Washingtonpost.com might offer local, national home pages

Washingtonpost.com is one of thousands of newspaper sites online, but the operation is unique among the most popular news sites. Washingtonpost.com has become the de facto place for people outside the beltway to get their D.C. political news online, while serving alongside a print paper with a more limited local circulation.

At first blush, it might seem a small difference from the New York Times on the Web, which has the ability to sell print editions to the national Times around the country — and the International Herald Tribune globally. But the Washington Post print edition remains a local animal, with only the National Weekly Edition circulating broadly outside the capital.

Instead, washingtonpost.com has basically become the national and international edition of the paper while also serving a huge slice of the local constituency. And that presents some tricky problems for editors who must, for instance, weigh the home page importance of a local school bus crash with the latest in the ethics brouhaha surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

A little more than a year ago, Caroline Little was elevated to CEO and publisher at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI) — which now encompasses Newsweek.com and Slate. Her background is in media law, and she spent some time as WPNI’s general counsel and COO. She broke down the audience dilemma for washingtonpost.com’s management team.

“About 20 percent of our users come from in-market, about 80 percent of them come from national or international,” Little said. “And with the local audience, we have the highest reach of any newspaper Web site in its market — anywhere from 42 to 44 percent depending on the month. That tends to be more of a mass-market audience. And our national and international audience tends to be affluent, business decision-maker, influential audience that we reach during the workday primarily. It’s an interesting mix and presents interesting challenges to us.”

Washingtonpost.com traffic has remained relatively steady since January 2003, with peaks during the Iraq War (March 2003), U.S. election (November 2004) and Pope’s death (March 2005). Source: Nielsen/Netratings

Little said they’re even considering a dual home page — one for a local audience and one for the national and international outsiders — that’s served automatically to users depending on registration data or other geolocation methods.

On the editorial side, Little has been joined by washingtonpost.com’s new executive editor Jim Brady, who took over for Doug Feaver last January and shepherded the site through a redesign. Brady was a longtime sportswriter for the Post, and helped launch washingtonpost.com in 1996, later going to AOL, where he was executive editor of editorial operations.

While the redesign has put roll-down menus at the top of the home page, those roll-down menus aren’t activated on other pages of the site. Plus, the online-only content and blogs sometimes get highlighted on the home page and other times make a disappearing act that makes it almost impossible to find them outside of a site search. Brady says the roll-down menus will eventually come to other pages and that multimedia content will be surfaced more over time.

Because Brady and Little represent new blood in the top positions at WPNI, it seemed like a good time to check in with them. What follows is a double Q&A on the business and editorial challenges that lie ahead as the company integrates Slate into the mix and considers pumping up its award-winning multimedia offerings and a plethora of new blogs.

Online Journalism Review: Caroline, your background is in being general counsel for the company, and Cliff Sloan, now publisher of Slate, was also previously general counsel. What is it about being a lawyer that prepares you for this job?

Caroline Little: It’s an interesting question, because I think a lot of people were really surprised, ‘how did you go from general counsel to COO — that’s a big jump.’ And it is a big jump, because it’s a business role as opposed to a legal role. But in a media organization, when you’re practicing law, you’re looking at the church side and the state side.

For me, I got a really good sense on how the whole organization worked together. It was very good training for being on the business side. A lot of practicing law in-house is about problem-solving. It’s not that different than a COO role. There’s a lot more managing responsibilities in a COO role, managing people, but in terms of really understanding organizations, the legal training was great for me.

OJR: What do you think sets the washingtonpost.com site apart from the other top news sites, both as a business and editorially?

Jim Brady: Editorially, the quality of the Post’s journalism has existed for decades, more than that even. The quality of content is one thing, and the multimedia has won a shelf-full of multimedia awards recently for the stuff we’ve done with photo galleries, and with video. One videographer, Travis Fox, was in Afghanistan a few times, in Iraq a few times, Sri Lanka, and he was just at the Pope’s funeral. I think we do multimedia better than anybody.

