably than important work. Some outlets are inherently embarrassed by this fact, and try to dress their fluff up, as the Times has long done with its Style section. Others try to cram the fluff into special inserts, or hide it deep on the website, in an effort to avoid having it darken the halo of the Pulitzer entries. But the Post does something more deft—it seamlessly integrates the fluff into its overall presentation, thereby getting all the traffic benefits of clickbait without losing that Pulitzer glory. 

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this. It is just not the kind of thing that prestige newspapers have ever been able to talk about honestly. The necessary fluff of newsmaking is usually either denied outright, or swept desperately under the rug when company comes over. Since Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013, it has carried on with its traditional reporting while adding a fearsome clickbait machine.

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By 2015, investments by the paper in tech and social media, along with an editorial reorientation that played up viral stories, allowed the Post to pass the New York Times in online traffic. The Times regained the traffic lead in late 2019, though the numbers for the two papers remain close despite the Times’ larger staff. (“Clickbait” is a term of derision, but I use it in the neutral sense of “stories people actually read, as opposed to stories that editors believe that people should read but that numbers show most people do not actually read.”) 

All of this content is presented on the front page of the site and on the Post’s feeds with relatively equal prominence, so that breaking White House news can share space with quick rewrites of viral stories. So thoroughly has the Post integrated these operations, in fact, that the top of the home page features—just below the somber “Democracy Dies in Darkness” tagline—an “In The News” feed consisting of the current hottest story subjects, which does not discriminate between “Mitch McConnell” and “Titanic Expedition” and “Coronavirus.” Scrolling down the home page, readers will find in the right rail a “Morning Mix” section that leans heavily on viral stories, followed by a “Most Read” section which is always a window into what readers actually want. The serious stuff gains at least the possibility of ambient readership from the clickbait traffic, and the clickbait is transformed into more respectable “breaking news” by virtue of its Post byline. Like Chex Mix, this editorial mix is much more delicious together than in its constituent parts. Everyone wins. 

This formula—along with the backing of the world’s richest man—works. Since Bezos took over, the Post’s newsroom staff has grown by 250 people, to nearly 900, according to a Post spokesperson, and 2019 marked the paper’s fourth consecutive year of profitability. That has been achieved in part by a newly successful business licensing the Post’s content software, a very Amazon-esque thing for a media company to do. 

The Post now has more than 100 million global readers a month—not quite BuzzFeed numbers, but a decent number to sustain a major news operation, for now. “The Post has effectively built a diverse monetization strategy to win in the age of the mega platforms while delivering for both audience and advertising partners,” a spokesperson says, “and most importantly clearly demonstrating quality journalism can be profitable.”

There is no doubt that the employees at the Post—half of whom have only known Bezos as their owner—are quite happy to be working for a profitable media company. That profitability, as many journalists have learned the hard way, is often the difference between a happy workplace and a dismal one. 

But the story of the Post in 2020 is not a simplistic one of being bought by a business genius who turned the old place around. It is a story of a prestige institution making peace with online chum in a way that many of its fancy peers have always professed to find distasteful. It is also the story of a profitable company, owned by the richest man in America, where employees still say they do not receive fair wages and benefits. That part of the story may have some very dark implications for our industry. But that is for another day. 

I am eager to hear from Washington Post readers who have thoughts about what they read in the paper, and from Washington Post employees who want to share thoughts about issues inside the company. I’m happy to keep sources anonymous if necessary. Email me.

Correction: A reference to the Post’s digital audience versus the New York Times was changed to reflect updated numbers supplied by the Times

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Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.