Using Analytics To Drive Change: How The Washington Post Became a 21st Century Business
Probably the most storied (no pun intended) and universally-revered newspapers has been arguably The Washington Post. It’s the ‘paper that the politically interested read’ a lot would say. It is the paper of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Think ‘All The President’s Men’), Katherine Graham, and Ben Bradlee fame – all celebrity newspaper people if you know the newspaper industry. The Post’s stable of writers include Pulitzer Prize winners like Rick Atkinson, Dana Priest, David Maraniss, and, of course, Mr. Woodward. In fact, they have so many syndicated columnists like George Will, E.J Dionne, Kathleen Parker and other first rate scribes that some argue it’s the Manchester United of newspapers.
Until recently the Post was looked to for the best writing on any subject: politics, art, business, weather, comics (yes, even comics!), and national and international news. It had it all and was certainly good at it all. Still, it was largely a local paper lacking national or international exposure beyond the politically interested. Its reputation for those who knew of it and read it compared and even surpassed the New York Times.
It was a badge of honor to say you wrote for the Post or showed instant credibility if you said you read it in the Post. However, it simply lacked the big circulation numbers that the New York Times had – and the editors and publishers of The Post liked it that way. Yes, it was their baby and they were going to run it their way. Since The Washington Post is part of a publicly-traded company (The Post) that attitude could only take them so far. Yes, there were shareholder mouths to feed and in this old model they needed to bring home more bacon.
The cacophony of shareholder revolt came to fruition in the early 1980′s and, finally, in 1984 the executive team instead of changing the business model of the newspaper division it went outside the newspaper business and acquired for-profit college and test preparation business Kaplan. For many years this decision proved very wise and kept the shareholders at bay. Indeed, Kaplan was the money-making machine they’d hoped it would be allowing The Washington Post to continue to do what it did best uninterrupted by calls for change. Yes, as long as Kaplan was driving solid revenue The Washington Post and its writer-friendly atmosphere was safe.
Then, which occurred very recently, Kaplan started to bleed and could no longer absorb all of the operating losses of The Washington Post newspaper division. Those pesky shareholders demanded changes…but what changes? Well, no doubt about it it was time to reevaluate the business model of the newspaper division.
When it came down to it the Washington Post was really a local paper unlike similarly respected peer papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which were nationally and even internationally read. Readers equals revenue and they had more of them. The numbers never lie and it was time for truth telling at The Post.
To this point, the Post’s primary source of revenue had been advertising where the paper could charge a premium because of its stature and strong local circulation, but, as we all know, that once reliable advertising revenue stream moved to the web and all of its possibilities where the old newspaper lost out with no replacement revenue. Unfortunately, the Post didn’t have a strong digital model so they missed out on those advertising dollars simply moving to their digital business. Instead, to the chagrin of The Post team advertising dollars left and weren’t coming back. The shareholder murmurs pushing for change that the executive team heard over the 1990′s and early 2000′s soon became loud roars. Change needed to happen. Though the majority of The Post’s voting stock is in the hands of one family – the Grahams – who have had someone from the family at the helm going back five generations, they knew there would be a mass exodus from the stock if they didn’t have a quick answer to the declining revenues from their Kaplan business. Voting rights is all well and good but if there are no shareholders you’ve got bigger problems. The answer was that they had to look at their core business and its related business model and make the necessary changes to adapt to the times.
Can a leopard change its spots? Well, in times of crisis they say, necessity is the mother of invention and that time is now for The Washington Post.
HOW DID THEY DO IT?
