How Marty Baron and Jeff Bezos Remade the Washington Post: “Being for and about Washington wasn’t going to work any longer.”

From a New York Times story by Marc Tracy headlined “How Marty Baron and Jeff Bezos Remade The Washington Post”:

On July 30, 2013, Martin Baron left The Washington Post building and crossed 15th Street for an extremely rare happy hour drink.

The publisher, Katharine Weymouth, had asked to meet him at a hotel bar. She needed to tell her executive editor that The Washington Post Company would be selling the newspaper her family had run for 80 years to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

“I’m sure I felt terrible,” said Ms. Weymouth. “He had just moved!” Mr. Baron had arrived in Washington, and at The Post, in January after 11 celebrated years as the top editor at The Boston Globe.

Mr. Baron was shocked. So were most people at The Post six days later, when the public announcement was made. Ms. Weymouth represented the fourth generation of her family to run the newspaper. Her grandmother, Katharine Graham, and her uncle, Donald E. Graham, had been viewed as indispensable not just to The Post but to its city. Now the paper would belong to Mr. Bezos, the multibillionaire online retail magnate, who noted in his introductory memo to the staff that he lived in “the other Washington.”…

In the days between hearing about the sale and the public announcement, Mr. Baron had realized that Mr. Bezos, who built Amazon by giving it years of “runway” to lose money in the name of long-term growth, had not bought The Post to continue shrinking it.

Mr. Bezos, who declined to be interviewed for this article, supplied resources as perhaps only one of the world’s wealthiest men operating a newly private company could. He appointed a new publisher and turned The Post’s business strategy — and, by extension, its journalistic one — upside down, stipulating that its outlook would change from local to national, even global. Since 2013, the newsroom head count has nearly doubled — it is expected to reach 1,010 this year — with 26 locations around the world.

Mr. Baron, who announced his retirement last month and whose last day is Sunday, had signed up to edit one newspaper and ended up for more than seven years at the helm of a very different one.

The first Post was among the country’s best daily papers, but hurting. Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Graham, the chief executive of The Post Company, “were going a little light on me” in his first year, according to Mr. Baron, and making him eliminate only a couple of dozen positions. “In the second year,” he added, “I would feel the full effects of the cuts that were deemed to be necessary.”

By contrast, the second Post — the one Mr. Baron ran for most of his tenure — had more resources and different priorities. While many desks have grown, Metro staffing has stayed constant. The Post is digital first to the point that its print circulation has been more than halved since 2013…with Sunday print circulation around 320,000 last fall.

Mr. Baron’s Post was not squeamish about what it meant to chase a big digital audience. Whoever succeeds Mr. Baron — the publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., is leading the search — will inherit roughly three million digital subscribers, said a spokeswoman, the most of any U.S. paper after The New York Times….

It is a happy ending for The Post, for Mr. Baron and for Mr. Bezos, who earlier this month announced that he was stepping down as chief executive of Amazon to spend more time with other pursuits, including The Post.

It is a less happy ending by implication for local newspapers elsewhere, which are increasingly owned not by benevolent billionaires but chains that answer to Wall Street and generally lack the name brand that made The Post’s quest for digital subscribers across the country plausible. As The Post’s fortunes have flourished, the fate it escaped has grown grimmer.

Absent Mr. Bezos, “it’s highly likely that our future would have looked a lot like the present of a lot of regional publications,” Mr. Baron said in a phone interview last weekend as he cleared out his office at The Post. “There’s no reason to believe it would have been substantially different.”…

At the beginning of 2013, The Post was modestly profitable but no longer the money-minting machine it was in the 1980s and ’90s, when it reached more households in its geographic area than any other daily. The Post Company’s financial shape was worsening, however, as Kaplan, its test-preparation and for-profit college business, was squeezed by new federal rules.

There were multiple rounds of buyouts between 2008 and 2013; a generous pension plan hastened veterans’ exits. Newsroom head count fell to 580 from 900. To this day, Posties speak in gallows-humor tones of all the cake they ate at Friday afternoon office send-offs.

As publisher, Mr. Graham invested tens of millions of dollars in digital initiatives as far back as the 1990s. The digital and traditional newsrooms were combined under Mr. Baron’s predecessor as executive editor, Marcus Brauchli. The Post installed a metered paywall in June 2013.

The Post had not embraced a corollary to its digital friendliness: an aggressive strategy to recruit readers and subscribers from beyond its geographic base.

“The Post was distinctive in that it had a global reputation but a local business model,” said Steve Coll, a former Post reporter and managing editor who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker.

After The Post decided to sell its 50 percent stake of The International Herald Tribune to its partner, The New York Times, in late 2002, Mr. Coll organized a task force including editorial and business executives to plot The Post’s place in the national and international news ecosystem. They concluded that The Post should invest in expanding its digital reach beyond the Beltway.

