Embracing challenges: Transformation and optimism at The Washington Post

Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Barton, a Knight Foundation trustee, delivered the following keynote speech at the American Society of News Editors-Associated Press Media Editors-Associated Press Photo Managers News Leadership Conference on Sept. 13, 2016. The remarks have been lightly edited for publication. 

Thank you for inviting me to speak. With all the speaking I’ve being doing over the last year, I fear that I’ve run out of things to say – and I’m at risk of tiring of my own voice.

But I’ll try to take my remarks in a somewhat different and more specific direction.

Pam Fine asked me to describe the transformation at The Washington Post since it was purchased in October 2013, by Jeff Bezos.

I’m going to try to synthesize what has transpired, and then my hope is that you’ll ask questions so that I can address whatever is specifically on your minds.

In preparing these remarks, I was thinking back to one of our earliest meetings with Jeff after he acquired The Post.

A small group of senior Post executives had finished a day of discussions with him in Seattle, and he had invited us to a nice dinner at a restaurant overlooking Lake Union.

As we were being served drinks, a brilliant rainbow appeared over the lake. We ran over to look – and to take photos. And then a second rainbow appeared. It was a double rainbow.

We all declared that this was a good sign for The Post and Jeff’s ownership. That optimism has turned out to be justified.

We were proud last year when Fast Company positioned The Post at No. 1 on its list of the most innovative media companies in the world. And then later in the year, Digiday declared The Post the “most innovative publisher” of 2015.

As you may know, we did a little boasting when The Post surpassed The New York Times in U.S. monthly unique visitors last year. And while, after a few months, we fell back behind The Times, we’re still neck and neck with them on traffic.

Then in July, we along with The New York Times surpassed both BuzzFeed and Huffington Post in monthly digital unique visitors. The Post reached 82.3 million uniques. Ken Doctor of Newsonomics, writing in Politico, called this “revenge of the ‘legacy’ sector,” noting that the legacy media organizations of The Post, The Times and CNN had all “gotten a lot smarter about how to drive audience, experimenting with numerous third-party platforms and improving their own products.”

And naturally, we’re especially proud that we’ve been able to achieve those digital gains while also delivering the highest-quality journalism. The Post has won two Pulitzers that can be attributed to the years that Jeff has owned us, once for national reporting when we exposed systemic security failures by the Secret Service and again this year for a detailed documentation and analysis of fatal police shootings.

As a company, we have traveled far. We also have traveled fast. Our goals have been two-fold: (1) make rapid digital progress, and (2) deliver ambitious journalism.

We believe we can do both. We believe we have done both.

Ken Doctor and Josh Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, recently discussed with public radio in Los Angeles how The Post had sought to deliver “journalism working at different levels” – content that is “of the voice of the web” and also authoritative, ambitious stories. Using the “whole toolbox” of story forms available to us, as Ken put it.

I think that’s a correct assessment, as was Ken’s observation that we are seeking to achieve “high journalism standards but in a much more mass way.”

We can be smart while also being populist and plain-spoken. We don’t have to be stuffy. We can deal in serious subjects without taking ourselves so seriously. And we can be contemporary and even fun in the style of our storytelling while remaining faithful to our traditions and our values and our mission. Jeff was right when he admonished us in the early days: “Don’t be boring.”

Jeff’s acquisition of The Post was announced six months after I arrived in Washington from The Boston Globe. Within three months – in October 2013, the deal closed. A unit of a public company became private, owned 100 percent by someone who had disrupted retailing, built one of the fast-growing companies in the world, and in the process made himself one of the world’s wealthiest people.

Senior executives like me were told we would be kept on. But something was missing from the words of reassurance: No one said for how long.

So I did not know whether this acquisition would be good for me. But I did feel it would be good for The Post. And I firmly believe it has been.

Everyone at The Post and throughout our profession revered the Graham family, of course. They had built The Washington Post brand. They had been decades-long, passionate advocates of top-notch, brave, and often lyrical journalism. The Post’s coverage had changed the course of American history. They cared deeply about the company and its people. Don Graham seemed to know absolutely everyone’s name. Although The Post was a company with shares held by the public, it was a family company by any other measure.

