The Washington Post blew its chance

Washington Post building

Awash in Jeff Bezosian cash, the Washington Post over the past decade wildly expanded its staff but didn’t change its strategy.

And now that the Trump-inflated readership has dwindled and the book-cooking publisher is gone, the Post finds itself back in a death spiral of cuts and diminished accomplishments, just like it was before Bezos bought it in 2013.

Management never had any clear idea of how the Post would make enough money to sustain itself — just overly rosy projections.

Newsroom leaders never even attempted to make the desperately needed adjustments required to accurately cover a changed political climate, poisoned by lies from an increasingly unhinged Republican Party.

And there was never any clear guidance about how the Post was dealing with the enormous conflicts of interest posed by its owner’s sprawling business empire.

Patty Stonesifer, the Bezos disciple sent in to clean up the mess left by former publisher Fred Ryan after his long-overdue forced departure, announced on Tuesday that the Post will soon be eliminating 240 employees – either through buyouts or layoffs – “to return our business to a healthier place.”

That’s about one tenth of the staff. That’s a lot of people.

The digital audience for the Post has declined by 28 percent in the last two years, Stonesifer told the staff. And the number of digital subscribers has dropped to 2.5 million.

The Post claimed in late 2020 that it had nearly 3 million paid subscribers.

So, conservatively speaking, half a million people have canceled their subscriptions to the Post in the last three years.

That’s a lot of cancelled subscriptions.

And while some of that loss can surely be attributed to changing appetites for news, there’s no question that a goodly chunk has canceled out of disappointment with the paper’s hallmark political coverage.

My theory is that while Trump was president, simply reporting the news seemed like accountability journalism enough that many readers felt the Post was doing a good job — was fighting the good fight.

But even after the January 6 insurrection made it undeniably clear that our democracy is now under sustained attack from the far-right, the Post has maintained its dispassionate, above-it-all tone instead of sounding the alarm.

Meanwhile, the Post’s opinion offerings have gone from bad to tragically worse, with a seemingly ever-growing bevy of derivative right-wing columnists and moronic gag cartoons.

Here’s how I look at it: Trump-as-president sold papers (and drove digital subs). But there’s never been a bigger story in American political news than what’s happening right now withing the increasingly demented and authoritarian Republican Party, and the threat it poses to our democratic system.

And the Post is blowing that story, badly.

The occasional hard-hitting stories about Trump’s extremism and how the Republican Party has become the party of death don’t make up for the barrage of daily coverage that euphemizes the GOP’s increasingly overt racism and homophobia, blames Biden for problems caused by Republicans, and regularly includes both-sides bromides from the likes of the insufferable Dan Balz.

Mind you, the New York Times is blowing that story at least as badly. But it has two advantages the Post does not: It remains the must-read paper of the intelligentsia; and it has bolstered its subscriber base with genius plays like Wordle and Cooking.

The Times’s Weakness

The Post should exploit the Times’s weaknesses in political coverage, rather than badly mimic them. That’s the path to success.

I wrote about that at length in a (prophetic!) piece I published in February, headlined The Washington Post is doomed without a major reset.

In that piece, I called for the Post to “take advantage of the huge opportunity to become the world leader in U.S. political and government news presented by the abysmal failure of the industry-leading New York Times to adjust to the asymmetry of the current political climate.”

And I say this with hope and love, having devoted 12 years of my life to trying to get the Post to live up to its world-famous Watergate-inspired brand as the champion of democracy and scourge to those who abuse it. (I spent six years building the website into a national and international edition and six years as a columnist joyfully holding the White House accountable.)

My message to Bezos is to turn the Post over to a non-profit with a powerful sense of public service.

But that seems unlikely.

So let me direct my advice to the next publisher, instead. (And, one hopes, a new editor once the rudderless Sally Buzbee gets her own personal buyout.) To win back subscribers, keep these rules in mind.

  • Transcend partisanship rather than split the difference. Be pro-democracy.
  • Stick to your core values of truth-telling and accuracy. Both-sidesing a one-sided story is not accurate.
  • You can’t cut your way to success.
  • Listen to your staff, value your staff, and let them write what they know, unimpeded by pressure to be “balanced’.
  • Engage with your critics rather than insult or ignore them.

The Post is at an inflection point.

One path — trying to do more of the same with a massive loss of experience and talent – leads to dissolution.

But the other path – a thoughtful series of adjustments to the new political reality – could make the Post the champion of a new political journalism that prizes accuracy over treating both sides equally, and unflinchingly promotes democracy over authoritarianism.

I’m rooting for the latter. Is Jeff Bezos?

 

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