The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Grim News in WaPoVille

Posted on | May 7, 2012 | 29 Comments

Washington Post, it sucks to be you:

The Washington Post Co. reported its first-quarter earnings on Friday, and the news coming out of the newspaper division was mostly grim. The unit lost $22.6 million in the quarter, with revenue down 8% and revenue from print advertising specifically falling 17%.
Meanwhile, the Post just reported one of the biggest circulation drops of any major newspaper with the lucrative Sunday edition selling 5.2% fewer copies and the daily edition skidding almost 10%. Oh, and newsroom leaders are so distressed about the way the business decline is affecting them, they held a secret meeting with the paper’s president, Steve Hills — without inviting executive editor Marcus Brauchli.

Did somebody say “secret meeting“?

Washington Post staffers are buzzing about a secret meeting between some 10 big-name Post journalists including Dana Priest, David Finkel and Carol Leonnig, and Steve Hills, the president and [general manager] of the newspaper. The April 17 meeting was highly unusual for two reasons — the executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, wasn’t present, and the participants agreed not to talk about it. . . .
Hills was said to have shocked with remarks that awards “don’t matter,” urged more traffic-driving slideshows over original Post photos, and compared the Post to Ohio’s Dayton Daily News, a paper with one-fifth the circulation of the 508,000-circ Post. . . .
[T]he paper has lost top talent lately, including James Grimaldi, who took a buyout and is heading to The Wall Street Journal. With his departure, the Post will have lost all three reporters who won its 2006 Pulitzer for their coverage of the Jack Abramoff scandal. The paper also shut out of the 2012 Pulitzers and weathered a blogger embarrassment that revealed its BlogPost operation to be a mini sweatshop.

We took note of the WaPo blogger sweatshop story last month. You start to wonder: How long before Nick Denton buys out the WaPo for $1 like Tina Brown bought Newsweek?

The “traffic-driving slideshows” idea is brutally dissected by the Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigral. To summarize, all “page-views” are not created equal. A genuine, organic readership cannot be built via technological trickery, clever SEO software, etc. In the long run, quality content matters, and attempts to evade that reality ultimately fail.

The essential problem of Old Media dinosaurs is that they refuse to acknowledge that a lean-and-mean operating model, with a more efficient use of personnel and a flatter pay structure, is their only hope for survival. Publishers simply can’t keep paying six-figure salaries to scores of people whose output averages no more than a few hundred words per day. Excessive specialization, eight-hour days, three weeks of annual vacation — you’re just not going to be able to compete like that in the New Media environment.

Here’s a helpful anecdote: I started out at small newspapers, where most staffers had to do everything, soup-to-nuts, from writing to photography to layout. So I came to D.C. as a desk editor for The Washington Times, but I always had the small-paper attitude and tried to contribute “value-added” wherever I found a chance.

Eventually, my editor was shocked to discover that, while working full-time as an assistant national editor, I’d actually contributed more bylines in a year than did one of our full-time reporters — whose employment was subsequently terminated as a result of that discovery.

As declining revenues and shrinking staffs gradually turn big news organizations into smaller organizations, executives at behemoths like the WaPo will eventually have to shift toward that kind of personnel structure, where every person in the newsroom is cross-trained and capable of doing whatever work has to be done to put out the product.

The Guild shop, with all its ridiculous rules, is doomed to end up on the ash-heap of journalism history, like the Linotype or the flatbed press.

(Hat-tip: MediaGazer.)

UPDATE: Dude talks about the decline of journalism in a way that’s really kind of depressing, but makes a few points I like:

  • People just don’t value journalism as much as journalists do.
  • Amp up storytelling and personality, because those things are irreplaceable.
  • If you don’t go out of business, you’re a hero.
  • Are we trying to get better at something that doesn’t matter anymore?

He’s close to a point that I keep in mind: Write for the reader.

This seems so obvious to non-journalists that it feels stupid saying it so simply, but too many people in the news business completely lose sight of the fact that the reader is their customer, and is under no obligation to consume your product. You must try to write something that people actually want to read, and try to keep the readership in mind. Your boss is ultimately not the editor, but rather the guy who drops 50 cents in the newspaper box.

Update II (Smitty): Thank you, Mr. Driscoll!


29 Responses to “Grim News in WaPoVille”

  1. Adjoran
    May 7th, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    When I comment on their hilariously biased reporting, I don’t bother to critique them or Fisk them any more, I just drop one-liners like “No wonder WaPo is circling the drain” or “With circulation dropping almost as fast as revenue, aren’t you worried that a monkey with a keyboard will replace you?” and the like.

