Three smart things and one dumb thing the Washington Post is doing right now

Now that the hullabaloo surrounding Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Washington Post has died down somewhat, and the [company]Amazon[/company] CEO hasn’t shut down the printing presses or done anything else spectacular, attention has shifted away from the paper to other things. But it’s still worth noting that — while they may not be flashy — the Post is making some interesting moves that other media companies could learn from. Here are three smart things and one dumb thing:

Number One — Experiment: By my count, the Post has launched more new digital projects and features in the past few months than other papers have in the past year or two. The latest is The Most, which shows the most-read and/or shared pieces from the paper’s partners — including The Atlantic, Time and Slate — and sounds like a sort of super-powered RSS feed.

Will The Most get readers to stick around or engage with the paper more? Who knows. But at a time when there are so many different sources of information out there, coming up with a way of sifting through that for readers seems smart. That desire to have a curated view of important stories helps explain the rise of hand-curated email newsletters like Alexis Madrigal’s Five Intriguing Things, and it’s also the rationale behind apps like the New York Times‘ NYT Now.

In just the last few months, the paper has launched a raft of other features including Storyline — an attempt to cover larger issues like unemployment and immigration as a series of in-depth pieces — a Huffington Post-style opinion site called Post Everything and a wealth and retirement hub known as Get There. The point is that the paper is experimenting in as many different areas as possible, and that’s exactly what everyone else should also be doing. No one knows what is going to work or when.

Number Two — Create a network: In my view, one of the smartest moves by the Post since Bezos acquired it was the launch of a network of newspaper partners, who offer their own subscribers free access to the Washington Post‘s website and apps. That network has expanded since, to the point where it now includes 120 daily newspapers, as Ken Doctor explains at the Nieman Lab blog, with the potential to reach as many as 200,000 new readers.

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As I argued when they first launched it, creating such a network is smart because it allows the Post to expand its reach with virtually zero cost. Will it result in huge numbers of new readers? Probably not. But it is a no-lose proposition — and it’s also exactly the kind of thing that traditional newspaper managers would never have even suggested, let alone actually implemented.

As Doctor notes, the network is a win for local publishers — who get to offer Post subscriptions at no cost — and it’s a win for the Post as well, which gets access to those readers for free, and also access to their emails and personal info, with the potential to offer them other Post or Amazon-related services. It’s such a smart idea that the New York Times and USA Today are also building similar newspaper partnership networks.

Number Three — Live events: Like most newspapers and media companies, the Washington Post does events, but it looks as though it plans to boost that part of its operation significantly: it recently launched a new series called America Answers, which as Digiday explains will look at how cities are solving national issues at the local level. The company has also been expanding not just nationally but internationally as well.

It’s true that events are no longer a guaranteed revenue generator, since most media companies have figured out that they are a good way to build on a brand’s reputation and deepen relationships with readers. But when they work, they can work very well — the Atlantic was one of the first major media outlets to really focus on events, and they now account for almost 20 percent of its revenue.


I know that the Post has a somewhat awkward history with smaller and more personal events, after a controversy involving some “salon” type meetings the paper tried to set up in 2009 that involved reporters and advertisers/lobby groups in private and off-the-record sessions. But I think even those kinds of things can be beneficial, provided they are more open and disclosed properly.

Number Four — Non-digital publisher: This is the dumb one, in my view. The Post got rid of Katharine Weymouth, which makes sense because she’s a member of the previous ownership group, the Graham family. But it replaced her with Fred Ryan, a member of the Washington political establishment and someone who appears to have little or no expertise with digital, despite being a co-founder of Politico.

Will Ryan be a good publisher? I have no idea. And it’s true that in many cases the publisher is more of a figurehead position. But I think the Post should have chosen someone with more digital know-how and proven experience, just as I think the New York Times should have chosen someone with more digital chops than Dean Baquet to replace Jill Abramson as executive editor — someone more like Jim Roberts, who left the paper and is now at Mashable.

John Paton’s advice may carry somewhat less weight than it did before his company shut down its ambitious Project Thunderdome effort, but the Digital First CEO was right about one thing: you aren’t going to get where you need to go if the senior people running your newspaper aren’t digital evangelists to some extent. As Albert Einstein said, we can’t solve our problems by using the same thinking that created the problem in the first place.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Feng Yu and Thinkstock / Darren Klimek and Thinkstock / Digital Vision