Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli announced to staff today that Katharine Zaleski, the Washington Post’s executive director of digital news, will be leaving the news organization. Zaleski said in an email that she’ll be joining Planet Daily, where she’ll be managing editor. The video start-up was founded by Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer and former CEO Eric Hippeau and just received $5 million in funding. Zaleski joined the Post in 2009 from The Huffington Post.
Zaleski leaves a digital operation that appears, at least to outside observers, to have had a rough few months. In January, co-managing editor Raju Narisetti, architect of record for the paper’s digital strategy, left to rejoin The Wall Street Journal. In February, the Washington Post company reported in its fourth-quarter results that digital display ad revenue fell 15 percent; chief digital revenue officer Ken Babby left not long afterward “to pursue other digital ventures,” Post publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote in a memo to staff. In April, blogger Elizabeth Flock, who worked under Zaleski at the Post’s high-energy blog operation, resigned after a misattributed blog post she published drew an editor’s note citing a “significant ethical lapse.” And May’s first quarter results showed a further decline in digital revenue, down 7 percent.
It’s not as if The Post’s print division has been marching much more happily: The paper was shut out of April’s Pulitzer Prizes, and circulation dropped in a most gnarly fashion. (Though: Poynter did a little digging and found The Post’s Sunday drop wasn’t as bad as it originally appeared.)
Zaleski is not a fan of media-critic-generated meta-narratives such as the ones I’ve laid out in the preceding paragraphs. Last November when I interviewed her for a piece about a Post blogger, I asked about how the Post’s blog shop interfaced with some of its legacy departments: “There’s none of this print-Web divide crap that you hear from people outside the company,” she told me. “It’s a false theory of antagonism that media critics like to talk about.” Reached by telephone this afternoon, Zaleski said her decision was largely about returning to New York, where she maintains a residence and where her husband’s production company is looking to open an office. “The Post is a wonderful place,” she said. “I could have stayed here 20 years and stayed very, very happy.”
The narrative would work, she said, “if I were going to the New York Times or something, but I’m taking such a different track.” To the extent she could describe her new employer, she said it was a “company that doesn’t even have a product yet.” If Planet Daily is, as it’s been described in other press accounts, a CNN killer,” it’ll represent a unique symmetry for Zaleski, who interned at CNN in college (and at one point dropped out of Dartmouth to intern in its Atlanta offices, she said) and ended up an associate producer there before Lerer hired her at the Huffington Post.
She was 24 then. She’s 31 now, and tired of dividing her time between Washington and New York. “We were going back and forth all the time,” Zaleski said. “I was basically commuting for much of the last two-and-a-half years. My life is very much up there.” She’s working on a transition plan for The Post, she said. She’ll start at Planet Daily in mid-June.
Here’s the memo, from Marcus Brauchli, Liz Spayd and John Temple:
To the Staff:
After two and a half years inspiring and leading digital change here at The Post, Katharine Zaleski is returning to New York to take on a new role as managing editor of a startup media venture under the working name, “Planet Daily”. The idea is to build a 24-hour video channel for the mobile and social web. For Katharine, it’s a chance to get her old band back together: her key partners in the new project were her associates at The Huffington Post, Ken Lerer and Eric Hippeau.
We’ll miss her. Since arriving at the end of 2009, Katharine has put together a number of digital teams that are now considered the best in the business. She built teams focused on search, social and interactive media into a larger group that has significantly improved engagement on our digital sites. The figures tell the story. Since last year, engagement – measured by time on site – has nearly tripled. Page views and unique visitors also have soared. We outpace key competitors in the amount of traffic we get from search. The folks driving all of these gains are here and will keep building on these successes.
Katharine has also helped us to build strong partnerships with other digital players. Many of those partnerships are now being managed – and developed – by other members of the newsroom, so they can be applied to mobile and all our emerging platforms.
With Katharine’s departure, we’ll be looking at some shifts in our organizational structure to ensure that we keep a strong focus on the techniques, tools and innovation that will enable us to grow and better serve our digital audiences.
We wish Katharine every success in her new venture.
Marcus Liz John