No one ever thought the Graham family would ever sell The Post. After the announcement, the staff was struggling to imagine the place without them.

But, as Don said at the time of the sale, he and other executives were running out of ideas for turning around The Post.

Don felt we needed someone who could bring ideas and expertise that we ourselves did not possess. In shopping The Post, he didn’t put it up for auction. Instead, he went hunting for someone who could bring the qualities he felt we needed most.

In Jeff, we were getting an owner who was expert in technology. We also got someone who, importantly, was savvy about consumer behavior. He was someone who liked to grow companies, not shrink them. He was famous for investing for the long term. He was one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.

He brought financial capital. We all know that. But at least as important, he brought intellectual capital. I don’t believe we would have seen success without both intellectual and financial capital.

From the very start, Jeff reoriented the strategy for The Post. We would no longer be a news organization focused primarily on the Washington metropolitan region.

Our approach previously had been summarized in one phrase – “for and about Washington.”

But Jeff felt we should be national and international, and that we needed to get big fast.

The internet has deprived our industry of many things. Among them, of course, the security of an industry that was expensive to enter because it required paper, ink, presses and trucks – meaning protection for our business model and its sources of revenue. But, as Jeff noted, the internet also has given us some gifts – in particular the opportunity to achieve wide distribution at virtually no cost.

If we were hurt because the internet had taken so much from us, why shouldn’t we seize the benefits the internet had to offer? Why shouldn’t we capitalize on the opportunity for wide distribution?

Fortunately, too, we had a brand that was known nationwide and internationally. And we had a name that included the nation’s capital, “Washington,” meaning it could be leveraged into products of national and global scale.

Jeff spoke immediately about the need for us to experiment – to try a lot of different things, to move quickly, and to measure constantly, and to adapt to what we were learning.

At the same time, he promised to give us “runway” – in other words, time to let experiments play out. They didn’t have to deliver immediate results. They did have to show promise.

And they would require us to do things that were unconventional and at times uncomfortable.

One fundamental shift we had to make was in our attitude toward aggregation – that is, relying on other people’s reporting as one foundation for our stories – not the only one, but certainly one foundation – rather than mandating that all reporting needed to be carried out by our own reporters.

This meant that we could write stories more quickly. Also, of course, it required us to be especially careful – because we could only rely on publications that had a history of reliability and high standards. Naturally, it meant we had to credit originating publications.

Aggregation represented a significant course adjustment in our newsroom. It was accompanied by some anxiety, but it went more smoothly than I anticipated. And it became a key element of many new initiatives.

Let me run through some of those initiatives:

We created an overnight staff that scanned the web for interesting stories, using the reporting of others and adding its own – and then writing in a distinct, looser and conversational style that works especially well on the web. It also looked for gaps in our own reporting for the next day’s paper and seized on those opportunities. This is the Morning Mix team.

We introduced many new blogs covering specialized areas – like the environment, science, military affairs, the culture of the internet, parenting, spiritual life, pop culture, the animal world, crime, and many other subjects.

Extra resources were provided for pre-existing news-department blogs that already had been highly successful, including ones that focused on politics, economics, public policy and world affairs.

We launched PostEverything, a venue for essays – often personal narratives – written in the moment. This was not to be a place for just public policy experts and the like. It expands the conversation to people in every field and to those willing to open up about their own life experiences.

We saw what Huffington Post had done with outside contributors and thought to ourselves that we could do it better.

Editors search for people who might write. They help them think through and craft their pieces. It has been a hit. One of our most popular came with this headline: “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps.” More recently, after Omar Mateen went on a killing spree at a gay bar in Orlando, we carried a piece with the headline: “I reported Omar Mateen to the FBI. Trump is wrong that Muslims don’t do our part.” It was written by a Muslim, of course.

The Post’s opinion section more fully embraced the internet. New opinion bloggers did not wait until a column was scheduled for the newspaper but weighed in with their viewpoints immediately, when public interest was at its peak.

We created a general-assignment news team that worked during daytime hours, starting very early. It would quickly cover breaking news in any subject area when necessary but, for the most part, it would search for stories that were beginning to generate conversation in social media or that had gone unnoticed by our staff or had gone underdeveloped by smaller, more local news organizations. Most recently, it has been staffed to work the weekends.

