WaPo Strategy: Shrinkage
None of it surprises. Ever since classified sales essentially absented themselves from the Washington Post, this type of haircut/retrenchment/gutting was inevitable. I really liked Book World, on those rare Sundays when I had time to read it. I don't miss Sunday Source but appreciate it for what it was: An effort by a well-funded newspaper to solve a demographic problem by, hey, just launching a new section. There'll be more casualties throughout the year. (See Washington City Paper's re-org plan)
The question is whether they'll bear any rational correlation to the hyped "strategy" memo released by Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth in December. That collection of gibberish cited a goal of "Being for, and about Washington," which translated into "addressing our local readers’ core needs."
Who knows whether closing Sunday Source, Book World, and cutting back on Appreciations meets anyone's needs. But as the Post manages its shrinkage, I feel it needs a better strategy, a better set of principles that'll push it beyond this cyclical-secular one-two punch. And so I've called around a bit in search of ideas. Among the most compelling is this bit of thinking by former Postie and current Time magazine editor-at-large David Von Drehle. In his own words:
The Post's problem isn't primarily a matter of focus or organization. It's that the business model is broken. The strategy that has guided The Post for decades is to create high-quality news and entertainment content that attracts mass audiences of people who care about Washington. Then you rent their eyeballs to advertisers.
That no longer works, for two simple reasons.
1. The most lucrative form of newspaper advertising, by far, is non-competitive, in terms of both price and utility, with its online alternative. Classified is both cheaper and better when digitized. So the backbone of newspaper advertising is gone and won't ever come back.
2. Audience is migrating to digital, where mass audiences are not as valuable to advertisers as mass audiences in newspapers used to be. The price-per-eyeball has dropped dramatically–in large part because advertisers can now use technology to discover how few readers in the mass audience actually click on their ads.
I think the survivors will be the outfits that figure out how to break their mass audiences down into niche audiences that a creative new generation of ad sales people will connect to advertisers in a targeted way. This will start to drive the price-per-eyeball up, which is the key to long-term growth.