The Live Online format, the discussions we do, we have 70 or 80 hours of programming per week. I think we do that better than everybody. I think the Live Onlines are popular because we’ve been doing them for a long time, and so we’ve built a very loyal following for some of the hosts, like Carolyn Hax, Michael Wilbon and Gene Weingarten. You can see when you read many Live Onlines that there are a lot of regulars in these discussions and a real sense of community. We also have built up a great Rolodex of public figures and experts that we can book in a matter of minutes when news breaks, which I think is also a function of how long and how well we have done this.

There are a lot of things that we want to do that will continue to set us apart. In fact, the multimedia folks won 29 of the 90 awards at the White House News Photographers Video Awards competition about six weeks ago. Our goal is to better surface that stuff to people who use this site.

CL: From an audience standpoint, we have an interesting mix of an audience. If you think about all the other top news sites, they either have a print imprint nationwide like USA Today or the New York Times, or they’re a cable outlet or TV outlet with constant cross-promotion going on. For washingtonpost.com, there’s a print newspaper that reaches this local market, yet we have none of the cable assets or other kinds of assets in-house, or a national print vehicle to cross-promote us. About 20 percent of our users come from in-market, about 80 percent of them come from national or international.

OJR: How do you serve those different audiences, when you have this small local segment and you have this huge national and international audience?

JB: One advantage we have is that there’s probably no city in the world in which more things that happen locally actually have an impact nationally and internationally. It’s because of the government’s presence here. But it’s always a challenge to balance and try to maintain on the home page every day — what is a local story that’s big enough that gets major play on the home page on a day in which Congress is in session and there’s national news and international news all day long? We obviously try to cover both … we have to play it by ear day to day.

CL: One of the things we’re looking at is essentially having two home pages: one to address a local audience, who choose to get more local editorial content; and one to address the national/international audience that contains more outside-the-beltway content without focusing on very local content that might be very important only to people in the area. We could do it from registration information or from DNS reverse lookup. We’re looking at how to execute it in the easiest way. It’s something that would help us address the audience issue.

OJR: Would you let people personalize more on the home page?

CL: In a way, it’s the beginning of personalization. We had a product called MyWashingtonpost.com and still do. We launched it a few years ago and found that the audience that chose it has been fairly loyal, but it’s been a small audience. My inclination is to take one step at a time on it. I think maybe we were before our time. We’ll start with that and go from there.

OJR: Is the site profitable, and what has the ad revenues trend been?

CL: We’ve been dramatically increasing — just like all the other news sites — in the 25 to 30 percent range year-over-year ad revenues. I mean all of WPNI [including Newsweek.com]. We don’t break out our overall income figures, but we are profitable by our own internal accouting standards, which has been consistent. And 2004 was our first year [being profitable].

OJR: Can you tell me about the deal with MSNBC and Newsweek.com? Why are you not hosting that site?

CL: Let me give you a little of the background. Newsweek had been on AOL for quite some time. Then all these deals started changing as the Internet was riding up. We were having discussions with MSNBC on a broader level, thinking of all the different assets. We were thinking about washingtonpost.com, and Newsweek online, and we sort of did a large strategic deal. MSNBC was happy to have the Newsweek content, they were happy to host it. We retain editorial control on Newsweek, we sell the advertising, and it works out that way.

OJR: Do you lose some synergy in not hosting Newsweek? Do you think there could be more synergy if you hosted it?

CL: We actually have done some stuff with Newsweek and washingtonpost.com in pointing to each other’s sites. But we tend to — even with Slate and washingtonpost.com — we want to do things that make sense for each of the editorial properties. They each have their own voice, all three of them, and we’re mindful of that. Sure, there are things that we could do, but we always view these things as whether they make sense for each individual property.

OJR: What’s the size of the staff at WPNI?

CL: It’s more or less in the 240 to 250 range. Slate will add about 30.

OJR: What’s your take on paid content? There’s been a lot of talk coming out of the folks at the New York Times, frustration at not getting value out of the content online. Where are you on those types of discussions?