We modeled what we believed was the ideal flow for publishing stories, mandating that every department publish earlier in the day when Internet readership was at its highest. This marked a sharp shift away from typical schedules of a newspaper, where most stories are delivered during the evening hours.

We paid very close to attention to our headlines. They could not be stilted or stuff or clumsy like so much newspaper headlinese. Of course they needed to be accurate and responsible. But they had to be written in plain and snappy and alluring language. They needed to succeed in the world of social media. And let me say this: This is not clickbait. It’s just good headline writing. Headlines that get people to read a story.

We have taken other measures, too.

We have added to our news team focused on audience engagement, the people who specialize in how to disseminate our work through social media and how to use social media in our own reporting. We are concentrating not just on Facebook and Twitter but on other less-obvious corners of social media, too, and on chat apps.

We have markedly improved our email newsletters – how they are curated, how they are designed, when they are sent.

They can be a major source of traffic – and, by the way, they circumvent intermediaries like Facebook, Twitter and Google and allow us to reach readers directly.

We also have focused on the speed of our news alerts, closely measuring to see how we compare with our competitors and setting the goal of being first on every news alert we send.

Metrics like those we apply to news alerts are very much a part of our news operation.

For example, early on we began to measure how readers responded to our stories versus those of our competitors. Readers were regularly asked to participate in an online survey. They were presented with headlines and summaries of top stories from The Post and from key competitors. The presentations were anonymized: You couldn’t tell whose stories you were looking at. Readers were asked how interested they were in the stories they were looking at, whether they were inclined to read them. Every month, we were compared to our competitors. I’m happy to say we performed well, although it’s still unclear what lessons we can draw from those comparisons, how it might affect what we do in the future.

Among the many moves we have made at The Post is to foster a tight working relationship between the newsroom and the engineering department. Dozens of engineers sit in our newsroom, working closely with our journalists.

They help us tell stories in new ways, using the web’s capacity for interactivity. They work to assure that stories that might interest readers find their way to their eyeballs – automatically, with recommendations generated by algorithms developed by in-house big-data specialists.

They have designed a tool that allows us to test multiple headlines and presentations all at the same time; when one works best, it automatically becomes the approach that reaches the vast majority of our readers.

When Jeff Bezos acquired The Post, the engineers’ very first task was to dramatically improve the speed of our site, the speed at which pages load. Readers are notoriously impatient. An additional second can cause them to go elsewhere. 0ur engineers succeeded to an astonishing degree. It was an essential first step toward making gains on other fronts.

This past week, The Post announced a “lightning-fast” mobile website, which we plan to gradually roll out this year. As our chief technology officer, Shailesh Prakash, has said, “Our goal was to create the fastest mobile news site possible.” This initiative relies on Progressive Web App technology developed by Google. The idea is to have web pages load in under a second, as opposed to the previous three seconds.

Jeff Bezos has frequently emphasized how important speed is to users. A second’s delay can cause many to abandon us.

All of us in this field are working harder. Now we have to work smarter. And technology is key.

If we do not lead on technology, we will be forced to follow. We have been following for too long. And if this industry follows, it will be left behind. We can’t let that happen.

That is why The Post is evolving into a technology company even as it remains a journalism company. What does that mean? At the most basic level, as our CTO likes to point out, it means that technologists are first-class citizens in our news organizations. They are not there merely to provide support to journalists or the ad department.

But he would say it means something much more consequential: That our engineers serve as a creative force that drives growth.

|||

As we sought to build our presence nationally and internationally, we concluded that it would not be efficient to rebuild a traditional network of staff correspondents around the country.

So, working with the engineering department, we built something called the “Washington Post Talent Network,” an online freelance network.

There are many highly talented, highly experienced and highly motivated journalists who are unemployed, underemployed or prematurely retired. They can freelance for us. And many who retired on a normal schedule are still eager to work. They can freelance for us. And many employed journalists have the time and freedom to do outside work. They can freelance for us.

The Washington Post Talent Network gives us access to talented, experienced reporters, photographers and videographers around the United States – and now the world.

