Post Publisher Weymouth Talks Salons, Print-Digital Divide, Business Cuts

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth was at Poynter on May 20 to open the “Edge of Change” colloquium, which honors women in journalism’s past, present and future.

Weymouth sat down for an hour-long interview with Poynter President Karen Dunlap, who asked her about the salons, which for the first time she said were her idea; the integration of the paper’s print and digital operations; the business of journalism; and more.

The interview — conducted in front of the nearly 70 attendees of the “Edge of Change” program — will be broadcast on CSPAN at a time to be determined. Highlights of the conversation appear below; an entire transcript is available, along with a story about the evening.

On Business

‘At this point, we have to cut back’

“The profitability that newspapers sustained in this last century was an anomaly. Newspapers were not profitable for most of their lives. And as Warren Buffett would say, when it was profitable, it was a toll booth.

“It was a brilliant model. If you were an advertiser and you wanted to reach the local audience, you had to advertise in the newspaper. So our classified section — for those of us local newspapers — were terrific and brought us in hundreds of millions of dollars. If you were going to buy a car, if you were going to get a job, you went to The Washington Post. Of course, you still do today, it just may be online.

“So, the whole world has changed. People are on Craigslist and eBay and Monster and AutoTrader, and you name it.

“There are a thousand different companies coming after almost every niche we’re in.

“So I think when we had money to invest, we invested it back in the newsroom, which is where we should invest it. But at this point, we just, we have to cut back. We have to have a smaller cost structure…”

‘You can put out great quality news with a smaller newsroom’

“When I look back, in the middle of Watergate when we sort of got ourselves on the map as a serious newspaper, our newsroom was roughly 300 people.

“And when we had the resources to invest it, we grew it to almost 1,000 people. So, it’s never fun cutting it back. And if we can invest, we will. And we want to. But you also can put out great quality news with a smaller newsroom and it is about, for us, about being a good business so we can continue to pay for reporters to be in Baghdad and be in Afghanistan and in India as well as in Washington, D.C.”


On Nonprofits and Government Subsidies

“I think we have to be a profitable business and an independent one in order to do what we do.

“… a lot of my journalists will always say like, ‘Why can’t we be a nonprofit?’ I’m like, ‘We are. We just don’t get the tax write-off.’

“… I made the joke about the nonprofit organization, but we’re not proud of it and we understand we need to be a profitable organization and we’re a public company. …

“And we’re by no means waiting for some magic bullet to come around. That is not what we walk around saying. We understand we are a business, we’re running a business and we need to be doing it in a disciplined fashion. So, we have been aggressively cutting costs across the board. As well as focusing very hard on what we do that’s unique and good and making sure we can continue to do that.

“I’m not a believer that it’s some new business model we’re gonna find. I’m not a believer in a magic bullet. So I think it is in many cases about getting smaller. And cutting your cost structure. And then if some magic bullet comes along, fantastic. But we’re not waiting for that.”

On Salons

‘I had come up with the idea that we ought to do dinner salons’

“Everybody is doing conferences all over the place and so I had come up with the idea that we ought to do dinner salons and get advertisers to sponsor it and have people talking about the topics of the day: health care, whatever, you name it. Just a different way of what we do, which is connecting people having interesting conversations with advertisers who want to pay for the conversations.

“I obviously made a terrible mistake. Our brand cannot do something like that. And there was a perception that we were allowing people to pay for access to journalists and government officials. And it blew sky wide within media circles. …

“…I was sorry that it happened because it caused us all to take a step back and it got a lot of publicity that didn’t help us. But by the same token, I’m gonna make other mistakes. I hope they’re not as public.

‘Are we so desperate that we were willing to go to any lengths?

I didn’t hear a tremendous amount from the readers. … So, most of the noise, really, was other media, some of whom were benefiting because they’re our competitors. And I think many of the people in our own building were concerned. What does this mean? Are we so desperate that we were willing to go to any lengths? And I was like, ‘Not at all. But we are running a business and we are gonna invest in journalism and I goofed.’

On Integrating Print and Digital Operations

‘It didn’t make sense’

“…one of the things I spent the last two years doing was integrating our print operation and our digital operation, which were literally separate companies, separated by the Potomac River.