CL: I feel like we’re getting tremendous value out of our audience. I am leery of charging people for content. Based on what’s happened to date, there haven’t been a lot of success stories with the exception of the Wall Street Journal, and they have a smaller audience than we do. And frankly, they’ve got more of a niche site than a general news site. Our local audience, and the audience aggregation story around our local audience, is really critical for us. It’s hard to imagine charging for content when there’s so much competition for where we play right now, that we worry about that. We also have this local/national dichotomy.

A lot of newspapers are talking about this in terms of how do you give added value to the paid subscribers of the paper, and how do you give them some benefits online that non-print subscribers might not get. Either way, you sort of back in to a paid content strategy, because how do you deal with your out-of-market users of the site who can’t get the print paper?

Of course we’re always looking at this because it’s a very popular trend, and online news sites, we’re under a lot of pressure to look at ways to grow our revenues. But my own view is that you have to be very careful not to compromise the audience story that we’re trying to build. And so many of our sites require registration, and I liken the registration from our users as a proxy for paid content, and that’s helped us maximize revenue. But there is an abandonment rate associated with that, which is not insignificant. And that doesn’t include paying money.

JB: Also, if you look at companies that are looking at a pay model right now and the viral nature of the Web today, charging for content takes you out of play in terms of blogs linking to you, takes you out of play in terms of search engines surfacing you. So once you decide to put that pay wall up, you’ve limited your audience not only to the people who directly will come to your site but your ability to get other people into your site sideways.

OJR: What about with paid archives?

CL: With archives, it’s more of a cost/benefit analysis in terms of how much do you get from charging people vs. how much do you get by putting them outside the gate and seeing how much ad impressions you can get. It gets more complicated because many of us have syndication arrangements with companies that syndicate our content, it’s a database storage issue. And frankly, those issues are more complicated than doing a cost/benefit analysis.

OJR: So you don’t want to bleed the value of the database and syndication deals by opening up your archives?

CL: That was historically the reason, but really there’s a growing trend, which I think is interesting, taking articles outside of [the pay wall] that could be something that you give to your subscribers to the newspaper. But you still run into issue of the non-subscribers to the newspaper. It’s something that we debate, but we haven’t made any changes.

OJR: How do you choose your regular online-only content?

JB: We look at areas of the site that we could use an additional column on, or areas that would be of specific interest to an online audience vs. a newspaper audience. For example, we just launched a cybersecurity blog last week called Security Fix. Obviously it’s a topic that’s going to be more interesting to people that are sitting in front of a computer rather than reading a paper. So we’ve looked for opportunities like that.

We also like to use formats that the newspaper generally doesn’t use, blogs being one of them. These help us fill the gaps between the time the paper hits the street with relevant info on the local community or local sports teams, local government, whatever it is. And for the things that are in our sweet spot. For us, the White House Briefing column by Dan Froomkin was an obvious opportunity for us to look at what other people are saying about the White House and aggregate it in one place.

OJR: What about advertising sweet spots? Do you beef up content in order to serve more ads into a certain subject?

JB: It’s always a consideration, but it never gets the deal done all by itself. Obviously if there are areas where we think there are advertising opportunities, that’s sort of a factor, but we’ve launched blogs on the Nationals [the new baseball team in Washington], and Joel Achenbach, one of our humor columnists, launched one not that long ago. For us, the intent was the quality of the content and the ability to get eyeballs to the site. Advertising is a nice piece if you can get it, but it’s not going to make the decision one way or the other.

CL: Also, the advertisers’ interests are not so disparate from where the users want to go. Advertisers want to go where the users are going. There’s usually some synergy.

OJR: Why did you kill the Filter column, which was a tech roundup column?

JB: The woman who was writing it was moving overseas, which was a large part of it. Cindy actually moved on. Secondly, we felt like, after a couple years, it was time to take stock of the column and come at the technology thing from a different direction. We launched Random Access about a month ago with Robert McMillan, which is sort of the intersection of culture and technology.

We felt like that’s where things were headed, which is not about what all the tech companies were doing — there’s a lot of columns out there that cover that. It was better for us to look at how technology is changing our lives on a day-to-day basis. It was more of a sweet spot for us, in terms of looking at what had done well with Cindy’s column, and the things that had done well had more of a consumer focus. Technology issues as opposed to the more IT hardware aspects of it.

