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; her namesake grandmother Katharine Graham; 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. A portion of the edited transcript of their conversation is below; an entire transcript is available, along with a selection of highlights and a story about the evening.
Karen Dunlap: Let’s start by talking about leadership. Is there one piece of advice or one tip that particular stands out on leadership?
Katharine Weymouth: I think I hardly consider myself an expert but the thing that I think about the most is something that Don Graham, my uncle and the CEO and Chairman of the company, said to me years ago. He said, ‘Katharine, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. You have to surround yourself with the smartest people in the room and listen.’ And that is what I try to do.
Surround yourself with the smartest people and listen. … If your grandmother were here today, and you wanted to describe to her the state of women in the media today, what would you tell her?
Weymouth: I think I would say the world has changed a lot. It’s not perfect, we obviously have a ways to go. But there are tons of women in journalism now. We obviously have to do better in the top ranks. We have a woman as a managing editor, and we have lots of women editors. The Columbia Journalism School, its graduating class, I was told recently, was 63 percent women. So I feel like it is pretty normal for women to be in business and in journalism.
Some of the challenges that I see for women are often how do you have kids and juggle it and do your career and how far up the chain do you want to go and what sacrifices are you willing to make and then of course what opportunities are you offered?
But I think we’ve come a long way.
I didn’t think that was foremost on her [Katharine Graham's] mind, the state of women. Does it come to your mind very often?
Weymouth: I think in her case she went right straight from being a mother at home having raised four kids to being 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 of the AP. And 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, I don’t know, 50 men. It’s an amazing photo.
Let’s talk about news media. Again, let’s assume she’s here. How would you describe to her the state of news media today?
Weymouth: We’re obviously in a huge stage of transition, I don’t think I need to tell anyone in this room, but I think it’s also incredibly exciting, and I think she would see that. I flew down here today with my two little kids and they watched ‘SpongeBob’ on the iPad. And a couple of months ago I was driving my then-9-year-old to school and she was playing on the iPhone and I thought, she just has to know. I said, ‘Madeleine, you know, when I was growing up, we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have DVD players,’ whatever. She looked at me completely seriously and she was like, ‘Wow, mommy, it must have been hard growing up in the olden days.’
It’s unfathomable. My 4-year-old didn’t know how to read but she knew how to get to YouTube and get Dora videos.
It’s scary from the business perspective. How do you sustain quality journalism? But the demand for news and the ability to get news is greater than ever. We have — people write about and talk a lot about the decline of circulation in newspapers and ‘oh my God, what’s happening?’
We have a bigger audience than we have ever had. Ninety percent of our page views for WashingtonPost.com come from outside the Washington area, and roughly 10-15 percent of those are international.
And we don’t distribute outside of the Washington region, so for us it’s enabled us to get an audience that’s all over the world for the incredible journalism that we put out.
So, our challenge is to figure out, how do you pay for it?
OK, so what’s the answer?
Weymouth: I was gonna ask you. I don’t have the answer, I’m not a believer that there’s a magic bullet, but if I find it or if any of you have it I’d love to take it.
But I think when you look at the history of journalism, it really is, and people have written a lot about this, it’s an anomaly.
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, which is not fun, and it’s not glamorous, but in order to sustain the kind of quality journalism we all believe in, we have to do that so we can continue to do it and continue to invest in our journalism. And at the same time, experiment on new platforms.
We are gonna be on the iPad, we are on the iPhone. You can have podcasts, you can get us on the Internet, so we will be where our readers want to be.
You came to this position after training as a lawyer — Harvard and Stanford, a hard life — and then moved into advertising. What will happen with advertising online? What do you see as the future of online advertising?
Weymouth: I think it’s hard to say because it’s changing so fast. When you think about it, The Washington Post has been around for well over 100 years. The Internet has been around at least in the popular consumption for what, 15 years?
So it’s changing so quickly, and I think none of us know what it will look like, even as we’re planning for what we’re gonna do on the iPad. It’s so new. None of us know exactly what an ad’s gonna look like. Is it gonna look like a display ad in the newspaper, is it gonna be video? In a way, it’s like the Harry Potter description of a newspaper with a moving photo. So, I think the answer is advertising right now on the Internet is challenged because there are so many page views and CPMs are declining, but I think it’s gonna change a lot.
And the key, obviously is — I was at a conference recently and one of the clients there said something I think is so true. He was talking about social media, which is all the rage these days, right? And he said, ‘Am I gonna advertise on Facebook and Twitter? Absolutely. Why? Because it’s cheap and my employer thinks I’m doing social media.’ He said, ‘But what do I care about, at the end of the day? Does it ring my cash register?’