“It made a lot of sense when the Internet was brand new, but didn’t make sense after 10 or 15 years. So I wanted us to get to a place where we are a news organization focused on publishing journalism on multiple platforms, with digital experts and print experts where it makes sense.”

“…We actually finally, officially integrated into one company January 1st of this year.”

‘There is no print and online’

“My biggest challenge was communicating internally about why we were doing this. And my experience was the so-called ‘print people’ were thrilled. They wanted to be part of the new world. They resented this idea that they were the sort of dinosaurs. And [that] all the Internet people with the ping pong table knew it all.

“So, the print people were thrilled and just wanted to learn the new tools so they can do their journalism. Many of the online people wanted nothing to do with the perceived dinosaur.

“So one woman, in one of our town hall meetings, she raised her hand and she said, ‘So we’ve been, like, the life raft, and you guys have been, like, the sinking ship. So, like, do you have a strategy for how the sinking ship is not gonna pull down the life raft?’

“Yeah, I swear to God.

“And I actually was really glad she asked it because I knew it was on a lot of people’s minds and they just weren’t brave enough to ask it. And it allowed me to go into my belief, which is: you cannot think like that, right?

“We’ve got to be — 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. And for us it really is about becoming a news organization.

“We now have an integrated newsroom, and it is exactly what I hoped, which is: they no longer have to dial 10 digits to talk to somebody they never met across the river who they didn’t really trust and didn’t understand their content and whatnot. Now they can lean over and say, ‘Hey, Karen, when are you gonna be done with that story and how do you think I should play it on the Web?’ So it’s actually thinking about our readers.”


On Aggregation

‘Smart aggregation is a service to readers’

“I think smart aggregation is a service to readers. And we do it, too. … Whether it’s a politics page and you want Dan Balz to tell you what is he reading, what does he think are the smartest articles today on the elections or the primaries. So, I think aggregation is great and, interestingly, organizations like Yahoo and AOL are now building up their own original content. They’re hiring journalists and they’re doing original content online, which is very intriguing to me.

“So I’m all for aggregation. And the more eyeballs we can get to our content, the better. We do want readers to be educated and to understand the difference between, what is a source that you can trust as opposed to just rumors out there. And the difference between just repurposing content and not crediting it.”

‘But I think we do have to watch that we’re not being taken advantage of’

 
“…we want people to link to us and to use our stories. But I think we do have to watch that we’re not being taken advantage of. And I think there is a line. And the law has not caught up with it yet. The law was not written for the Internet age.

“One of our reporters [Ian Shapira] did a story, and he’s a young journalist, and [after] not much longer an Internet media company … Gawker … They just basically rewrote the story, slapped it up online, maybe in very, very tiny print at the bottom it said ‘Washington Post.’ And Ian called the guy up and said, ‘I worked on this story for several weeks. How long did it take you to rewrite it?’ The guy was like, ‘I don’t know, 20 minutes.’

We’re not gonna be out there suing people. We do want our content out there. But we have to also not go too far.

On Print

One of my favorite things to do is watch the presses run at night’

“…one of my favorite things to do — and it was Don’s and my grandmother’s — is to go to watch the presses run at night.

“The world is changing, I don’t know whether we’ll have printed newspapers in 10 years or whatever, but to feel the presses start to hum, and to watch them come off, is just, it’s really amazing.

“We call it, in our industry, ‘the daily miracle,’ and it is.”

‘I am a print person

“…I am a print person, by training and habit, and so 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.”

‘We still have more readers than we have ever had’

“We write the story all day long. ‘Print is dead, print is dead.’ And I actually asked one of our journalists once, I said, ‘Why are you always writing about newspapers?’ And he said, ‘Because I’m not interested in the other media. I work at a newspaper.’

Spacer Spacer

“But you don’t see Katie Couric doing a segment on ‘Nightly News’ about the decline of ‘Nightly News,’ right? So we don’t do ourselves any favors. We still have more readers than we have ever had. It’s just on different platforms.”

“…I always start with the paper because that’s my habit and preference, but I also find that I read a shocking amount now on my iPhone. Because it is really easy and it’s portable, and you’re sitting waiting for somebody or you’re on a bus or you’re on the plane and it is very user-friendly. So I consume [media] in lots of different ways.”

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