The system is highly automated. Journalists can upload their LinkedIn profiles and stories for us to evaluate as part of our approval process. With keywords they indicate the type of journalism they like to practice and their areas of specialty. Of course, we have all their contact information and can locate them geographically on a map.

With an online form, they can pitch stories to us – for the newspaper, for our blogs, for any portion of our website – and we can deploy these journalists quickly when news breaks anywhere in the country – and now, many places in the world.

The payment process is prompt and easy. Before freelancers are paid, assigning editors are required to rate the work of the freelancer. Because this system is online, the names of freelancers, their ratings, their areas of interest, their previous work for us, and their contact and location information are available to everyone in the newsroom. No one needs to run around the newsroom asking if someone knows a good freelancer, only to watch an editor rummage through a desk drawer for a piece of paper that contains out-of-date contact information.

We now have well more than 2,000 journalists worldwide in The Washington Post Talent Network. It has helped us when there have been mass shootings in the United States and when there are terrorist attacks overseas. We not only have people on location to respond to news, but we have people around the United States and around the world looking for interesting stories to propose to us for the web and for print.

|||

I hope you get the overall picture here. We are experimenting feverishly to drive traffic, deepen reader engagement, and foster loyalty. All of that leads ultimately to more subscriptions, another primary goal of ours.

Today we should recognize, once and for all, that the internet constitutes an entirely new medium.

This new medium calls for its own forms of storytelling, just as radio has its own, as television has its own.

And it may turn out that mobile represents a new medium of its own – with forms of storytelling that are distinct from what you encounter while browsing the internet on a desktop or a laptop.

We’re seeing this happen already. Novel, innovative forms of storytelling are being introduced: Stories that are more conversational, more accessible, looser in style. Stories that deploy all the tools now available to us – video, audio, social media, interactive graphics, animations, original documents, annotations of documents, you name it.

With this new medium, the voice and personality of the writer is often more evident. Readers want that connection to the writer. It feels more authentic. It is more authentic.

The direction of our profession should now be obvious. Yet many journalists still resist what the future demands.

They feel the pull of the past. They are fond of how things were. Comfortable with it.

I went through my own period of mourning for what I thought was being lost amid all the change. It was hard not to. And yet, mourning must come to an end at some point. We must move on. That is true when we mourn the loss of a close relative or a close friend. It is true as well in our profession.

The truth is, it is futile – counterproductive  – to resist the inevitable changes in our profession.

We can’t just adapt to this dramatic change. We have to embrace it.

Even as we do all that, we have to remember what doesn’t change, and that is our mission.

That begins with informing our communities and our country – what all of you do so well and with unwavering determination – because trustworthy information is essential to civil society and to a healthy democracy. As a profession, our commitment is to ascertaining the truth and a process of verification.

There’s a quote from Jeff Bezos on one of the glass partitions in our new D.C. offices. I was heartened to see it there when we moved in. Because it makes clear that we do ourselves no favors if we only think about business and forget about mission.

If we really want to succeed, we have to recognize that the mission and the business are inseparable, interdependent.

Jeff’s quote goes like this:

I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.

All true journalists have something meaningful that motivates them. It goes to the heart of who we are. This is sometimes called our brand. It is more fittingly described as our soul. And it is our compass. If we lose it, we lose ourselves.

At the center of our mission, in my view, is journalism that holds powerful institutions and powerful individuals accountable.

That is why I am so glad that the movie “Spotlight,” against all odds, was made – and, against all odds, won the Oscar for best picture.

I hope the movie and the Boston Globe investigation that inspired it remind the public that, despite its flaws, the press is necessary.

I hope that “Spotlight” helps people understand why we cannot afford to lose investigative reporting, particularly at the local level where it is most imperiled.

I hope it drives home what is required to do investigative journalism right.

I hope it causes owners, publishers, and editors -- no matter the tumultuous change, no matter the financial challenges – to rededicate themselves to accountability journalism.

I hope it causes all of us to listen more closely to those who have fallen to the margins of our society or been pushed there. At times, people may sound crazy – and some are. But as my former Globe colleague Sacha Pfeiffer has said, some are driven crazy by what has been done to them.

They can have something very powerful to say. If we listen more closely, we may hear it and be moved to do some digging.