That’s what they care about. If we can find a way for advertisers to connect with their consumers, and that’s what newspapers are brilliant at, we have a business.
Do we have time to find the answers?
Weymouth: I think so. I mean it’s hard and it’s scary because people talk a lot about change but nobody really likes change, particularly when you don’t know what it looks like. People will often ask me, ‘What is it gonna look like in 10 years?’ Who knows? We were talking in my own business group at an off-site [retreat] and somebody said, ‘Well maybe we should do the 5- to 10-year picture.’ I said, ‘Oh, gimme a break,’ you know? That is a waste of time. Let’s do the 2- to 3-year picture because we have a better sense of what’s gonna happen the next two to three years than we do in the next five to 10.
You’re saying it’s hard and scary but I have to say you look pretty relaxed.
Weymouth: That is a good trick.
So let’s talk about the Post. Katharine Graham is back. How would you describe to her what’s happening at The Washington Post?
Weymouth: I think I would say we are putting out as good if not better journalism than we ever have. And she would be proud of it and proud of the reporters we have, the editors we have and the business people we have. And we are adapting. This is a world where you have to adapt, you have to try new things and she would identify with you have to make mistakes, too. And that’s OK. We’re gonna throw some spaghetti against the wall. Some of it’s gonna work, some of it’s not. We’ve got to learn from those and keep going.
So you think she would be comfortable with the changes that are taking place?
Weymouth: I don’t think she herself would be on an iPad. She wrote her book in longhand on a yellow legal pad and then somebody typed it in. So I don’t know whether she would be using the technology, but she always said ‘In order to do good, you must do well.’ She understood, at least it was her belief, that in order to produce outstanding quality news you have to be a good business. You have to be able to invest in it.
One thing that stood out to me about her book was that while she told the story of her life, she also told the story of The Washington Post in a very tough market — competition from a number of newspapers … Now you face a situation where there are free locals, there’s Politico focusing on what’s been part of the Post’s brand, there’s a new local startup. How do you think about the competition? What’ll be the strategy with the competition now?
Weymouth: I actually think it’s great for us. I’ve heard people talking about the old days, when we were competing against the Star, and the circulation guys — somebody would have put a Coke can on a Washington Post box and so they would move it to the Star box.
I think it forces you to focus. You can’t get lazy. You can’t be complacent. And it’s competition from everybody. It’s competition in politics, it’s competition in local, it’s competition in local advertising. So it requires us to really focus on what can we do well and let’s really execute that.
Let’s talk about the book a little bit, ‘The Edge of Change.’ There’s a chapter in this book and it’s called, ‘Finding Voice.’ It’s by Arlene Morgan, and Arlene Morgan is over there and she’s a very quiet and shy person who’s struggling to find her voice. But let me ask you about your voice. Do you think of your voice as the style or tone in which you communicate or the content, the messages that you want to be in people’s heads, even when you’re not there? How would you describe your voice?
Weymouth: Frank. And that can be dangerous. I’m somebody who — I say what I think and I’m direct, and I think people generally appreciate that and sometimes they’re like, ‘Wow, you really say what you think.’ And grandma was surprised, when she wrote her book, how many people came up to her and said, ‘Wow, I’m amazed by how honest you were about your life.’ And she was like, ‘Well, how else would I have done my book?’
So, I like to think I’m straightforward.
Was she frank?
Weymouth: Yes. If she didn’t like you, you knew.
There’s another chapter in the book that’s called ‘Facing Unexpected Challenges.’ It’s been less than a year since you ran into the problems with the ‘salons.’ Tell a little about that and what can we all learn from it?
Weymouth: You know what, it was — I would rather not have done it, but I think it was a great lesson for me and for my team. And what I said to people, right when it happened, I said, ‘I apologize. I clearly got this wrong.’
Say a little bit about it.
Weymouth: 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.
But I said to my team, I said, ‘The worst mistake that can come out of this is that we freeze.’ We have got to be able to make mistakes and I don’t mind making — I will take risks. And I don’t mind having mud on my face. But, we gotta learn from it. Accept responsibility for it, and I was like, ‘This is my fault. I goofed. But that’s OK. Let’s keep going. We’re gonna try new things, and we’re gonna make some mistakes and hopefully we’re gonna get some right.’ And I still say that.
So, 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. But, you know…
How did your audience respond?
