Digital Revenue Dies in Drumpfness
How the Washington Post tripped over the Trump trap (and the New York Times did not)
When Wordle was for sale earlier this year, I figured the buyer would be the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. My reasoning was that the Times already had a thriving games business — one that gives subscribers a reason to visit the newspaper’s site every day, regardless of what’s in the news — and the Times’ main competitors might envy that business and want to replicate it. And what better foundation for a rival games offering than Wordle, which was drawing hundreds of thousands of players a day as of January?
You know what happened next: the Times acquired Wordle for a price in “the low-seven figures.”
I thought about this when I read today’s Times story about financial difficulties at the Washington Post, which has lost subscribers and advertising revenue since Donald Trump lost office and is on pace to lose money this year, after several profitable years. That distinguishes the paper from both the Times and the Journal, which have continued to gain paying subscribers in the post-Trump era.
According to the Times, the Post is considering layoffs and publisher Fred Ryan thinks there are substantial numbers of low performers in the newsroom who should be managed out — a plausible idea I’ll get to in a moment. I want to talk first about the strategic decisions the Post made that cemented its dependency on Donald Trump’s constant chumming of the news cycle — and the smarter ones the Times made to become more resilient.
What is The New York Times? Like the Washington Post, it’s one of the premier outlets for American political coverage. And as with the Post, a lot of liberal news consumers signed up to pay for the Times during the Trump era because their appetite for news rose and because paying for adversarial media felt like an act of “resistance.”
But the Times, where I was a correspondent from 2014 to 2016, is also a lot of other things. It is a leading food and cooking publication. It owns one of the top product review websites, Wirecutter. It’s a major producer of successful podcasts. It has a market-leading team that produces graphics, interactives and visualizations — that team’s work is deployed to showcase the Times’ political and investigative reporting, yes, but it also is a driver of the Times’ general interest offerings, like the dialect quiz or this fun explanation of how “songs of the summer” came to sound so similar to each other. And the Times has the New York Times Crossword, helmed for decades by Will Shortz, as the flagship of its daily games offering.
None of those businesses, with the partial exception of the podcast business, is dependent on liberal political agita about Donald Trump. Most of them aren’t even dependent on high levels of interest in news. And even in the core news report, while there are several areas of coverage where the Times and the Post are comparable, it’s easy to identify areas remote from politics where the Times is clearly stronger — notably arts and business. It’s hard to think of any area where the Post clearly leads the Times.1
During the Trump era, the Post’s lack of diversification wasn’t a huge problem — politics was big business, liberal politics was really big business, and “Democracy Dies in Darkness” spoke to customers who wanted to stand up to Trump. Indeed, the Times reports the Post had once been planning to adjust its business for a drop in reader interest in politics — the team working on the strategy for this called it “Operation Skyfall” — but those plans were shelved in 2016 when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidential election and a pivot became unnecessary. But eventually the sky did fall, and the Times was ready for a post-Trump era in a way the Post wasn’t — it’s likely a lot of dual subscribers realized they could get all the political coverage they needed from one of the papers, and that the non-politics offerings from the Times were way more compelling than the Post’s.
So what should the Post do? I don’t think it has the option to become a specialist publication like the Journal or Politico.2 But it can diversify its business so it is like the Times not just in tone, but also in scope.
The Times article says the Post has been looking at acquisitions.3 If I ran the Post, and I had a budget to buy other companies, my first choice would be to buy a cooking publisher with a monetizable recipe archive — maybe America’s Test Kitchen, or maybe Conde Nast’s food magazine business. (Food is an especially logical core competency for a media company owned by Jeff Bezos because of the obvious cross-promotion opportunities with Whole Foods, Amazon.com, and Amazon Prime Video.) I would get into the games business. And more broadly, I would try to think like the Times has — about being a destination for information, not just news, which makes it possible to build a brand that might have a political valence but isn’t just about politics.4
Finally, a note on staffing.
Here’s what the Times reports about the possibility of job cuts at the Post:
Fred Ryan, the chief executive and publisher, in recent weeks has floated with newsroom leaders the possibility of cutting 100 positions, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions. The cuts, if they happen, could come through hiring freezes for open jobs or other ways. The newsroom now has about 1,000 people…
He has expressed his belief to members of his leadership team that there were numerous low performers in the newsroom who needed to be managed out…
Mr. Ryan has expressed annoyance with senior newsroom leaders at what he sees as a lack of productivity by some journalists at the paper. Last fall, he asked for the company’s chief information officer to pull records on which days employees held videoconference meetings, as a way to judge production levels, and found that fewer meetings occurred on Fridays, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.
