Why Marty Baron Should Not Listen to David Carr

By Jack Limpert

Q, What’s the difference between the New York Times and the Washington Post?

A. One is a monopoly newspaper.

Last  week New York Times media columnist David Carr started a small battle with the Post  when he slammed Post publisher Katharine Weymouth for lacking style in the way she forced out executive editor Marcus Brauchli. That led to debates about the print and digital strategies of the two newspapers, including whether the Post is trying to go too local.

First let’s go to the numbers: Who reads the two newspapers?

The Washington Post, with 434,693 daily circulation, is read by 20 percent of Washington-area households. The New York Times, with 717,513 daily circulation, is read by 10 percent of New York-area households. Another 11 percent of New York-area households read the Daily News or New York Post.

So the Times is read by a smaller, more upscale slice of its New York market, with the two tabloids getting a bigger and more downscale share. The Washington Post has a daily newspaper monopoly in its market. That suggests it should not try to be a New York Times clone—to increase circulation, to bring in more revenue and strengthen the paper, it should be a mix of the three New York papers, a blend of the upscale Times and the tabloid approach of the Daily News-NYPost.

Does the Post want to be the Times? Yes. Despite all the talk of being a more local paper, the Post has wanted to be compared with the Times for the past 40 years and it still does. In his November 18 column, Carr said, “And by hewing to a strategy of local dominance rather than entering the national competitive fray, The Post now finds itself sharing a destiny with struggling regional newspapers.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Outgoing editor Marcus Brauchli never moved the needle on making the Post more local. If you read the Post, you don’t see any local strategy. In needling the Post to become more like the Times, Carr is pointing the Post in exactly the wrong direction.

Brauchli is being replaced by Marty Baron, who’s had lots of exposure to Times thinking from his years at the Times and the Times-owned Boston Globe. Here’s what he’ll find in Washington.

The Post’s A section goes head-to-head with the Times. It focuses on international and national news—plus some business news, not much of it local. The Style section is full of New York Times envy, leaving many Washington readers wondering what the hell Style is talking about. The Post’s Metro section has to cover a sprawling DC-Maryland-Virginia circulation area and the section seems way too small and too erratic–inside the Post newsroom the National staff is the major leagues and the Metro staff is the minor leagues.

If Baron looks at the fact that the Post is a monopoly newspaper, he should set out to deliver a newspaper that serves both an upscale market, as the Times does, and the tabloid market, as the Daily News and New York Post do. Put some lively local stories on the front page and in the A section, put some feature writers in Style who  could do good human interest stories for a tabloid. Put as many major league writers and reporters in the Metro section as are now covering national and international news.  Keep improving sports—it’s local and pretty good as it is. And, as suggested earlier, think about combining Style and Metro into a bigger, better section.

The bottom line: Don’t listen to David Carr. Don’t try to be the New York Times.

A note: The Post is not the only daily newspaper in Washington but it is effectively a monopoly. The Examiner has some of the tabloid spirit but it doesn’t have paid circulation and is treated as a litter problem in many neighborhoods. The conservative Washington Times has been trying and failing to build paid circulation for 30 years, losing upwards of $3 billion in the effort, and appears to be on its last legs.

A second note: The Times has 896,352 digital circulation on weekdays, the Post has 178,113. Those numbers are part of the debate about the digital future of newspapers, but this post focuses on print circulation and revenues. Until it becomes clearer how newspapers and magazines can bring in real digital revenue, it’s crucial to strengthen the existing editorial product and to keep print revenues as strong as possible.

A third note: Market penetration percentages will vary depending on how you come up with the number of households in a metro area. But whatever household numbers you use,  the comparisons of the Post as a monopoly paper and the Times as the upscale part of a three-newspaper New York market will still hold.

A fourth note: Look at the Sunday magazines of the Times and Post if you want to see another reason why the Post shouldn’t try to be a New York Times clone. The Times magazine has lots of upscale ads and is delivered as part of the Sunday newspaper. The Post’s Sunday magazine has faint echoes of the Times Sunday magazine but has much less advertising and not much is upscale. Is it delivered with the Sunday paper? No, it’s polybagged with the ad circulars and delivered with the Saturday paper. One magazine feels like Neiman-Marcus, the other like KMart.

Comments

  1. I think the general takeaway is “Don’t listen to David Carr… on anything.” Why a journalist, who’s never run anything in his life, is qualified to opine on business strategy is beyond me. But it happens all the time in the media — a majority of the talking heads who are so-called experts are just journalists (aka armchair quarterbacks). Additionally, Carr seems to like the sound of his own annoying voice way more than most of his associates. He’s amusing, is quotable and has an interesting backstory, but that’s about it.

  2. Gary Warner says:

    All great ideas, except combining Metro and Style. The only way this works is putting Style behind Metro and that would kill whatever mojo it has left.

  3. if it were 1992 this might make sense. but its 20 years hence. clearly you are knowledgeable and passionate about newspapers and the post, but digital has to be the first order of business, not the second footnote.

  4. John Ettorre says:

    I agree–much of this seems on target (though I remain an admirer of Carr), except that by ignoring the digital implications of both papers’ strategies, this seems to ignore the biggest questions facing both papers.

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