Weymouth: I didn’t hear a tremendous amount from the readers. I mean, I did a little bit and of course with — and I think the worst thing about e-mail is the anonymity. People will say things by e-mail that they would never say to your face. So I got a fair amount of that kind of 1 a.m. spam in all caps, although I don’t pay a lot of attention to that.
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.’
Many of us are facing new types of decisions about the alliances we make, the steps we undertake, very different, in a different economic environment, what decisions do we make, what are the ethical considerations, so is there anything else we should all take away as form new alliances, try new things?
Weymouth: I think what we have to do is take the same approach we always have and vet it, right? So we just had our first Washington Post live event last week. And we made sure that we worked with the newsroom to come up with a set of guidelines we were all comfortable with. The event was on the record, and there is a way to do that.
So I think we moved too fast in the first instance. You gotta take the time you need. You got to make sure you’re checking all your boxes and that you’re doing it with the standards that you’re comfortable with, that are right for your organization.
There’s a chapter in here ['Edge of Change'], there’s a section about ‘Making Choices.’ And it talks about the choices women have to make. Now, you have three children, and most people who talk about you … most people who say things about you talk about your relationship with your children, your openness about your children … What are the kind of choices that you have to make about career and family?
Weymouth: I think they’re the same choices that any working mom makes and I’m lucky enough to be privileged enough to have help. I have a nanny to help take care of them. But it’s always — you know, people say, ‘Is there work-life balance?’ I’m like, ‘No. No, no.’
There’s no balance. You are flying by the seat of your pants and you feel guilty all the time. And you’re just grateful you get away with what you can get away with.
And you hope your children will forgive you for the things you miss and the days you get home and are grouchy. And work will forgive you for the days you’re not completely 100 percent.
For me, it’s my girlfriends that — my girlfriends who also work and we talk every morning on the way to work. I say, ‘Oh my God, I was such a you-know-what last night.’ It’s just a mutual, like, ‘Oh, me too, don’t worry about it.’ You gotta forgive yourself.
June Nicholson (co-editor, “The Edge of Change”): Young journalists coming along in colleges and universities across the country, I’m wondering what advice you would give to them about entering journalism. We have so many young people who are interested in writing and reporting and providing news content to the citizens of our country and the citizens of the world as the changes occur. What do you think, how would you advise them as to go about their passion?
Weymouth: I would say, ‘Go for it.’ There’s a greater need than there ever has been — with this flood of information — for qualified, trained journalists who have a passion for telling the truth and getting it out there. And the great thing — I’m privileged to meet a lot of young journalists, the great thing about them is they’ve grown up in this world. So things that we’re all learning — how to use Twitter, etc., how to use a Flip camera, whatever — is all second nature to them.
They know how to edit a video, how to take a photo, how to write. And so I think it’s exciting because they can bring those talents and think — Really, it’s still journalism, right? It’s still storytelling. So what’s changed is how do you tell the story. Are you gonna tell it in print? Are you gonna tell it on the Web? Are you gonna blog it? Are you gonna embellish it with multimedia?
I think it’s wonderful to see this new generation coming up because they will bring things to the table that some of us old farts couldn’t come up with.
Wanda Lloyd (co-editor, “The Edge of Change”): June just talked about the number of young women who are coming up. And one of the things the editors of the book are probably going to discuss tomorrow, what I’d like your take on, is there are so many more women than men, as you mentioned in the Columbia class, across the country … more women than men going into journalism. And yet fewer women than men who are sitting in your seat and seats of leadership, both on the business side as well as top editor positions. How do we find a model to help young women who are coming up in the ranks so we increase the pipeline of people who, of women who can take on leadership? What advice would you give us as a group of women, as we go into our discussions tomorrow about how we can help increase that pipeline?
Weymouth: What a great question. It’s a hard one. I’m not sure I would give different advice to women than I would to men, which is: You gotta do the best you can do at whatever — give 100 percent, give more. And opportunities will come to you.
I don’t think you can go into a company and say — well, you can, of course — ‘I want to be the CEO.’ But, it’s not the usual — you have to be ambitious. But really, if you do great work, at whatever your position is, people will reward you. They will identify you and they will give you other opportunities.
And I think because there are a lot of women in journalism, it’s a norm. So, you can move up the food chain. But you do make choices along the way.
I’ve talked to some of my reporters who are foreign correspondents or covering the campaigns. Those are hard jobs if you have small children. I mean, Anne Kornblut just wrote a book about covering Hillary — the challenges for women in politics. Anne was one many reporters who was on the road for months and months and months, on buses and motels. If you have small children at home, I think that’s just hard.
