The Tricky Business Of Predicting Where Media Will Go Next
What's next for The Washington Post? With a new owner, the paper is stepping into a new era. Its path may lead to the ever-evolving future of journalism.
"There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," said Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with the announcement of his purchase Monday. "We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."
Experimentation and leaps of faith led to the Huffington Posts and the BuzzFeeds of the current media world. While advertising revenues decline and newspapers change hands, some still see a place for institutions like The Post (apparently, Bezos thought it was worth $250 million). But the face of legacy media will not look or feel the same.
Hope For The Post, In '92
Bezos' message on Monday echoes a prescient one made two decades earlier, by the Post's then-Managing Editor Robert Kaiser.
Kaiser had just attended a conference convened by Apple in Tokyo. On the plane back to Washington, D.C., he wrote his takeaway on a yellow legal pad, now available online. The conference, involving leaders in the computer, software and media worlds, offered a glimmer of how technology could — and would — revolutionize the media industry.
"The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes," Kaiser wrote in 1992. "We'll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it."
(One of his recommendations: "Create the first electronic newspaper — put the paper into a computer and see if we can create something that was easy to read, fun to play with and so on.")
Though he had his warnings, Kaiser wrote that he could "find no one at this conference who would predict the demise of the newspaper. No one. All saw an important place for us."
And so, Kaiser expected, "There's a big and important role for The Washington Post in this new world." But the revolution didn't happen the way Kaiser had hoped.
"The fact is, because we were so big, so fat and so happy, and because everything seemed to be going our way, we were just in no frame of mind to take the big, adventurous steps that would have been required to really, you know, try to become pioneers in this realm," he tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
The Elements Of The Huffington Post
Arianna Huffington upended the traditional news model in 2005 by starting The Huffington Post, but she doesn't see ventures like hers as substitutes for newspapers.
"I don't really think it's a question of replacing newspapers. I think it's a convergence," she tells NPR.
But The Huffington Post, aggregating and re-posting content from across the Web, had many skeptics. "I think there were definitely many more naysayers than people who thought it would work," Huffington says.
One LA Weekly review was particularly unsupportive: "This website venture is the sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable. Her blog is such a bomb that it's the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate rolled into one."
But in what others saw as lowbrow Web content, Huffington saw opportunity to share and engage. She breaks the model down into four elements: blogging, curation, commenting/audience engagement and original reporting (which played a larger role as the site's popularity and profitability grew).
At first, curation, or aggregating content from other websites, in particular received backlash from traditional media, which viewed the practice as hawking others' work for free.
But, Huffington says, if curation is done accurately and fairly, it "is of tremendous benefit to the creators of the content, because it brings them many more eyeballs, a lot more traffic, which they can monetize." Now, curation is a common practice among news organizations of all statures.
The result of mixing these elements was something that didn't look quite like anything else.
"The fact that we can have the prime minister of France next to a homeless teenager who has something interesting to say, is something that is very much at the heart of what distinguishes HuffPost as a purely digital operation," Huffington says.
The Social Web
But in eight short years, even The Huffington Post is now challenged by forward-moving competitors, like BuzzFeed. Its founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti, came up with the idea for the site while working at The Huffington Post, which he co-founded.
After launching in 2006, BuzzFeed "was very much a laboratory" in the beginning, says company President Jon Steinberg. BuzzFeed started with six employees in a room in New York's Chinatown. The driving concept behind the operation: social sharing.
"Everything we write has to be shareable," Steinberg says. "And we think that's a really high bar. As opposed to writing for a search engine or writing for a robot of some kind, the content has to be compelling and novel and interesting enough that a person is willing to pass it along to another person."
At first, the stories were mostly light and entertaining. But as interest grew, BuzzFeed realized untapped potential in its growing, young audience.
"Young people really have no media that is their own. Arts and leisure sections and real estate sections talking about expensive things doesn't really appeal to a younger generation where memes and Web culture is their culture," Steinberg says. "We felt that we could be the place that they come to for their hard-hitting news and reporting."
Like any other traditional news organization, reporters at BuzzFeed write about what they're interested in and what their editors assign to them, he says. But they also get training in how to write for the "social Web."
"We don't give additional fuel to things that are not being shared," Steinberg says. If a story isn't getting attention, it falls off promotional spots on the site.
BuzzFeed has also found a way to avoid charging for its content.
"We just find that the economics of the Web allow us to thrive with a new kind of advertising model and not be reliant on paywalls or subscriptions," Steinberg says. "We want the biggest-possible audience."
From that room of six, BuzzFeed has grown to a staff of 300, and 100 of them are reporters.