    They had the chance to become a true national Paper of Record after Pinch Sulzberger took over NYT and turned it straightaway into Pravda Lite, but instead they decided to follow the trend of spiraling into “Socialist Realism,” irrelevance, and bankruptcy.

    Good riddance to bad rubbish.  When they close their doors, they will not be missed.

  2. Bob Belvedere
    May 7th, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

    No, they most certainly will not be missed.

    And well put, Stacy.  I’ve read newspapers all my life [at least for forty-five of my fifty years] and I began to notice a trend in the mid-1970’s: the journalists and reporters were no longer writing for the average Joe, but for their snooty, college-educated selves and their friends.  It’s gotten even worse as time has gone on to where so much of it is now pure propaganda.

  3. richard mcenroe
    May 7th, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    Actually, people would value journalism they could trust.  Know where they can find any offline these days?

  4. Ric Locke
    May 7th, 2012 @ 9:03 pm

    *shrug* Law of the Universe: When you’re competing against free, you can’t charge much.

    They’re so far into the DNC talking points, Obama über alles, government-centric POV that not even supporters of those notions are willing to go to the effort of paging past the brassiere ads any more, let alone actually pay for the paper, because they can get the same thing elsewhere without the distractions.

    The only people who will truly regret the demise of the Post are the homeless, who won’t have a blanket-substitute any more. Perhaps we could have a new entitlement — folding up twenty or so sheets of newsprint, to be handed out to bums, winos, &ct. for their evening comfort whilst sleeping in the shrubbery by the museums.

  5. Wombat_socho
    May 7th, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

     Maybe this is the thinking behind reorganizing lamestream media companies as non-profits.

  6. Zilla of the Resistance
    May 7th, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

    WaPoo and the rest of the Obamamedia are writing their own obituaries. People don’t want to pay for regurgitated regime propaganda. I read dead tree newspapers cover-to-cover every day of my life until just a few years ago when the leftist garbage simply got to be too much to wade through anymore, even at so called “right leaning” papers like the NY Post. And as the hackery worsened, the prices kept going up, first 25 cents, then fifty, then 75 followed quickly by a dollar, $1.25, and now I think it’s $1.75 for a paper a the local gas station, why bother? I may be more, but I don’t bother anymore to even look except to yell at whoever will listen about whatever leftist garbage is screaming from the covers of those non-selling papers. 

  7. ThePaganTemple
    May 7th, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

    The people running the WaPo, and others, know the jig is up and don’t care. It means no more to them than it does to the papers most lowly employees-just another job to draw a paycheck from, then in a few years they retire. Why should they give a shit if the WaPo or any of the rest of them go belly up? And the way the owners look at it, they’ve got obligations, some ethical, some legal, so they’re stuck for a while. But in the meantime, why should they invest any more than they absolutely have to in a dying venture?

    And so hard-hitting journalism is now a thing of the past. They don’t need the potential for lawsuits, such as when the Cincinnati Enquirer got sued by Chiquita Banana for an undercover expose’ they did about their operations in South America.

    When that reporter asked Sarah Palin what papers she read, a good answer might have been, “I’m with the ninety nine percent who don’t.” Who honestly gives a shit about whether or not somebody reads some piece of shit propaganda rag?

  8. Liberty Jane
    May 7th, 2012 @ 11:43 pm

    Cough – they keep sending me self-addressed reply envelopes – so I keep obliging, with my letter inside. Oh, was I supposed to include a subscription?

  9. Adjoran
    May 8th, 2012 @ 1:20 am

     The closest thing would be the Wall Street Journal, but even they are infected with missionary leftists on the hard news side.

  10. Doom
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:04 am

    What is it they say about idle hands?  Tools of the devil or some such?  It might be interesting if reporters were too busy… you know… reporting… to try to blow smoke up my nether.  Yeah, I think I like your notion.  I’ll bet when actors of old, especially before women were allowed, were busy with… everything… they had little time to prattle about things of which they obviously know nothing, say, like politics?  They probably left that, and the risk of beheading, to playwrights.

    Tools of the devil indeed. 

  11. Bob Belvedere
    May 8th, 2012 @ 8:26 am


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    […] BACK IN OLD MEDIA: Stacy McCain and Forbes have “Grim News in WaPoVille:” Washington Post, it sucks to be you: The Washington Post Co. reported its first-quarter earnings on […]

  13. paulbaker
    May 8th, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    Lets make a parrallel here. 
    Branch Rickey did not sign Jackie Robinson because he wanted to break the color line.  He signed Jackie Robinson because the desire to win baseball championships eventually became greater than the desire to continue discrimination. 
    Likewise, the desire of the MSM owners to make money will eventually be greater than their desire to skew the news.  Baseball clubs that did not break the color line faded fast, and likewise this will happen once a major MSM brand reaches this epiphany.