But on a retreat at an Eastern Shore resort in early 2003, Mr. Graham, then the publisher, rejected the recommendations in part because they de-emphasized covering the region. The Post’s local mission was a matter of both business and identity for Mr. Graham, whose grandfather had bought The Post out of bankruptcy in 1933.

“We are not a national newspaper,” Mr. Graham told The New Yorker for a 2000 profile. “We are a local newspaper for a place that happens to be the capital of the United States.”

Ms. Weymouth, who succeeded her uncle as publisher in 2008, determined that to combat declining print profitability, The Post would double down on being “about Washington, for Washingtonians,” she wrote in a staff memo in 2008.

“We continued to function at an extremely high level, but our ambition had been forcefully diminished,” said Peter Perl, a former assistant managing editor and longtime Postie….

Still, Mr. Graham and Ms. Weymouth felt that the long-term outlook was not brilliant. In 2010, they sold Newsweek for $1 plus assumption of liabilities, and Ms. Weymouth did not want The Post to get to the same point. During Mr. Baron’s first spring, in 2013, The Post Company sought to sell its eponymous product.

The sale to Mr. Bezos was conditioned on a commitment to invest in the newspaper, said Nancy Peretsman, an investment banker at Allen & Company who advised The Post Company on the move.

“This was the basis of the handshake: I’m entrusting you with my family legacy — what Kay would have wanted,” said Ms. Peretsman, referring to Katharine Graham, the former Post publisher and Mr. Graham’s mother.

Almost immediately after Mr. Bezos’s purchase of the newspaper in August 2013, he dictated that The Post would use its location and reputation to go national, even global.

“The first substantive point that he made to us,” said Mr. Baron, “was that the strategy that we had of being focused on our region — of being, as they put it, for and about Washington — that may have worked in the past, but it wasn’t going to work any longer.”

This meant new investment. Instead of having to let people go in his second year, Mr. Baron was hiring by the end of his first….

Mr. Baron and Mr. Bezos are not friends (leaving aside the office birthday party when Mr. Bezos presented his editor with a new bicycle). Mr. Baron generally attends Mr. Bezos’ biweekly meeting with Mr. Ryan, the publisher. Still, a certain rapport was evident during an onstage interview in 2016 at a Post-sponsored conference in Washington, Mr. Baron dry and grumbly (“in journalism, interviewing the owner of the company is considered to be high-risk behavior”) and Mr. Bezos cheerfully evangelistic.

The internet demolished media’s traditional business models, Mr. Bezos explained in the interview, “but it does bring one huge gift, and you have to maximize your usage of that new gift, which is that it provides almost free global distribution.”

In this way, he added, The Post would go from relying on relatively few subscribers paying lots of money — those seven-day print subscriptions delivered to Bethesda, to Arlington, to Albemarle Street — to persuading many more subscribers to buy cheaper digital-only subscriptions.

Much of what Mr. Baron’s Post did in executing this strategy is entirely in keeping with a man who stepped into a professional newsroom in the mid-1970s and did not leave before Sunday. The Post has been indispensable to the general understanding of right-wing populism, tech platforms and of course the Trump administration and the man at its center….

But plenty was innovative, such as an online section devoted to breaking news continuously, a team focused on how best to deliver Post journalism to readers and a section covering video games and e-sports. (“A lot of it got replicated by The New York Times,” Mr. Baron said archly.) Last year, The Post was among many newsrooms nationwide that at a time of widespread protests over systemic racism confronted its own culture. Mr. Baron created new positions for editors and writers to cover race and appointed The Post’s first managing editor for diversity and inclusion, a longtime reporter and editor named Krissah Thompson….

The focus on diversity in coverage is not unrelated to the business’s focus on diversity in readership. For instance, Ms. Thompson is interested in exploring what distinguishes articles that do not perform well with subscribers but are excellent at converting casual readers into subscribers. “Are we profiling people who may not be part of the current Washington conversation,” she said, “but are figures the Black community or Hispanic community might be interested in?”

In January 2014, The Post inaugurated Morning Mix, a section staffed by reporters and editors who worked overnight to surface viral stories. It evolved from aggregation to “the second-day story today,” as its first editor, Fred Barbash, put it. The Columbia Journalism Review last year called Morning Mix and other like-minded initiatives a “fearsome clickbait machine,” and meant it as a compliment.

“You had to overhaul some hoary newspaper assumptions,” said Mr. Barbash.

Mr. Baron, who denies charges of Luddism, concluded that any downside to less traditional newspaper stories was more than compensated by the ability to keep having newspapers.

“At one point, I was mourning the passing of journalism as it had once been,” he said, “but I got over that and decided that we just have to figure out how to make the best of it.”

He considers himself lucky, he said: “I’ve been able to avoid the worst aspects of what this industry has faced over the last 30 years.”

He added, “I’d be quite a grump if I were to complain.”

Marc Tracy covers print and digital media. He previously covered college sports.

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