Is there a lesson in all of this for the likes of The Washington Post? The paper, founded in 1877, with its Pulitzer prizes and historic investigations, runs a different operation, to be sure. But Steinberg sees a chance for some reinvention with Amazon's Bezos at the helm.
"I mean, the Kindle platform is just one of the most powerful reading platforms in the world right now, and the fact that The Washington Post will theoretically have access to that in some way blows my mind," he says.
Holding Them Accountable
Regardless of the platform, former Post Managing Editor Kaiser keeps his eye on the content.
"The real question ... to me is: How can we preserve a big, talented, serious-minded news organization?" he says.
"If we can preserve these, and preserve a tradition of holding the powerful people in society accountable for the ways they use their power, then everything will be fine. And my grandchildren will be OK."
But, he says, the revenue has to be there to sustain it.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
For over half a century, The Washington Post has been one of America's preeminent broadsheets, covering the power and politics of the nation's capital. It's won Pulitzers and attracted readers and, of course, woven itself into American history and culture with the Watergate scandal.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN")
JOHN MCMARTIN: (As foreign editor) Look, there are over 2,000 reporters in this town. Are there five on Watergate? Where did The Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom?
LYDEN: The legendary editor Ben Bradlee and the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was popularized in the 1976 movie "All The President's Men." The paper brought down a president, Richard Nixon. But times change. News has migrated from the page to computer screens to mobile phones. And The Washington Post isn't immune.
This week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the paper for $250 million, and eight decades of Graham family ownership came to an end. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Eugene Meyer acquired the newspaper in 1933; he was succeeded as publisher by his son-in-law Phil Graham, who after his death was followed by his wife and then his son.] More changes ahead for everyone in the news business, from broadsheets to broadband and beyond. That's our cover story today: News we can use in the digital age.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I don't really think it's a question of replacing newspapers. I think it's a convergence.
LYDEN: That's Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post. We'll hear more from her later.
Journalism looks different than it did 20 years ago, and it's not as if The Washington Post didn't see it coming. In 1992, Robert Kaiser was the managing editor of the paper. He was dispatched to a conference hosted by Apple in Japan, on the intersection of technology and the news. On the way home, he wrote a letter to The Post leadership.
ROBERT KAISER: I wrote this memo by hand on a yellow pad, in the airplane - on the fanciest plane ride I've ever had in my life. The Washington Post was richer then; they could put the managing editor in first.
LYDEN: Kaiser proposed two, concrete strategies going forward for a new digital Washington Post.
KAISER: We should create the first electronic newspaper. The second proposal was to put all Post classified ads online.
LYDEN: And The Post did just that. It created an online version of itself, but it just wasn't savvy enough.
KAISER: We could've been Monster. We could've been Craigslist. We could have done all that stuff if we had been adventurous. But let me say, we get nervous when people tell me how prescient this was, and if only we'd listened to what Kaiser wrote, and stuff like that. That might literally be true, in some way.
But the fact is because we were so big, so fat and so happy, and because everything seemed to be going our way, we were just in no frame of mind to take the big, adventurous steps that would've been required to really try to become pioneers in this realm.
LYDEN: Instead, Craigslist took a huge bite out of ad revenues and thus, profits. And so, too, did new, digitally nimble news sources like the Huffington Post.
In 2005, Arianna Huffington upended the traditional news model with something called aggregation. The Huffington Post collected stories and links from all corners of the Web, and put it on its own front page.
HUFFINGTON: There was a real opportunity to bring together four different elements: blogging, which at the time, you may remember, was kind of dismissed as the - something that people who had no jobs were doing in their pajamas, in their parents' basements; elevate blogging, then combine it with curation, which really basically means aggregation but with a certain attitude, and with the emphasis being on bringing together the best of the Web on any subject; commenting - a lot of engagement; engagement was always at the heart of everything at the Huffington Post, you know, so that it wasn't just as talking to our readers but listening to them.
And our comments were, from the beginning, pre-moderated so we could have a civil environment. And then gradually, as we started being more profitable and bringing in more investment, original reporting. So this was - sort of the four elements that we started with, and that we kept growing as HuffPost became bigger and we were able to have more resources.
LYDEN: The approach was pilloried by old media, dismissed as a lightweight mash-up.
HUFFINGTON: I think there were definitely many more naysayers than people who thought it would work. I remember one of our first reviews. I've kind of learned it by heart. On our first day, in the LA Weekly - said, the Huffington Post is an unsurvivable failure. It is the movie equivalent of "Gigli," "Heaven's Gate" and "Ishtar," all rolled into one.
LYDEN: Another major objection to aggregating - papers thought their work - content they'd paid writers and editors to produce - was being hawked for free.
