Four things the Washington Post’s new editor can do to avoid disaster

Now that the election is over, much of the talk in Washington media circles is likely focused on the other momentous change that has taken place: namely, the appointing of a new editor for the venerable Washington Post. While Marty Baron’s appearance at the Post isn’t fraught with the same amount of tension as former BBC director Mark Thompson’s arrival as the new CEO of the New York Times, he clearly has a tough climb ahead of him — the Post‘s circulation has been crumbling, and its financial picture is fairly dismal as well, and getting worse by the day.

So what should the new editor do to try and right the ship? Put up a paywall like everyone else? Lay off a few hundred more staff to try and cut costs? Buy something shiny that can give the Post some online credibility? Here are a few things I think Baron needs to do if he is to avoid disaster:

Figure out what the Post wants to be

This is probably the hardest question that Baron, the former editor of the Boston Globe, is going to face — next to the ever-present paywall one, of course. As media blogger Erik Wemple notes in one of his columns about the paper (which he writes for), the Post has literally spent years debating whether it should be a regional paper for Washington and the surrounding area, or whether it should try to challenge the New York Times for the national and international market.

There are arguments to be made for both: the Post is to some extent hamstrung by its past glories, including the famous Watergate scandal, and can’t seem to give up the idea that it is a national or even global player. And perhaps it shouldn’t. But the reality is that there’s probably a far better business opportunity — advertising-wise, at least — in focusing on serving local readers rather than trying to match the NYT for national and foreign reporting. The point is that the Post has to pick one, and dive headlong into that market, rather than trying to do both at the same time, because that road leads to perdition.

Commit to the anti-paywall strategy

Publisher Katharine Weymouth and CEO Don Graham have both talked openly about how they don’t believe a paywall will serve the paper or its readers, for a number of reasons — primarily because they appear to believe (as I do) that the benefits of remaining open and free outweigh the short-term financial benefits of putting up a paywall. But it’s not enough to just make the occasional comment about how this seems like a good idea: if the Post is going to get its staff on board, it needs to be shouting this philosophy from the rooftops in the same evangelical way that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger does.

The reality is that the Post looks like the odd man out when it comes to paywalls, and the consensus that seems to be emerging — pushed by the Columbia Journalism Review, among others — is that it is going to fail because it is fiddling while Rome burns. If Graham and Weymouth believe that this isn’t the case, then they need to embrace the idea of open journalism as much as The Guardian has and double down on that strategy: release an open API, make videos about their passion for openness, launch some ambitious crowdsourcing projects, etc.

One thing the Post could do is to try and build a membership-based or “reverse paywall” approach, the kind that was suggested by its former managing editor Raju Narisetti (now at the WSJ).

Push the innovation meter to eleven

It doesn’t get written about that much, but the Washington Post is probably one of the most innovative large newspapers out there, thanks in part to Don Graham’s embrace of social platforms such as Facebook (where he was an early advisor to CEO Mark Zuckerberg) and its willingness to experiment with new ventures such as Trove — the recommendation engine that it built on top of an acquisition, and uses to fuel its “frictionless sharing” app on Facebook and other enhancements to its web and app versions. That needs to become a much bigger part of what the Post does, not some side project for nerds.

The same goes for Social Code, the advertising and marketing operation that is run by Graham’s daughter, Laura O’Shaughnessy, and designs campaigns for Facebook and other social platforms based on an understanding of how content works on those services. That kind of DNA needs to be spliced into what the Post does online with its news as well. Whether it’s an advertising message or a news story, content lives and dies according to the same principles now, and Baron has to understand that and get his newspaper to understand it. The problem is that no one at the paper is going to see this as being as important as a beefed-up foreign bureau.

Make “digital first” a core mandate

It’s easy to forget, but The Washington Post at one time was at the forefront of online innovation, back when simply having a usable and frequently-updated website qualified as innovation — and in part that was because the online unit of the paper was a completely separate operation, based in a different building, with a mandate to do whatever it took to succeed at being digital. That’s the kind of model that disruption expert Clay Christensen has argued makes the most sense for newspapers, and it was one that worked surprisingly well for the Post for a long time.

Unfortunately, a lot of that innovative spirit and drive seemed to get watered down when the paper decided to merge the online unit and the paper unit — something former and current Post staffers saw as a victory for the “printies” who wanted to focus resources on the paper, rather than making digital a core value. That looked like not a bad strategy when the Post‘s Kaplan education arm was producing truck-loads of cash to fund the paper, but that’s not the case any more. Digital is the only road to salvation, and Marty Baron had better send that message to the troops.

All of this advice depends, of course, on Baron being a) interested in changing the Post, b) aware of the value and necessity of doing so and c) capable of following through. Whether any or all of those things are true remains to be seen. But time is running out.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Zert Sonstige and Giuseppe Bognanni