And so I don’t know how many women would be willing to make that choice … But it’s also doable. So I think if you wanna do it, keep plugging away.
Pam Johnson (co-editor, “The Edge of Change”): I’d like to take that a little further if we could. I’m interested in, from where you sit, and the people who are your peers, do you have an opportunity to look at the landscape and see how absent it is of women in the highest places? And if you took that look, would you feel like you would want to reach out and try to make it better?
Weymouth: From where I sit, I guess I don’t think exclusively about women. I think about diversity of all kinds, whether it’s background, race, anything. And we at the Post have a very diverse group both on the business side and in the newsroom.
We have a female managing editor, there are a lot of female executives on my team, and of course there’s a female publisher.
Now, I didn’t come by my job the old-fashioned, earned way. I happen to be Katharine Graham’s granddaughter and Don’s niece, so that helped.
We are very conscious of diversity. We’re serving a diverse community so we have to have diversity in the newsroom to cover that community.
Women make different choices in coverage. Not always, I don’t like the sort of stereotype of women like the softer stuff. But there is some truth to it. So women — Liz Spayd, who is our managing editor, has talked to me about how she selects stories. She also selects a lot of hard news stories.
But I think it is important to have women in the newsroom and in senior jobs, just like it’s important to have minorities in senior jobs. And the same is true on the business side.
So we actually have a very diverse group. And my choices have been to find the best qualified people, but at least thinking about the diversity issue too.
Dunlap: What do you like for when you hire or promote? What are the qualities that you look for?
Weymouth: I look for a track record. I look for what they’ve done. And for people who are open and will listen. It really is a track record. And sometimes you take a bet, right? And sometimes you’re wrong.
We just promoted somebody who just turned 30 this year. He is our chief revenue officer and our digital GM. We’re taking a big bet on him, it’s a really big job, but every single job he has held he has knocked it out of the park. So it doesn’t matter if he’s 30 or 60, he’s great. I love to give him the job.
When you made that change it involved a number of position changes. What is that like for you? Are these things that you angst over or are you getting good recommendations from others? How do you make those decisions?
Weymouth: You angst over it because there are people involved, right? And in this case it was triggered because Goli Sheikholeslami, our digital GM decided to leave.
But really, I find it really exciting, because I feel like — and in this case what it really was was I — 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.
So this is sort of another step toward that. We actually finally, officially integrated into one company January 1st of this year. So it’s another step in that. So it’s exciting in the sense that I feel like we’re getting some motion and we have amazingly talented people and we’re really lucky to have those people.
I mentioned a difficulty, a challenged you faced. I haven’t asked, what have you been particularly proud of or pleased about? Is there anything that stands out that particularly pleased you?
Weymouth: Yeah, and I think it’s that everyone in our building is proud of. It’s everybody from the security guards to the electricians. And it’s our journalism.
We’re lucky to work at a company where we’re not making widgets, and no offense to widget makers, but every day and now 24 hours a day, you get to see our journalism and you see how it impacts lives and companies and the government. And that is why we all work there.
Let me congratulate you on your journalism and we appreciate it. At Poynter, we appreciate it. One way it’s measured is through the Pulitzer Prizes and I want to commend you for those that you have won. In fact, I think there might be some Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winners in the room.
Weymouth: Right over there, Anne Hull.
Anne Hull. Our trustee. Anne, do you have a question?
Weymouth: Way to put her on the spot.
Hull: I guess I am very lucky to work at The Washington Post. When young journalists ask me, ‘Where should I work?’ I always have two answers. One, it’s, ‘Where your values are aligned and where you can be a great journalist.’ But it’s also, ‘Who’s making money?’ or ‘Who’s successful?’ You can’t do good journalism these days without a financial space above you to create that room.
And that’s why Don and Katharine have — are a place young journalists want to end up. Because you can still do good, original journalism there. Otherwise known as ‘content.’ But I like to refer to it as journalism.
Dunlap: Way to ask the boss a question, Anne. Is there a question in that?
Hull: My favorite time at The Washington Post in the 10 years I’ve been there is the day after President Obama was elected. Not because Obama was elected, but because there was a line of thousands of people wrapped around our building. And it was unbelievable, just to see cabbies and school teachers and people standing in line to get an extra copy.
Katharine, for you, is there an emotional moment since you took over that reminds you that, gosh, this is why we do what we do?
Weymouth: Yeah, and for me, actually, 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. So, I think for me it’s those moments.
Dunlap: Is that a contradiction for someone who has been celebrating the innovations of the Internet?
Weymouth: I celebrate it all. And 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.