OJR: You’re talking about launching blogs, but when I go through the navigation of the site I don’t see anything that says “blogs.” Could that present confusion for some people who are trying to find the Washington Post’s blogs?

JB: There are a lot of things that make blogs distinct as a content type, but I don’t know about aggregating a lot of blogs in one place, because the content of the blogs are so wildly different. You have a humor columnist, you have a Washington Nationals blog, you have cybersecurity. To me, it would be the same as aggregating all of our Notebooks in one place. Put our NFL Notebook with our Maryland Government Notebook.

To me, blogging is a format or a way of presenting information, and putting them all in one place to me doesn’t necessarily make sense. We want to do more of them, and the format appeals to us, which is why we launched so many recently. But I guess our internal debate has always been why do we need to put them all in one place on the site when they have very little in common, other than the format in which they’re presented?

OJR: Tell me about the Slate integration and how that’s going. What are your plans for more integration?

JB: We started a little bit. If you go to Slate, there’s a box on the bottom right with headlines of the day from washingtonpost.com. Within a couple of weeks, we’re going to have one with a lot of our articles [on washingtonpost.com] that will be that day’s top feature from Slate. Jacob [Weisberg, Slate editor] and I talk a lot about what we see as the opportunities for us to cross-link. As we look at our site to build a more robust opinion and commentary area, there will be lots of opportunities to work with Jacob.

OJR: You have a lot of human aggregated features, such as White House Briefing and Howard Kurtz’s Media Notes, and Slate has some as well with Today’s Papers and other aggregations. How do you see them playing out vs. Google and Yahoo and other more automated aggregations?

JB: From a personal standpoint, I think the human side of it is certainly more appealing. It provides context and puts a human being in between the eventual column and the content that’s coming through it, so you have someone who has experience covering politics or the White House and have that person read all these things that are coming out of different sources. Those columns are extremely popular on our site, which would suggest that a lot of people using the Web would prefer to have the human intervention as well.

OJR: The Washington Post ran a story about the future of newspapers, looking at dying print circulation and how newspapers might cope with the growing popularity of the Internet. How was the story received within your organization?

JB: I don’t think it was viewed with great surprise. That similar story had been written by a number of other people in previous months as well. I don’t think there was anything in there that was completely earth-shattering. We’re all pretty close to the business and understand the reality of it today. I don’t think there was a cataclysmic reaction on either side of the river.

CL: We all see change in the media happening. I think the days are gone when people looked at these as balkanized organizations; we’re just one brand we care very deeply about. We’re all working very hard to figure out how we can continue to have people read valuable content from the Washington Post brand and Newsweek brand and that’s how we view it.

OJR: What do you think about the trend in newspaper sites adding citizen journalism, where people contribute photos and stories? Would you consider doing that?

JB: I think citizen publishing is a very interesting area, and one we’d like to explore in places where it makes sense. I don’t know that we’re ready to open the doors for anyone to publish anything on the site, but there are certainly some areas — like local community news — where it makes a ton of sense. Clearly, our core value is that the source of any information be reliable. Nevertheless, the activity in the hyperlocal space is something we’re watching closely.

OJR: You have powerful multimedia content and photos, yet it seems underplayed on the front page and in navigation. Do you have plans to highlight it more in some way?

JB: Yes, we do. You’re right, we’ve won shelves full of awards for our multimedia content, and we need to make it more obvious to our readers. The recent Online Publishers Association study on online video showed that the biggest reason people don’t consume online video is because they don’t know it’s there. I think we have that problem.

We are looking to address this by building some inline video players with playlist capability and by looking into ways to distribute our multimedia content through other channels. In addition, there are times and days during the week where usage of multimedia is stronger, and we need to highlight that content better during those times.

OJR: How important is wireless content to you, and how do you monetize that?

JB: I think we’re in the same place as everyone else right now, which is that we’re exploring options but still can’t figure out what the killer app is that would drive user interest and revenue. A lot of what drives usage of wireless devices — ringtones, games, etc. — are not the sweet spots of news organizations. Maybe down the road, they’ll have to be.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.