Instead of leaning exclusively on old truisms like great reporting is your marketing strategy they found a way to strike a balance between solid reporting and adapting to the changing customer needs. For starters they’re no longer trying to be the best at everything. They’re concentrating on what it is that they believe they can do better than anyone else and sticking to it leaving everything else to the rest. They’ve cut staff, closed bureaus, reorganized the reporting structures while reorienting the focus of the paper to the digital world. Metrics now drive the paper’s actions and intentions. Content is still king but there’s a more pragmatic strategy for how that content is made available to their subscribers and, just as importantly, to non-subscribers. They’ve adopted a new way of thinking while keeping some of the cultural virtues that made the paper great and will keep the paper great. The Post has become a case study in changing a slow reacting, the-
To get it done the Washington Post broke tradition and hired a new executive editor from outside the family – literally. His name is Marcus Brauchli and he’s taking the unenviable task of righting the ship in leading this change effort for the paper. No fun task when your core competency is specific people, i.e. your writing teams, who don’t like change and, just like in any business, require coddling to buy into the changes. These are your stars and without them jumping on board with these changes you’re screwed. Their leaving could be a coup de grace to the paper overnight. That hasn’t happened while the paper has done an impressive job pivoting its strategy, execution and related measurement to be ‘fleet of foot’ in the fast-paced digital world. The Post under Marcus Brauchli’s leadership brought its 19th century business model into the 21st century almost overnight. He changed the culture to be adept, adaptable, accountable, and cognizant of what strategies are working and what aren’t with Plan B’s for how to quickly address these discoveries. The digital universe has a short attention span. You either adapt quickly and give the readers what they want or you lose them, possibly forever. At The Washington Post it’s now all about web statistics; Who’s clicking on what articles and for how long? What are they reading next? Their web presence tries to marry what was great about the old Post with new traffic-bating tricks of online start-ups. They’ve also brought together their online and print staffs under one roof. In the old world, they were run out of two completely separate offices.
That’s no longer. The digital and print teams are now run by one department and consequently work together as equally important units. To further cement the importance of delivering content that readers want, they’ve installed flat screen monitors in the newsroom so that online web stats can be watched in real-time by the entire staff to see what’s working and, just as more importantly, people see who’s behind the most read articles. (Nothing wrong with a little competition to get people working harder.) They’re got 35 different daily reports that track their web site. In addition, editors receive midday performance alerts highlighting whether or not the site will meet its daily goals. If they’re falling short of their daily goals editors can quickly order up fresher content to bring the numbers to where they need to be. Staff is aligned and content is at the ready should new content be required. Only a few years ago, this would be unimaginable. Again, they never lose sight of their heritage but, in the end, they know pragmatically they’ve got metrics to reach or their goose is cooked.
Mr. Brauchli, The Post’s executive editor leading all of these changes, has said, “Let’s say you’re looking at your local staff, and because of pressures you need to move people. So you’re telling the local editor, here is the data, here are the business needs of our audience. And in some cases people have moved an editor role, or people have said we are reorganizing these beats so we don’t need four people covering this system. We can have three.” No longer does The Post confuse progress with motion; Making changes to make changes doesn’t always mean things will be better. Now though they’re making moves with purpose – and on the fly. They’re an old stalwart that’s gone start-up like. This screams future case study at Harvard Business School.
For now this strategy is paying off. They’ve got a guy like me reading their online edition every morning before the sunrise because I’ve finally got regular access to their stable of writers like I never had before – and it’s delivered in an easy to consume package making me debate dumping the New York Times. (For now, I’ll keep both. Hard to part with the NYT. Don’t worry I read the Wall Street Journal too to balance out the politics!)
So, yes, a leopard can indeed change its spots. The Post is a different entity than it was only a short while ago. It remains to be seen if it works but for now though they’ve adopted a culture that reveres metrics like ‘unique visitors per month’, click-thrus, and ‘page views’. Overall right now they’re just in second place behind the megalith, The New York Times, in unique visitors per month, which is extremely impressive given the miles they’ve had to travel to get there in such a short period of time not to mention their global brand lacking the broad-based awareness that the NYT has. I’d say that’s pretty darn impressive all things considered
Don’t forget though that the key to their success is applying actual metrics to measure performance. That is, key performance indicators and the value placed on them. These statistics are inarguable. It shows accountability and with this each person knows what they need to achieve without any confusion. That translates into steadfast execution.
What allowed them to succeed was that they adopted a strategy execution framework that aligned top line strategy and related goals with execution and individual performance. The staff knew what their measurements were going to be and setup an operating model that could adapt to what the results were. This is something that’s monitored on a minute-by-minute basis at The Washington Post. It’s what we as readers demand now given that there are so many alternatives for getting your news today. Whether or not this model will work for The Washington Post remains to be seen but they’ve certainly shown they’re willing to ‘change their spots’ to survive in today’s digital world.
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