Audience Question: When you talked about your frank and honest nature at the beginning, it got me thinking about this journalism class I took this last semester. And the majority of people in the class were girls, the most vocal people in the class were the three or four males out of 30. And it just got me thinking, do you think what’s keeping these women from these leadership positions, even though we are the majority, is our reluctance to be frank and honest, that’s been so ingrained in us?
Weymouth: I guess it varies from person to person, but I don’t think so. I think it really is about — and I’m not the expert here — but in many cases — some cases it’s opportunities that present themselves, and in some cases it’s choices you make. And you know, ‘I don’t want to be in top management because I want to go home to my kids at a reasonable hour’ or whatever it is.
And so, we all need to make sure that women have the opportunities that they want to get. And there are obviously a lot of women going into journalism and into business and into law and into all the fields. So I think we need to be conscious of it, but I don’t think it’s because women are not willing to be frank and straight.
Audience Question: In these challenging economic times, the industry has lost a lot of talented journalists, both men and women. What do you say to those experienced and talented journalists who are thinking of getting out?
Weymouth: I think it really is such an individual choice. In many cases, we have lost a lot of talent. We have also acquired and invested in a lot of new — we have an incredible pool of new journalists coming on board, too. Many of which we’ve hired from St. Pete and others.
Most newspapers have cut back significantly and that is a hard thing to do. It’s not fun. 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.
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.
It’s tough choices but we’re still investing in talent, we still have a tremendous amount of talent. And many of the journalists I know who’ve left have gone on to really rewarding careers, in all kinds of — some in other media entities, and some in businesses and whatnot.
Audience Question: One of the challenges you just alluded to is international coverage and the global world in which we live, the 21st century world in which we live. We’re global. Many bureaus, many news companies have cut back on their news bureaus, their staffing abroad, at a time when it’s increasingly important for cultures to be connected and interconnected and to better understand each other. What is the Post gonna plan for now and the future, in terms of its international coverage at a time when it is a difficult business environment, financial environment? And do you have any thoughts about the quality or lack of of the international coverage in general we face all the threats and the misunderstandings and the importance of that element of good journalism as we move forward?
Weymouth: I think we view it as incredibly important. And one of the Pulitzer Prizes we won this year was for Anthony Shadid’s coverage in Iraq. [Shadid has since left the Post.] We’re continuing to invest in it. And we’re not changing that at all. We’re lucky because we’re in Washington, which happens to be the nation’s capital, obviously, and so for our audience it makes sense. At the end of the day we have to think about our readers. And for our readers it matters. So we’re not cutting back on on our international coverage in any way. We’re just thinking about how to do it better and what people to send and where should they be.
Mallary Tenore (writer, Poynter Institute): The transition that you faced integrating the print and digital operations, what were some of the main challenges you faced, and what did you learn from them?
Weymouth: That’s a great question. I’ll tell you one of my favorite stories.
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 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.
So that was our biggest challenge. But it was also a great opportunity.
Nora Paul (Director, Institute for New Media Studies, University of Minnesota): Beyond the training of the next generation of journalists, that hopefully the university is providing as a service, what kind of things would you like to see in the industry as collaborative work with universities, that have not only the teaching of the next generation but also the ability to hopefully do the research that could answer some of the big questions.
Weymouth: That’s a good question. I guess it’s sort of a question we’re all grappling with, which is: how is the next generation gonna consume media? How do they want to consume it? And I think it’s a hard question to research because it’s changing so quickly. It’s changing for all of us.
I know we in the industry talk a lot about young people, the ever-elusive young people, and how they only want to consume on the Internet and online and whatever. I find that it’s true for — I think our biggest competition is the BlackBerry.
What do people do when they’re at a restaurant? They used to sit there and read a paper when they’re waiting for a friend. Now, they’re e-mailing. We’re all so ADD. I’m so ADD that I sit at a red light and think, ‘I’m bored, I better pull out my BlackBerry.’ It’s ridiculous.
So I think it’s, for the schools I think it’s training, it’s journalism. That has not changed. It’s storytelling and we need people with the passion for it and the skills to understand, how do you write a great and compelling story. And then I don’t care where you read it. So, I would think that has not changed.
And from the research standpoint, we all need to figure out how people want to consume their news. …
Marty Petty (CEO, Creative Loafing): I think many of us got in this got in this business because we believed that we were institutions of democracy, and the work that we do is critical to that purpose. So why, from your vantage point, why are we letting everybody else tell our story? Because our competitors have tried to shape our story of our demise and all the other things in between. And how do we ultimately help our constituents understand why it’s important for us to thrive?
