Posted on | May 7, 2012 | 29 Comments
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.
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!