"Profitable" Washington post to add five dozen journalists


Twenty-sixteen was the year The Washington Post came of age — again. In its audience growth, in the ambitiousness of its journalism, in its impact on the American conversation, the Post became the U.S.’s fourth national newspaper company, joining The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Now, come 2017, the Post seems to be doing something unique in daily journalism: It is adding journalists early in the year.

“We’re adding dozens of journalists,” Fred Ryan, the Post’s publisher and CEO, told me late last week. Ryan, in a recent memo, said the Post was “profitable and growing.”

“We looked at what succeeded for us in 2016 and made investments there,” he says. Ryan doesn’t want to specify the exact number of hires or how they will be apportioned. “We’re still rolling this out internally.”

Still, according to sources, we can figure that the Post newsroom will grow by more than 60 jobs — or 8 percent — an astounding number in this day and age. Such contrarian additions, of course, come at a time when newsroom staff reductions are the rule across daily journalism.

The Post newsroom will number more than 750, third among the national newspaper-based press and moving it closer to the Times, with which it increasingly competes for high-end talent. The Times complement stands at about 1,307, the company says. USA Today’s newsroom stands at about 450, while the Journal, after its recent buyouts, tells me it employs 1,500.

“We’ll make investments in mobile video,” says Ryan, citing Chief Revenue Officer Jed Hartman’s success and better monetizing advertising on the smartphone. “We believe that a less-than-15-second pre-roll can be very effective,” he says, noting that new mobile ad forms are still a work in progress, but well sought by advertisers.

Then, there’s the addition of a “rapid-response” investigative team of about a half dozen, which will work alongside the Post’s existing investigative team of more than a dozen. Clearly, given the pace of news, the goal here is to produce more stories of depth, and data, in time spans of days or short weeks, as well as the ones that take months.

Further, the Post will expand its breaking news team, which has driven lots of traffic, on-site and on other platforms, and its proliferating newsletter operation.

Budgeting for the new positions begins Jan. 1, with much of the hiring done by the first quarter of the year.

What’s the strategy behind the new hires?

It’s twofold, both business and editorial, fitting to the way that Jeff Bezos has reordered the Post business since buying it three years ago.

The new Trump administration promises great upheaval, conflict and, I’d expect, an unprecedented volume of high-level leaks, some of which will produce eye-opening stories and series.

In addition, the Post believes, as Ryan noted, that its investigative and deeper enterprise stories are good for the brand and the business. While the Post can’t yet draw a direct line between the investigative work and subscriber conversion, for instance, the link may be even more fundamental.

“Investigative reporting is central to our DNA,” says Ryan. “Readers expect it.”

In short, Ryan and Bezos believe that old-fashioned journalism — increasingly delivered via a fleet of digital means, from smartphone apps to the Kindle to Facebook Instant Articles — sells.

The Post has seen a 75 percent increase in new subscribers since the first of the year and says it has doubled digital subscription revenue over the year. Many of those new subscribers prove out Bezos’ theory that a mass market of low-price (generally around $36 a year for the national edition, after up to six months of “free trial”) subscription sales will form the leading revenue source for the Post in the years ahead.

In a time of journalistic business desperation worldwide, that’s a hugely important lesson being retaught to all news publishers by both the Post and the Times this year. (One other learning: As the Post expanded its op-ed contributors and volume, “opinion” stories drove more readers to subscribe than any other content type.)

Under Ryan, whom Bezos picked as his top executive two years ago, the Post has made significant, if judicious, investments in the Post, which some have pegged as high as $50 million. Technology and newsroom investments have dominated that multimillion dollar spending.

Bezos’ investments are twinned, literally joined at the publishing hip. Now, the Post thinks “product” almost as much as news. In fact, almost 80 technologists now sit right in the new Post newsroom, in addition to those soon-more-than-700 journalists. This is the face of a modern newsroom, in which software development engineers, digital designers, product managers, mobile developers and video engineering produce content in real time.

In Bezos’ national content-first strategy, it is the newsroom of Marty Baron that seized the tumult of 2016 to make its new national claim, returning the Post to its post-Watergate era prominence.

As the yearlong presidential campaign got stranger and stranger, the Post, along with the Times, rose to meet the challenge. Both sent a small legion of investigative reporters after the stories of the week, from Donald Trump’s foundation self-dealing and on-tape sexual braggadocio (both expertly tracked by Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who just won the company’s inaugural Ben Bradlee Prize) to pieces on Hillary’s Clinton email woes and own foundation issues.

These new newsroom jobs tell us a lot about what the Post believes is now creating a new virtuous circle of growth for the company. It starts with content itself — and largely national content. While the Post remains the dominant news source in the Washington, D.C., metro area, it is “national” — and then “global”— in which it eyes growth.

That content will be bolstered by the new quicker-response investigative team, more breaking news and positions added in both video and audio/podcast (built on the success of its 44-episode presidential podcast series).

Then, the Post — which now sends out 62 different newsletters to its readers — will increase its newsletter and alerts staff. Such newsletters, in addition to the alerts and wide Post social distribution, magnify the impact of each story the Post produces. That’s the new digital virtuous news circle in creation.

The Post is very much still a work in progress. Its ubiquity-embracing social distribution strategy had helped propel it to within shouting distance of the Times, which it briefly passed in overall digital unique audience toward the end of 2015.

The Post will finish out this year second to the Times, as the chart below shows. (We note that, as of Dec. 16, Facebook has said it has uncovered an underreporting of iPhone-driven traffic, from Sept. 20 to Nov.30, by the social site and will “update” metrics. The trend lines, though, traced earlier in the year, should still hold.)

Both newspaper companies rank well ahead of those two other national newspapers, the Journal and USA Today. All grew audience over the hot political year, the Post doubling its overall readership. Ahead of both the Post and the Times: CNN, Yahoo-ABC, CBS and NBC.

In 2013, on his first visit to the Post newsroom, Bezos was asked by those nosy reporters what exactly he was bringing to the Post party. “Runway,” he suggested. Into 2017, that runway has now been newly extended.