Finally, I hope that the movie “Spotlight” inspires a new generation of journalists to see deep investigations of the powerful as the fulfillment of our highest purpose.

The Globe’s investigation led to a public good. Children were made more safe. A powerful institution and powerful individuals were forced to answer for grave wrongdoing. And they continue to be held accountable, appropriately so – because there is more to be done.

It’s been gratifying that The Post’s new owner feels that sense of mission, too. Notwithstanding all the speculation I’ve heard and read about some ulterior motive for purchasing The Post, I’ve seen nothing of the sort. Instead, I’ve heard him speak often – and with passion and eloquence – about the purpose of an organization like ours.

Over the last two and a half years, I had heard Jeff discuss the thinking he went through as he made the decision to acquire The Post. But I had not heard him explain why, given all the other investment options available to him, he had even bothered with this particular one.

In May, I was able to ask him that directly. The Post held a conference on people who were transforming industries. Jeff agreed to attend, and I was designated by our conference organizers as his interviewer. Lucky me.

So, I asked him: “Why bother?”

“Why bother?” he said. “You don’t choose your particular passion. And when things catch your eye, it’s not necessarily obvious to you what it is – and how it got into you probably somewhere as a child.”

And then he spoke of spending summers, from age 4 to 16, with his grandfather on his ranch in south Texas. When they watched television together, he said, “we sat on the living room floor. He would always watch TV laying on the living room floor. And we watched the Watergate hearings … for a long time. He was riveted by them.

“And you know, I’ve always believed … and I think a lot of us believe that democracy dies in darkness, that certain institutions have a very important role in making sure that there is light.

“And I think The Washington Post has a seat – an important seat to do that because we happen to be located here in the capital city of the United States of America. And so … that’s a part of it.”

In that same interview, I asked Jeff to address a series of comments by Donald Trump, who had accused Jeff of orchestrating The Washington Post’s coverage of him and, because our coverage didn’t meet with his approval,  suggested possible retribution against Amazon as a result.

Here’s what Jeff had to say about that:

“We want a society where any of us, any individual in this country, any institution in this country – if they choose to – can scrutinize, examine and criticize an elected official, especially a candidate for the highest office in the most powerful country on earth.

“It's critical … What would be shocking and disturbing, is if you weren’t doing that.  That would be troubling …

“The Post has a long tradition of examining presidential candidates as it should,” he said, “and there's no way that's going to change.”

The subject of investigative reporting came up even earlier with Jeff, when he spoke at an employee town hall in January.

Given how much we’ve incorporated metrics into our news operation, Jeff was asked how important they were in his view and what impact they might have on the journalism we choose to do.

He said that metrics were important; only really bad business people ignore metrics. Then he said you have to make sure you’re measuring the right things. He also said some things are so hard to measure that you have to use gut feel and intuition.

And then he added that there are “principles that you care so much about …that even if the metrics told you to do the opposite you’d still do what your principles tell you to do.” He elaborated a bit, pointing to what he called “our deepest mission.”

He imagined how someone might say one day that the “big, long, six-month investigative stories don’t pay off. They just don’t pencil out. So let’s stop doing them.”

“If I saw that study,” he concluded, “and the numbers showed that, I would say, ‘I just don’t believe it. And I think that 20 years from now we would regret believing that study.’ So principles trump metrics.”

I also sense, by the way, that Jeff has acquired a nuanced understanding and appreciation of The Post’s culture and our style. When he spoke in January at the opening of The Post’s new offices, he described it in admiring tones, calling it a news organization that’s “a little more swashbuckler, a little more swagger, and a little more badass” than others.

“Badass.” As you might suspect, the newsroom loves that.

|||

I am pleased and encouraged with how far we’ve come at The Post. I believe we’re on the right path.

Still, we don’t claim to have all the answers.

We have to keep experimenting. Like everyone else, we are searching for a sustainable model. It will take time. It will take trial, and there will be error. We face many challenges. We don’t pretend otherwise.

But I will say this: There is palpable optimism and hopefulness in our newsroom.

Amid all our achievements over the last several years, that may be the greatest of all. And it is an achievement for which I am especially grateful.

Thank you for listening.

Follow Marty Baron on Twitter @PostBaron