  14. Cubanbob
    May 8th, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    If the WaPo management had any sense they would sell the paper, keep the stations and Kaplan. If I wanted to read the party line, why waste time with the WaPo, NYT and the rest of the democratic party shills when I can read Soviet Life and get to the meat of the matter without wasting time?

  15. Tim W
    May 8th, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    Here’s a nice idea, one that I even got from a “real” journalist:  Be in the truth-telling business.  Not “my version of truth” or even “The version of truth my editor likes” or the dreaded “truth as we believe most of our readers know it” (the latter the NPR motto — “Playing to our base”).  Just explain, as clearly and accurately as possible, what you know truth to be, up to and including where truth cannot yet be seen.  You’ll make money if you’re the first to determine truth, and if in fact what you said is indeed truth.  People can and do pay for truth, as it turns out.  

  16. Tim W
    May 8th, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

     I have noticed in the past few weeks that the WaPost is more reflective of the views of the Beltway Insider crowd than of the Obama administration.  This is a disctinct shift over the previous 3 years.

    people, and that

  17. schaferbr
    May 8th, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    I once wrote an email in response to an article by Gene Weinstein of the Washington Post.  I disagreed with him, but was respectful. 

    He addressed me as “Abner”.  That’s what they think of anyone who disagrees with them.  I hope they enjoy writing a newspaper for the small number of people who agree with them. 

  18. jsn2
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    WaPo financials have been bad for years. If not for income from Kaplan University the paper would be bankrupt.

  19. DH
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    This is an excellent recommendation, but I fear that too few are cognitively capable of following it. “How do I know what I claim to know? What is the actual evidence? What is the counter-evidence?” are questions that too few people in general and too few journalists in particular ask themselves. Hell, these days, too few *scientists* ask themselves these questions. (Case in point: Climate change “science”.)

  20. mark
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    people who are smart enough to read the wapo, and possess the disposable income to subscribe to a ‘luxury’ good, are also smart enough to realize that they shouldn’t be paying for a paper that is helping obama slit their own throat.

    alienating half the country is not a business model.

  21. He_Wei_Jin
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    Who would actually pay to read the Washington Post? I can get insulted for free. I don’t need to read through columns dripping with condesenscion as they push the politically correct leftist talking points of the day. If they can’t hide their bias and report the news factually let them cater to their real audience, liberals, leftists and lions. I’ll just pop in from time to time and poke them on the comments section.

  22. Tortuga
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

     In era long gone before the MSM became the DemoPinkoMedia, they understood “profit” is what pays the salaries. They are so indoctrinated now they will never lose their desire to skew news because they know in their tiny little minds that those saying their news is skewed, don’t know what they’re talking about. I admire your faith though.

  23. mark
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    the biggest news stories of my lifetime?

    point A: the complete disintegration of the european economy.

    point B:
    2009 US deficit, 1.413 trillion.
    2010 US deficit, 1.293 trillion.
    2011 US deficit, 1.300 trillion.
    2012 US deficit, 1.327 trillion.

    the wapo resists connecting these dots.  In their defense, the Julia cartoon did not address this issue.

    has their coverage changed, between presidencies?
    compare the constant reporting of troop levels in Iraq, under Bush, to the fact that most liberals have no idea how many troops are in Afghanistan, or how much more we are paying than under the bush admin.

    we live in the age of ‘bi-polar’ media.

  24. David Govett
    May 8th, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    Good news to start the day.

  25. Steve White
    May 8th, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

    A couple points not mentioned already:

    I live outside Chicago. My lovely wife insists on continuing our subscription to the Tribune. It is literally half the weight and size it was five years ago. They run every ad they can so guess what was removed? Yes, the content. Stories are fewer, shorter, and less well researched. Their own web operation provides more information and deeper stories — isn’t that a clue for their editors and publisher?

    The Tribune also insists on maintaining a mainstream-left, increasingly hard-left, orientation in both its editorial policy and its reportage. It’s not Colonel McCormick’s paper anymore. That means that a mainstream conservative like me has less reason to read the paper.

    And for that, the paper is almost twice as expensive as five years ago.

    I just need to convince my wife that she can surf the web and read the local small town paper, which (as Mr. McCain notes) is put together by a small cadre of people who actually care about the result.

  26. BizzyBlog
    May 8th, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

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