HUFFINGTON: Aggregating, if done right - and we have constant trainings for our editors - if done within the fair use guidelines, is of tremendous benefit to the creators of the content because it brings them many more eyeballs, a lot more traffic, which they can monetize. We get, literally, hundreds of requests every day from newspapers and magazines to link to their stories. So linking is really part of the Internet economy. But I think we've moved beyond those early days, in terms of our understanding of platforms.
LYDEN: Now, everyone, including The Washington Post, aggregates. But after just eight short years, that model may already be an outdated one. Along came BuzzFeed with a whole new model.
JON STEINBERG: We're all about sharing all different kinds of content, whether that's lighthearted, social, emotional content; breaking scoops and news reporting; or branding content. Those are really the three categories of things that we do. And we view ourselves as a media company that's really social from the ground up.
LYDEN: Jon Steinberg is the president of BuzzFeed. You might have seen BuzzFeed's top 10 lists, and that's exactly the point.
STEINBERG: Everything we write has to be shareable. It has to be something that someone would want to pass along to another person. And we think that's a really high bar. As opposed to writing for a search engine or writing for a robot of some kind, the content has to be compelling and novel and interesting enough that a person is willing to pass it along to another person.
LYDEN: BuzzFeed was developed by six people in a room in Chinatown, in Manhattan. Its founder, Jonah Peretti, was actually working for the Huffington Post at the time. Back to Jon Steinberg.
STEINBERG: Jonah had this vision that having been a founder of the Huffington Post, the next big thing would be social. And much like Huffington Post arose during an era of search engines and Google being the dominant place people went to for news, that Facebook and like social platforms would evolve. I don't think we'd be where we are today were it not for Facebook and Twitter, StumbleUpon - and I think soon, emerging platforms like Snapchat and WhatsApp and things like that because that, for us, is the cable system of our era.
You know, for us, these social platforms are the new cable system. And what we're seeing play out now is much like what we saw play out with television programming during the '80s.
LYDEN: Now, BuzzFeed has a staff of 300 people. One hundred of them are reporters.
STEINBERG: We've approached it from the bottom up. We started out as a toy, as something that was lightweight. And then as we saw more and more of an audience coming to us, we decided to move upstream because we saw so much of an opportunity for young people. Young people really have no media that is their own. You know, arts and leisure sections and real estate sections talking about expensive things doesn't really appeal to a younger generation whereas memes and Web culture is their culture. It's their rock music as opposed to the disco music from a prior generation.
STEINBERG: And so with that audience, and having started out with the light entertainment stuff, we felt that we could be the place that they come to for their hard-hitting news and reporting. And, you know, our front-page traffic has grown substantially, pointing to the fact that now, people come to us during a moment of world affairs.
LYDEN: Have you done demographic research on BuzzFeed?
STEINBERG: Sixty percent of our audience is 18 to 34. That's perhaps the most pronounced demographic differentiation. When you look at television-viewing audiences now, the average network television viewer is late 40s or 50s.
STEINBERG: You know, New York Times had an article on Monday about Fox News' median viewer being 65 years old. So our audience is inordinately young, compared to newspaper or television.
LYDEN: But they don't have to pay a subscription fee, do they? They don't have to buy it the way that they would The New York Times or The Washington Post - or for that matter, contribute to a local public radio station, if their conscience is to be absolved.
STEINBERG: We just find that the economics of the Web allow us to thrive with a new kind of advertising model, and not be reliant on pay walls or subscriptions. We want the biggest possible audience.
LYDEN: So I'd like to ask, when you tell stories, are you determining things editorially, or based on algorithms and searches? How do you identify?
STEINBERG: Our organization under Ben Smith, our editor-in-chief, works like a traditional news organization in that reporters go after stories that they're interested in and are assigned by their editors. What's different is, we have a training program that's all around writing for the social Web. And we have a publishing system, a content management system - which is very different - that allows people to dynamically pull in and put together content.
They publish what they want to write. And everything - or most things - hit some area of the site, whether that's the front page or a section. And then pieces only stay live, and only continue to be promoted, if they're being shared. And if they're not being shared, they either roll off the front page or roll off the section header. And they're just - they're there, but they don't get promoted. They - we don't give additional fuel to things that are not being shared.
LYDEN: From paper and ink to printing presses, broadsheets to broadband, search engines to social media, change is the new normal. Steinberg thinks that The Washington Post is positioned, once again, to innovate.
STEINBERG: I think that it gives them really a shot now to reinvent themselves in a lot of the things that I think about in terms of train tracks and distribution. Jeff Bezos and Amazon have some of the best. I mean, the Kindle platform is just one of the most powerful reading platforms in the world right now. And the fact that The Washington Post will theoretically have access to that, in some way - you know, blows my mind.
LYDEN: As for the rest of us, stay tuned.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.