He has also grown increasingly frustrated that some Post staff members are still not in the office at least three days a week, the company’s policy.
In recent weeks, Mr. Ryan asked for disciplinary letters to be drafted and sent to employees who had not made any appearance in the office this year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. He ultimately decided that the letters should not be sent, and that the people should be called instead.
If these paragraphs accurately describe Fred Ryan’s thinking, then he seems to be conflating two issues.
As I assume is the case with most of you, I have worked in well managed organizations and poorly managed organizations over the course of my career, and one key factor that differentiates the two is that poorly managed organizations (at least in the media space) tend not to fire or otherwise manage out low-performing staff.5 Having observed other managerial failures at the Post from the outside (I’ve never worked there) it would not surprise me in the least if it’s possible to identify dozens of staff who could be cut with little impact to the quality of the news report.
But the thing about these low performers is that middle managers almost always already know who they are. And especially at a newspaper, it’s not that hard to tell who’s producing and who isn’t. It’s not as simple as looking at how many words per week someone is filing, but if you have a writer who’s producing very little copy, there is generally either an identifiable reason that writer is highly valuable — does she do months-long investigations that break huge news and win awards? — or there isn’t.
And that’s what makes Ryan’s apparent fixation on videoconference meeting schedules and badge scans pretty odd.
There are valid reasons you might want workers in the office (collaboration, supervision, etc.) and also valid reasons not to force them back (competitors are more flexible, and if you aren’t, some strong performers will quit). But for evaluating the performance of individual employees, you can look directly at their actual work, rather than relying on their physical presence in the office as a proxy.
So the whole thing kind of seems like the worst of both worlds, from a personnel-management perspective: antagonizing the staff by scolding them over their physical presence, while failing to actually weed out the staff whose performance is sub-par. Post managers got a painful lesson earlier this year on the cost of being gun-shy on staff matters, and shouldn’t repeat it — if they have a substantial number of specific employees they know they don’t want or need, that would be best addressed with those employees directly rather than with staff-wide measures.
The Times also has much better photography than any other news outlet in the US — it’s one of the two things I miss most about working there, the other one being that everyone returned my phone calls.
As I noted at the top, the Wall Street Journal has been adding subscribers since Trump left office. I have opinions about what the Journal is doing right, but I don’t think the Journal’s success provides a lot of lessons for the Post, which can’t become a specialized publication like the Journal is.
The Journal, as America’s premier business newspaper, charges a much higher subscription rate than the Times or the Post, which it can command because its readership is so upscale, and because many subscribers treat the paper as a business expense or feel they need its contents for investing. (The Journal’s regular price is $39 per month, while the Times is $17 every four weeks and the Post is $10 every four weeks.) The Journal’s news pages have avoided adopting the strident liberal tone that has so often pervaded political coverage at the Times, the Post, and elsewhere during the Trump era. That has helped preserve the Journal’s credibility with a wider swathe of readers, but it was also possible because the Journal never needed to chase resistance subscriber bucks to make its business model work.
There was a sort of odd episode at the Journal over the last few years where the paper brought in Louise Story, a seasoned journalist who had been involved in developing the 2014 Innovation Report that proposed ultimately successful business strategy changes at the Times, to chart a future vision for the Journal, aimed at growing the paid subscriber base and attracting younger and more diverse readers. Story’s team at the Journal ended up producing a report that essentially encouraged the Journal to become more like the Times, with more general interest news coverage on topics that would appeal to young, progressive readers, such as climate change and income inequality, and more of a focus on race and gender as story subjects. The Journal wisely rejected this suggestion to become less differentiated from its competitors — not without some drama, including the internal report leaking to BuzzFeed News after Journal management apparently decided not to do much with it — but the report basically describes what’s actually being done at most non-business news publications in the US, including the Post. Unfortunately, none of them does it quite as well as the Times does, or with the associated suite of excellent non-news products that the Times has.
Oddly, it cites the Associated Press and the Guardian as potential targets — as Sewell Chan rightly notes, those entities both have ownership structures that make them pretty clearly not for sale.
Relatedly, I would drop the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” — the first step to becoming more than just a #resistance publication is taking that self-important dreck out of your goddamned web header.
A rigorous and unsentimental approach to doing so is a reason that Insider, where I worked on and off from 2013 to 2021, thrived through so many digital media business cycles without ever needing a layoff round.