From the Wall Street Journal: “Washington Post Seeks to Stem Drop in Readership”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell headlined “Washington Post Grasps for New Direction as Trump-Era Boom Fades”:

Top Washington Post officials gathered last week and discussed how to respond to a major problem the news outlet is facing: a sharp decline in online readership.

Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said she was struck by a presentation showing that in one stretch of 2019, nearly all of the 50 most popular articles on the Post’s home page were related to politics, whereas in the same period of 2021, just three of the top 10 were related to politics….

Ms. Buzbee weighed in with her conclusion: When political news falls out of favor with Post readers, the news organization needs to be in position to excel with other types of stories.

The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

One document provided a stark snapshot: The site had about 66 million monthly unique visitors in October, down 28% from last year. Most major publishers have suffered audience declines from 2020, when national politics and the Covid-19 pandemic lifted readership. Several of the Post’s rivals, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vox Media and CNN, had smaller declines in that time frame, according to the document, which cited data from Comscore. Other politics-focused publications, including the Hill and Politico, had traffic declines greater than the Post’s during that period….

The Post’s digital subscriber growth, meanwhile, has begun to stagnate. The outlet had 2.7 million digital subscribers as of October, according to the internal document, down from roughly three million in January. Some of the people familiar with Post’s operations said the publisher is expected to end up roughly flat in digital subscriptions for the year.

The Post has been working for more than two years to evolve its offerings and attract new readers, “knowing that news consumption is cyclical,” a Post spokeswoman said. “We’ve been deliberate in our strategy work and are seeing the results of our investments across the company, particularly with the growth of the newsroom, the broadening of our coverage and the sophistication of our storytelling tools.”

Other newsrooms have pressed to expand, even before this year. The Wall Street Journal had about 50 million monthly unique visitors as of October, according to Comscore. Executives at the outlet had discussed a plan last year to double its audience by the end of fiscal 2024….

Dow Jones executives said at a September 2020 investor event that the company planned to double its membership business over the long term.

At the New York Times, a substantial portion of subscription growth is coming from low-cost digital offerings such as games, its cooking product and its product-recommendation site Wirecutter. The Times in November warned that subscription growth could come under pressure in the fourth quarter as promotional pricing is phased out.

The headwinds come during a new era at the Washington Post. In May, the newspaper announced that it selected Ms. Buzbee after a process involving the Post’s publisher, Fred Ryan, and its owner, founder Jeff Bezos. Ms. Buzbee, who was top editor at the Associated Press, said in a memo to employees in September that the Post will hire dozens of new editors and beef up the newspaper’s capacity to publish breaking news and in-depth journalism.

At the meeting last week, Post editors discussed the idea of devoting more resources to the areas that have been generating interest, such as features and culture….One slide they reviewed showing top stories from the Post’s home page included a financial investigation dubbed “Pandora Papers,” a story about the fatal shooting on the set of the movie “Rust,” and a feature on singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, who goes by the name Yusuf Islam.

Ms. Buzbee cautioned that politics is cyclical, and that the Post should be prepared for when reader interest in politics jumps once again….

An analysis of the Post’s readership shows that traffic from nonsubscribers had fallen off 35% over two years….Many more nonsubscribers are hitting the “paywall” in 2021, compared with 2019, the document said.

Traffic from subscribers is growing, but not fast enough to make up that difference. From October 2019 to October 2021, digital subscribers increased by 56%, but subscriber page views only increased by 6% during that period.

“Active subscribers are coming less often, and when they do come, they consume fewer page views,” reads one slide. The Post has launched an effort called “Operation Runway,” which involves boosting readership by directing readers to additional stories through referral links….

Aging readers are another area of focus, according to a document from May.  Titled “Industry Insights: Younger Audiences,” it says that only 14% of Washington Post subscribers are under 55….The document summarizes five groups of potential subscribers to the Post, including “contented and uninvolved,” “middle grounders,” “practical mavens,” “engaged intellectuals” and “confident strivers,” and estimates their interest in the Post.

“Our paid product is not attractive to younger people,” the document reads. Of those groups, the only one listed with a “high” level of interest in the Post are “confident strivers,” which the document describes as “affluent, urban married men with kids, more multi-ethnic, skew liberal/Democratic.”

“This was a third-party study done to help identify potential motivations to subscribe, and we are not focused on just one of them,” said the Washington Post spokeswoman. “Rather, we are using the data as a whole to think about where we invest and grow in 2022.”

In August, the Washington Post said it had created an initiative dubbed “Next Generation” to attract younger subscribers….

During the meeting last week, editors compared the newspaper’s readership and story selection with those of a rival, the New York Times. One slide showed that some entertainment stories that are popular with Post readers still don’t generate the same amount of traffic as comparable stories in the Times.

Like the Times, the Washington Post has launched new products in recent years to expand its audience beyond politics junkies. Those efforts include the Lily, focused on women, videogame section Launcher, food hub Voraciously and By the Way, a travel destination.

Some people involved with those brands said that the Post’s leadership, particularly Mr. Ryan, haven’t invested enough resources to make them as successful as rival products like the New York Times’ Cooking product. Several people said that the Post frequently holds meetings dedicated to analyzing competitors but often fails to act on insights from those meetings in a meaningful way.

In recent years, editors at the Washington Post have occasionally considered making high-profile acquisitions to support the newsroom, but some of those discussions didn’t result in deals….This year, executives discussed buying the Skimm, a female-skewing media startup known for its breezy newsletters, but no such deal has materialized, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Post editors discussed buying Decision Desk HQ, an election-analysis website known for calling races alongside the Associated Press….

The Post has recently put resources toward marketing its brand to readers, an effort that has generated mixed reactions inside the newspaper. During an employee town hall this fall, Post executives said the newspaper would be airing a brand campaign featuring its “Afghanistan Papers” investigation on the game show “Jeopardy!,” which some felt was out of step with the plan to attract younger readers. Employees at the newspaper have also discussed using a provocative ad featuring the song “For What It’s Worth” by the band Buffalo Springfield, but that spot never aired….

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