News

How the Washington Post Beat the New York Times Online

How the <em>Washington Post</em> Beat the <em>New York Times</em> Online
Illustration by Ryan Snook.

The New York Times recently surveyed its online subscribers about their other regular sources of news: Did they visit BBCNews.com? The Drudge Report? Or did they stay closer to home and tap “regional newspaper sites” like Washingtonpost.com?

The Times may wish to update how it refers to the Washington Post. In October, according to the digital-measurement firm comScore, the Post had more online readers than the Times.

Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013, he’s made clear that he wants the paper, which its former owners, the Graham family, saw as mainly a hometown read, to replace the Times as the nation’s—and perhaps the English-speaking world’s—newspaper. To the extent that the Grahams competed nationally, it was via blue-chip coverage aimed at East Coast elites—politics, mostly. From Seattle, where Bezos schemes every day to dominate digital commerce, it looks more like total war: claiming as many readers as the Post can.

The Bezos-era Post began by wiring up new routes to readers. Anyone who owns a Kindle or signs up for Amazon Prime already gets six months of the Post’s digital edition for free; these readers are rolled into regular subscribers for a few bucks more a month. The Post disperses content via mobile apps and piggybacks onto local newspapers, letting subscribers to the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Dallas Morning News skate past the Post’s pay wall gratis. The deals give smaller papers the national and international coverage few can afford these days and boosts the digital audience the Post sells to advertisers.

This kind of content-sharing is as old as the internet. Bezos—worth around $50 billion by most estimates—has given Post executive editor Marty Baron the budget to add dozens of reporters as well as new online products such as Morning Mix, a bright update on national and international topics, weaponized for search engines and social media. “In order to be national, we have to be digital,” says Baron.

Regular Post readers can’t help but notice a budding crop of killer headlines of late—”Here’s what happened when a family of 7 started sleeping in the same bed,” a recent one read—topping local-interest stories with datelines far from the Beltway. They’re the work of a jump team of journalists called the Morning Mix who both aggregate (journalese for writing about other news organizations’ stories) and report out clicky stories they’ve spotted elsewhere. Their shift officially runs from 10 PM to 6 AM but usually requires at least a couple hours of preparatory surfing.

Opinion-writing has also been given a webby update. PostEverything, launched last May, fills the digital air with edgy pieces that seek amens and hate-clicks with equal fervor: “I’m a responsible gun owner, so I destroyed my gun,” meet “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married.” (After an outcry, it softened the line.)

“We’re coming to understand,” Baron says, “that the web is a distinct medium that calls for its own storytelling techniques, distinct from what you would find in newspapers, television, or radio.”

Internet-friendly edge has a dim history at the Post. Washingtonpost.com was once squirreled away in Arlington and pushed out edgy, voicey, nationally focused content, much to the chagrin of the paper’s newsroom, which was busy pursuing the Graham family’s vision of the Post as a paper “for and about Washington.” Both teams jostled for space on the home page, which still seemed as important as landing on A1.

But now readers come from other routes–search, social media, “platforms” like Snapchat. And the Post‘s org chart reflects this diffusion: Higher-metabolism web journalists have been integrated into the rest of the desks. While stories designed to hook national readers often stick out for their remote dateline, high drama, or, simply, silliness—for example, the six-byline coverage of rampaging llamas in Arizona—they’re well reported and well written enough to keep the Post brand intact. But there’s always a risk of squandering the paper’s reputation, especially because the Post is letting its llamas loose just as competitors like Politico and the Huffington Post have begun to emphasize quality over quantity.

Post Nation, a breaking-news blog, is frequently the starting point for stories that spread throughout the organization. And a new “general-assignment team” is designed to swoop into whichever newsroom fiefdom needs the help. “One of the reasons we do not have a blog is by design,” says the team’s editor, J. Freedom du Lac. “We serve the room.”

That flow can be reversed: du Lac’s staff was first on last year’s Ebola outbreak, then handled daily bulletins so that health reporters could focus on stories such as how international health organizations failed to stop the epidemic.

The balm that makes this cultural change work for the Post’s famously territorial staff—a decade ago, there were skirmishes over whether a digital writer covering the White House could legitimately write a feature slugged “White House Briefing”—is that it’s paying off. Before the big win in October, the Post came within sniffing distance of the Times, with nearly 60 million unique domestic visitors in September.

The next battleground seems to be the 2016 presidential election, for which the Post has assembled a politics team so big that it’s even covering Jim Gilmore’s presidential run. The national attention to politics, a Post sweet spot, could well help catalyze the paper’s web initiatives into a crackling, bouncing, repeat-New York Times-crushing whole.

The question for faithful readers is: Will there be any Washington left in the Post? Long ago, advertisers bought ads in the paper to try to reach the area’s most affluent, educated, and powerful people. The new strategy is predicated on the assumption that most readers graze indiscriminately on far-flung feeds to their mobile devices. A story from BangShowbiz.com has as much chance of being read in this town as one from a 138-year-old newspaper on 15th Street—or rather Franklin Square, where the Post is relocating this month. (Sometimes you can even read BangShowbiz stories on the Post‘s site!)

Facing this reality, the Post can’t rely on local readers for its survival any more than its competitors can. The Times recently announced an “express team” charged with covering “news that readers are searching for and talking about online.”

Indeed, Baron says, the Post’s ambitions go beyond poaching the Gray Lady’s readership. “It’s not specifically a competition with the Times, but obviously they’re a national publication and we intend to be a national news organization as well,” he says. “So certainly we’re playing in each other’s space. But the space is bigger than the Times.

Meaning?

“There are many other readers out there,” Baron says. “Not everybody reads the Times.

Senior editor Andrew Beaujon can be reached at abeaujon@washingtonian.com or on Twitter at @abeaujon.

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Don’t miss a new restaurant again: Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.


Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously the news editor and lead media reporter for the Poynter Institute, arts editor for the now completely vanished TBD.com, and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.