Vanity Fair: Washington Post is stuck between national and local

Vanity Fair gave Poynter an advance copy of Sarah Ellison's story about The Washington Post, and while there's plenty there to send Post Kremlinologists like me rocketing to the newsstand, the most interesting part is how well it drills into the Post's struggle to define itself: Is it a local paper, some of whose readers happen to run the country? Or is it a national paper with a vestigial, local newsroom attached?

To the quotes!

Warren Buffett tells Ellison, "The Washington Post is a local newspaper.”

“I mean, it has national reach, but the grocers that advertise in it, they’re not going to get national custom­ers. The circulation they’re paying for is the circulation that goes to people in the Greater Washington, D.C., area, and that’s way dif­ferent than The New York Times. One of the things that’s existed over time which I’m sure you’re aware of is that the newsroom, kindled by what happened in Watergate, liked to think of themselves as national. And they are national in an important respect, but they’re not national as a business. And they don’t have a business model that works nationally. What they do have as a business asset is a large and prosperous local market.”

In 2003, Steve Coll, who was then the Post's managing editor, presented a plan to win the Post a national audience online. CEO Don Graham responded.

"He very emphatically emphasized that the Washington Post franchise was local, and that our emphasis on this opportunity rep­resented a threat to the franchise because it might pull the journalism and energy away from serving the local audience,” Coll told me.

Katharine Weymouth, the paper's publisher, "has been frustrated ... by what she sees as Brauchli's and his deputies' inattention to some of the most historically strong sections of the paper, the ones that cater most to the local audience.

She has told several people in the newsroom, “One of our biggest problems is we have three people at the top of the paper, none of whom give a shit about Sports, Metro, or Style."

It's important to remember that few Posties were thrilled by Weymouth's December 2008 "Road Forward" memo, which outlined a strategy of the Post being "for and about Washington." But the desks that most logically would work toward keeping the Post the dominant local news source were targeted in the paper's most recent buyouts.

Earlier this year, when I profiled Post blogger Jen Chaney, Katharine Zaleski, the Post's executive director of digital news, told me, "We're primarily a national website," a statement backed up by traffic numbers that show most of's readers come from outside the Washington area.

Meanwhile, Graham tells Ellison, "We sell more newspapers in Washington than The New York Times sells in New York."

Is holding on to two such different audiences even possible? || Related: Washington Post digital revenue officer Ken Babby leaves.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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