Weymouth: To your first point, I think it’s us. 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.’
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. …
We have got to think about our readers. And we have got to give them compelling content. And sometimes it’s a little sugar with your medicine.
What’s great about papers in my mind, and we know from research in our readers’, they come to us sometimes for our coverage of Afghanistan, but sometimes it’s for the crossword puzzle. And that’s OK. Because maybe they come to read the sport section and they stumble upon something. That’s the beauty of newspapers, the serendipity, the thing you didn’t anticipate that you wanted to read.
So, I’m cautious of this sense of ‘we are these voices and they ought to educate themselves.’ That’s not gonna work. You cannot have a business that says, ‘Really, you ought to read this really long article.’ It’s up to us to give them a reason. I tell our reporters all the time, ‘We’ve got to think of our front page like the storefront,’ right? We’ve gotta look at that every day and hope that there’s something on there that says to somebody, ‘Wow, God, I want to read that.’
Some of the things we’ve gotten away from and we’re working on a lot now is, how do you write a headline? Once we had a headline in the paper, I don’t remember exactly what it was but it was really boring. And then on the Web, the same story was ‘Little Blue Pills.’ And it was among the most — and I clicked on it, and it was a story about how the CIA was giving Afghan rebel leaders Viagra instead of cash because that’s what they wanted to please all their wives. And I was like, ‘Now that is a great title.’ And I called Liz Spayd and I said, ‘Why didn’t we have that title in the paper?’
It can’t be medicine or we won’t have people reading it. I think we as an industry have to get back there.
Dunlap: How do you consume news?
Weymouth: The old-fashioned way. 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 in lots of different ways.
And the paper, do you start front to back?
Weymouth: Yeah, I do. My daughter starts with the back of the style section, KidsPost.
Jane E. Kirtley (Silha professor of media ethics and law, School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota): You’re a lawyer by training. You were at Williams & Connolly for several years, a firm with a long tradition of doing First Amendment litigation. And many of the First Amendment cases since 1980 were brought by papers like The Washington Post. Are you worried at all that those kind of cases that have protected and expanded protections of the First Amendment are going to cease to happen as news organizations just don’t have the money to bring those cases?
Weymouth: Good question. I can really only speak for us. It hasn’t stopped us. When we want to get documents we still retain Williams & Connolly and other law firms to help us get them. So I think you’re right. It probably will be the organizations with the resources to fight to get stuff.
What I worry about a little bit more and I think is something we all need to figure out — I don’t have the answers — is: for those of us who generate the content, it is expensive to generate it. And there are a lot of entities out there who are being very smart but are not investing the resources and they’re aggregating the content.
And linking is great because that sends the traffic back to us. And people know what the content is. But sometimes they’re just repurposing it. You don’t even know it’s from The Washington Post, and/or they’re selling ads around three paragraphs. So I think that’s the kind of thing we have to watch because it is expensive to generate this content. If everybody else can benefit from this content without the cost of generating it, the organizations who are putting money into getting documents and evidence are — it’s going to be harder.
Dunlap: What do you expect to happen in that case?
Weymouth: I think all of us are trying to figure it out. It’s this balance of, we want the traffic, 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, I won’t mention the name –
Weymouth: No, actually it wasn’t, it was 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.
As I recall, when I visited your office, steam was coming out of your ears about that case. It’s an important case.
Arlene Morgan: There’ve been a lot of studies recently about government subsidies to keep the press going, including one that was authored at Columbia by your former editor [Len Downie]. What do you think of that idea? Do you think that’s a viable idea?
Weymouth: No. I think it’s comforting to people. But I think we have to be a profitable business and an independent one in order to do what we do.
So you don’t think this is going to go anywhere?
Weymouth: No. But 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.’
Wanda Lloyd: A long time ago, organizations like AOL and Google and Yahoo figure out how to aggregate information. And a lot of young people, including young people my daughter’s age in her mid-20s, think that’s news and that’s where the news comes from. Do you think we have to — how do we overcome that? How do we compete with that kind of aggregation? Do we have to get in bed with them? Or do we find smarter ways to do it?
Weymouth: I’m not opposed to aggregation. I think smart aggregation is a service to readers. And we do it, too. And I think it is a service. 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.
I think blogs are the same thing. There are some great blogs out there from experts in the field that we rely on sometimes as sources. And our journalists do their own blogs. And then there are a lot of blogs by people who just woke up and want to tell you what they feel like this morning.
