Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post and chief executive officer of Washington Post Media, spoke to female journalists from around the U.S. Thursday night as part of Poynter’s Edge of Change colloquium aimed at honoring women in journalism.
During her hour-long talk, Weymouth spoke about her role as a working mom, the challenges she faced when merging the Post’s digital and print operations and her hopes for making The Washington Post a profitable news organization. An entire transcript is available, along with a selection of highlights.
Creating an integrated newsroom
Weymouth spoke to the difficulty of merging the digital and print operations of the paper which, until January, were two companies. In recent years, the digital side of the paper has received criticism for being late to develop a mobile site and an iPhone app. It has lost several high-ranking leaders, including general manager Goli Sheikholeslami, who announced last week that she’s leaving the organization.
Still, Weymouth said, the merger has helped change the newsroom culture and the way the Post’s journalists work together to produce content.
“The so-called print people were thrilled [about an integrated newsroom]. They resented this idea that they were dinosaurs,” she said. “Many of the online people wanted nothing to do with the perceived dinosaurs.” In a meeting about the merger, a digital staffer asked her if she had a strategy in place to make sure that the “sinking ship” (the print side) wouldn’t pull down the “life raft” (the online side).
“I knew it was on a lot of people’s minds and it allowed me to go into my beliefs that we cannot think like that,” Weymouth said. “There is no ‘print’ and ‘online’; it’s journalism. And it’s journalism on multiple platforms. And we need experts but it’s not an either or proposition. For us it’s about being an integrated newsroom.”
In speaking about the value of digital news, Weymouth admitted that she still likes to get news “the old-fashioned way.”
“I am a print person by training and habit,” she said. “I think we have to embrace all the new technology, and it has given us a lot, but there is still something amazing to me about the printed newspaper.”
Figuring out how to make journalism profitable
Weymouth said it’s difficult to know whether online revenue will work moving forward. “None of us know exactly what an ad is going to look like. Is it going to look like a display ad in the newspapers? Is it going to be a video? In a way it’s like the Harry Potter description of a newspaper with moving photos,” she said. “Advertising now on the Internet is challenged because … CPMs are declining.”
When asked about the idea of government-subsidized news, Weymouth said she doesn’t think it’s a viable model. “I think it’s comforting to people, but I think we have to be a professional business and an independent one to do what we do. A lot of my journalists will all say, ‘Why can’t we just be a nonprofit?’ I’m like ‘we are,’ ” she joked. ” ‘We just don’t get the tax write-off.’ “
The Washington Post Company was profitable in the first quarter because of money brought in from Kaplan, which the company owns. Weymouth said her ultimate goal is to make the paper itself profitable.
“We expect to turn the ship around as soon as possible. We’re fortunate to be part of a large company that is profitable, thanks in large part to Kaplan, so that has given us enough of a cushion so that we don’t have to eviscerate the journalism that we are all so proud of,” she said. “But we understand we’re running a business, and I’m in the course of getting us back into profit. I’m not a believer in a magic bullet, I think in many cases it’s about getting smaller.”
Being a working mom, remembering her late grandmother
Weymouth, the mother of two, spoke from experience about the challenges that working moms face. Ultimately, she said, it comes down to how much you’re willing to sacrifice.
“People say is there a work-life balance? I’m like no, no, there is no balance. You’re flying by the seat of your pants and you feel guilty all the time and you’re just grateful you can get away with whatever you get away with,” said Weymouth, who has a nanny to help watch her kids. “You just hope your children will forgive you for the days you missed and you get home and you’re grouchy and that your work will forgive you on the days when you’re not completely 100 percent.”
She spoke fondly of her late grandmother, Katharine Graham, who was the former publisher of the Washington Post company and the first female to hold the position. Weymouth referred to Graham as an inspiration and an example of what a hard-working mother can accomplish when given the opportunity.
“She went straight from being a mother at home having raised four kids to being a CEO, so she didn’t know what it was like to go up the ranks, but she knew what it was like to be the only woman on the board at the AP,” said Weymouth, who was just added to the AP Board last month.
“There’s that picture of her that she has in her book that I love where she is literally the only woman in a room of about 50 men. It’s an amazing photo.”
Learning from the ‘salons’ controversy
Weymouth said her grandmother taught her to learn from her mistakes — a lesson that was particularly relevant last year when Weymouth found herself embroiled in controversy. Politico, one of the Post’s competitors, revealed that the paper was soliciting lobbyists to pay $25,000 to $250,000 for off-the-record access to White House officials, Congress members, reporters and editors. Access was to be given during “salons” at Weymouth’s house.
Weymouth admitted she was wrong to initiate the salons. “I would rather not have done it, but I think it was a great lesson for me and for my team. What I said to people right when it happened was ‘I apologize, I clearly got this wrong.’ Our brand cannot do something like that. … But the worst mistake that can come out of this is that we freeze. I will take risks and I don’t mind having mud on my face, but we have to learn from it and take responsibility.”
She said some concerned staffers asked her if the company was so desperate that it would start compromising its values to make money. “Not at all,” Weymouth recalled telling them. “We’re running a business, we’re invested in journalism, and I goofed.”
Dealing with cutbacks, embracing the challenges ahead
Despite the financial distress media companies are facing, Weymouth thinks it’s an exciting time to be in the profession. “It’s scary from a business perspective,” she said. “But the demand for news and the ability to get news is greater than ever.”
She said that 90 percent of the washingtonpost.com’s page views come from outside the Washington, D.C., area and that 10 to 15 percent of that traffic is international.
Competition from bloggers and other news outlets is positive, Weymouth said, because it forces the Post to push harder for stories and to not become complacent. It becomes problematic when competing sites repurpose reported material with little or no attribution. The Post wants to drive traffic to its site, she said, but it also doesn’t want to be taken advantage of.
“I think there is a line, and the law has not caught up with it yet,” said Weymouth, a former lawyer. “The law was not written for the Internet age.”
Great journalism, she said, can still be done in the scaled-back newsrooms of the Internet age. Weymouth noted that the Post newsroom had about 300 people during the Watergate era.
“For us it’s about being a good business so that we can continue to pay for reporters to be in Baghdad and in Afghanistan and in India as well as in D.C.,” she said. “We’re still investing in talent.”
Moving forward, the challenge will be figuring out how to retain this talent, make money and continue producing quality work.
“Most newspapers have cut back significantly and that is a hard thing to do,” Weymouth said. “It’s not fun, and it’s not something we want to do. But what I focus on is, can we still do great journalism? And I think the answer is absolutely.”