That’s sort of, to me, market sourcing. The market will figure out which ones are, for the most part, are interesting and worth reading. There’s a lot of dreck out there, too.
Audience Question: You hear in journalism school now a lot that journalists need to be one-man bands and learn how to do everything from writing stories to shoot and editing video. At what point is — I guess I’m reminded of the phrase, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’ At what point are you spreading yourself too thin versus being well-rounded?
Weymouth: That’s a great question. At the Post we still do believe in expertise. We have entire photo teams of professional photographers, professional videographers and writers. So I don’t think it’s bad to have the skills. What if you’re in Afghanistan and you don’t have a photographer with you? It’d be great if you could get the photos. But, to your point, I think we very much believe in expertise. There is a difference between a photograph taken by a professional, trained photographer with a great camera or a beautiful story.
And I hear some of our journalists talk about — I think the harder part is how do you do this in a 24/7 world? It’s no longer just writing your story for tomorrow’s paper. It’s writing your story and putting it up online and then maybe doing a video chat on it. And many of them are challenged just with time. It’s now really a 24/7 cycle. And that’s hard.
Audience Question: On the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) listserv recently, a young journalist, working at a paper, looking for advice, who was working very hard, and was having things like, they wouldn’t take her pitches or they would take her pitches and give it to someone else. And she was frustrated. And one of the things our members said is, ‘You need to find a mentor.’ Or, ‘You need to leave and find another place to work.’
There’s a lot of data — it’s not just about working hard — I think a lot of women and young women do work hard. It’s more than that. It’s not a meritocracy. There’s a lot of data that men are just better about advocating for themselves, about saying to their bosses, stopping by, ‘This is what I’m doing today.’ And women just don’t do that as much.
So I was wondering if the Post has a mentoring program, for young journalists particularly women or minority journalists.
Weymouth: I think that’s a totally fair point. I think that we all know at least — as a generality, it’s true. And even as a lawyer, it’s true. Often, the women would come back and somebody would say, ‘Congratulations, I hear you won your argument.’ And they’d be like, ‘It was easy,’ or ‘The judge liked me,’ or whatever. And the men would come back and be like, ‘Wow, you should have seen me.’ That is true in many professions.
We do not have a formal mentoring program. I’m not a believer in formal mentoring programs because, you know, you have to find the right fit for you. And sometimes you force somebody to be a mentor, they’re a horrible mentor. They don’t meet with you or whatever.
So, I am a believer in doing it informally, though. And I advise people on the business side to do the same thing. Which is: find somebody that you admire, and go say, ‘Can I take you to coffee? I’d love to your advice.’ Everybody is flattered when you say, ‘I’d love to get your advice.’
And look at the people you think, ‘God, I wanna be like that’ and get their two cents on how they got there. So I think that is a fair point and I would encourage people to find a mentor to give them advice on how to advance their career.
Bob Haiman (former president of Poynter): I’d like to go back to one of your comments about five minutes ago, when you said last year The Washington Post was a nonprofit operation, the problem is that wasn’t the plan.
One of the things that bothers me about all of these conversations, and I’ve been in many of them here at Poynter and elsewhere, is a lack of metrics. And I’m speaking specifically about time tables. People say, ‘Yes, the business model — the old business model’s broken, but we’re working on finding a new business model.’ And, ‘Yes, we’re losing a lot of print ads, but we’re getting a lot of online ads.’ The problem is for every dollar we lose in print ads we only get twelve cents on the online ads. And everybody says, ‘Yeah, but we’re gonna find this new model.’ We’re gonna find this new model and everything will come out fine at the other end.
How much time do you think, as the CEO of The Washington Post [Media], how much time do you think the Post and our industry has to find that new model that works?
Weymouth: Let me be clear. 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. So, we run almost exclusively by metrics, both on the business side and even in the newsroom in terms of traffic and readership.
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.
We expect to turn the ship around as soon as possible. I can’t give you a specific date. But we have an incredible Board of Directors, including Warren Buffett as our lead director, who are very close to the business and the metrics. And I report out to them regularly as well as to Don Graham.
We’re fortunate to be part of a larger company that is profitable, thanks in large part to Kaplan and to our cable divisions. So, that has given us enough of a cushion so that we don’t have to eviscerate the journalism that we’re all so proud of and that we believe is our mission.
But we understand we’re running a business and I’m in the course of getting us back to profitability so we can continue to do that.
Haiman: How much time do you think the industry has to find this new business model that will work?
Weymouth: 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.
I can’t speak broadly for the industry, but we’re seeing a shakeout across the industry, which means many newspapers are in bankruptcy or reorganizing and I think the market forces are taking a toll. So, I think you’ll see it shakeout.
Dunlap: You just mentioned a point that struck me. And that is that in the first quarter, the Washington Post company reported a profit, primarily from Kaplan and some of the other aspects, not the newspaper. Is there a fundamental problem in this country if more and more organizations are in a similar situation? That is, the news is not paid for through the news organization, but from other entities in the company.
Weymouth: It is my job to get us back to profitability. Kaplan and the company’s profitability just gives us a turnaround window that other newspaper entities didn’t have. So we’re lucky. But we have to get back on our feet. And we have to do it as fast as we can.
There are actually two strings of conversation here, I think it’s fair to say. One is the business of journalism and the other is about women in the media and about other people in the media, diversity in the media. … I believe there’s a link in the book, ‘The Edge of Change,’ that says the fundamental role of an editor is really developing people. Does that extent to publishers, too? Is a good deal of your time [spent] developing people or at that point should they have been developed?
Weymouth: I’m still developing myself. I think people is probably my number one job. If we don’t have great people in our organization on the business side and on the news side, we’re dead. So I spend a significant amount of time coaching, developing, hiring, and I think there is nothing more important that we could do.
And with all of the things on you, how do you attend to the segments of the audience, whether it is your readers, or your viewers, or the people around you, the groups within the whole that might be being left out?
Weymouth: That’s a broad question. With the readers, we do a lot of research. And I hear anecdotally from readers. One time I was in Starbucks and a gentleman came up to me and I stood up and he said, ‘I think I met you before. You are doing a terrible disservice to your readers. You are embarrassing, besmirching your uncle’s name. He’s on the Pulitzer board and you eliminated the book section.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, now I know what you’re talking about.’
So, I hear from readers anecdotally. We also get research. And within the building, I try as much as I can to get around the building, to spend time in the newsroom, to go out to the warehouses where we distribute the paper, to go to the production plant, to hear from my own executive group and to get as much feedback as I can.
We like to think we are not a very hierarchical organization and I will spend time with anybody, from an intern to somebody who’s managing up. That’s how I learn. That’s how I hear what’s really going on for those people who are brave enough to tell me. …
Katharine Graham faced tough challenges. And you’re facing tough challenges. Is there any way to compare the two situations? Whose problems would you rather have? Hers or yours?
Weymouth: Mine, I think. I don’t know that I can compare them, they’re obviously incredibly different. And she’s very brave and made a lot of decisions that took a lot of courage. So I hope I will have the same ability faced with similar challenges.
What do you remember about her? What sticks with you that helps you?
Weymouth: She and I had a great relationship. Obviously, I’m her namesake. And I have her pearls, which I love.
Also, you have a sister, you say you’re her favorite grandchild?
Weymouth: No, no, no, no. I was the oldest by a landslide. And her only namesake. And we just were sort of compatible together. It’s hard to say, because she was my grandma. And I got to know her when she was sort of writing her book and not in day-to-day business.
I think I grew up in a family where I learned from her — work ethic was a very big thing. She had enough money, she didn’t have to work. But it was just an assumption. And she loved it and was passionate about it.
In high school, we were known as the Amazon family because we were all sort of tall, strong women. And for some reason we were all single. Including our dog.
She would often say she felt like Forrest Gump at the end of her life. That she had incredible opportunities and was really lucky and, of course, she never gave herself enough credit for the courage that she had.
I hope I learned from her that it’s OK to take risks, that it’s OK to fall on your face from time to time. But get up again. And don’t be scared.
We’ve talked about your grandmother, would it be unfair to end without talking about your parents, who raised you. Particularly since in Tampa Bay, the Weymouth who is best known is your father, Yann Weymouth, the architect, who has been involved with many of the buildings in this area and has a big opening next year.
What did you learn from your parents? How did he do?
Weymouth: Unfortunately, I did not inherit his gene for math or engineering, I wish I had. It would be tremendously helpful. Nor his creativity. I’m really lucky to have two incredibly talented and great parents. My mother is a courageous journalist who traveled all over the world and worked really hard and continues to work really hard. My father is an incredible architect that I admire very much. So, I think I was lucky to have two really supportive, strong parents who work hard and are passionate about what they do.
Let me end by asking this. If you could make the future what you would have it to be, what would The Washington Post look like? What’s your vision for The Washington Post, say in two years, in five years, what would it be like?
Weymouth: It would be an incredible news organization putting out fantastic journalism on whatever platforms our readers want to read it, but in a manner that’s profitable. So we can continue to invest in it.