What Journalism and Tech Can Learn from The Washington Post and The New Republic
Journalism and tech have had a testy relationship in the past few years. For every successful tech takeover of a media company, there’s been an even more disastrous blunder. Yet, as we’ve talked about here and here, the two must not only co-exist, but work together to create, reach (can you ‘reach’ content?) and amplify content.
So why exactly is The New Republic failing when The Washington Post is on track to succeed? Both come from the worlds of print. Both were bought by tech giant millionaires—Chris Hughes, known for co-founding Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos, head of a little-known online empire called Amazon. And although both publications run smaller circulation numbers, their influence has often outstripped their manpower.
In this post, we narrow in on two tech owned old-school publications—The Washington Post and The New Republic—as extreme examples of what’s going mostly right and what went mostly wrong when journalism and tech combine forces. And most importantly, what we can learn from their success and failure.
Experimentation & Innovation with The Washington Post
What’s going on with Bezos and The Washington Post? Good things, actually. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013 for $250 million, later remarking that he thought he could take his internet expertise and bring the paper into the digital age. Since acquiring new ownership, The Washington Post has made efforts to combine technological innovation with high-quality journalism.
In 2014, the Post announced its intention for a digital initiative, hiring over 100 new journalists and publishers, including Politico co-founder Fred Ryan. According to Ryan, Bezos made sure staffers knew his mission was very clear for the long run. “[The Washington Post’s] to experiment, to think long-term, to give the experiments a chance and hopefully prove successful. To think not just about the news consumers today but the future readers and be able to adjust to change.”
Thinking long term, The Washington Post has become aggressive in becoming a bigger paper. The once local paper is now transitioning to become an international source. Targeting dailies like the Dallas Morning News and Toledo Blade, the Post made its web content free to local subscribers. In an effort to become a national (and international) paper, the Post is expanding abroad, creating a London sales office.
Under Amazon leadership, the Post is even integrated into the Kindle Fire with a free Washington Post app, with two editions released every day at 5am and 5pm. The app is considered to be one of Bezos’ personal touches to combine tech and data strategy into the distribution of content. This includes a team of staffers punching up and rewriting headlines for the day’s content in an effort to draw in a broader audience. Bezos has also announced his intentions to sell the Post’s back-end CMS to local and regional newspapers.
And tech is at the forefront of the Post’s integrated newsroom, where journalists and about 25 technologists working side-by-side to deliver the news in the best possible way. However, Bezos—a longtime opponent of unionized workers—announced plans to freeze pensions for its employees in late 2014.
Focused on long-term results, Bezos and the team at The Washington Post are building and experimenting with its digital properties to expand the company’s reach. Though there is undoubtedly some baggage over Bezos’ ties to Amazon, it has appeared to be a successful union of the journalism and tech worlds.
The Death (and Rebirth?) of The New Republic
In late 2014, many media organizations were already eulogizing the death of The New Republic, a 100 year old liberal magazine covering politics and the arts of “the Beltway”—which prioritizes coverage of Washington political scene, from federal officials to lobbyists to corporate media. The New Republic—which prints 10 issues a year—was deeply rooted in its print traditions.
The problem, many media spectators said, stems from the tension between tech and journalism and the former’s short patience. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the magazine in 2012, just as the paper was bleeding money. Taking the title of editor-in-chief and owner, Hughes infused new money into the magazine, hiring new and competitive staffers, moving the magazine to a newer office and completely redesigning the website.
Though Hughes remained adamant upkeeping the standards of the print edition, the allure of digital success began to shift his short-term expectations for the magazine (which was still losing money). The New Yorker goes into greater detail on the whys here. Seeking faster results, Hughes hired former Yahoo News general manager, Guy Vidra, to be CEO. In a press release announcing the hiring, The New Republic was described for the first time as a “vertically integrated digital media company.”
For months, tensions between the Silicon Valley upper management and leadership butted heads with editor Frank Foer, culminating with most of the staff resigning in protest of Foer’s firing and the magazine’s drastic changes. Namely, these changes include an unprecedented focus on digital traffics and numbers and shifting the company’s culture to become what Vidra described as a “100-year-old startup.” Due to the massive staff resignations, The New Republic was forced to suspend operations until February to rebuild the traditional magazine from the ground up.
In the recent months since its exodus of staff, The New Republic and the company’s leaders—led by Vidra and Hughes—have been building a comeback plan. By broadening their coverage beyond the Beltway to include TV shows and culture (which means more digital traffic), the magazine tried to expand its audience, but losing its soul. “Writing about television shows may help boost the New Republic’s digital traffic numbers, but it also dilutes the brand that the magazine has spent the last 100 years building,” says this Digiday report. The magazine is also betting big on native ads, even though its circulation and traffic are still relatively small.
Sacrificing its print roots and a big picture vision for digital aspirations led to a complete disingration—and rebirth—for The New Republic. A cataclysm of everything that could go wrong when journalism and tech worlds collide, The New Republic meltdown is a prime example of a lack of patience and understanding of one another.
How Journalism and Tech Can Coexist In Old Media Organizations
Journalism and tech must rely on one another to secure a bright future. Media companies are acquiring innovative platforms and technologists. Tech companies are betting big on content. This is the reality we all face, no matter if we are content marketers, journalists or technologists. Here’s what we can learn from The Washington Post and The New Republic to better our own working relationships, no matter which field we are in.
- Patience is a virtue—long term goals trump short term. 1000%. Short goals are often g One of the apparent problems of The New Republic’s new leadership was the abandonment of patience in favor for tangible and quicker results. The Washington Post’s emphasis on seeing where the company is in 20 years from now favors flexibility. Expecting long term results in only a few months is recklessly naive. Set long term and short term goals with realistic expectations.
- Stay transparent (especially with change). It’s important to stay upfront with your mission and when you implement changes of any kind (also, pace these changes out). Granted, it’s difficult to determine the scope of how much the staff at the Post & New Republic were willing to change, but you can take a queue from leadership and remain transparent. Plan changes accordingly. You need the support of your team to make changes and you also need to ensure these changes are properly explained in a timely matter, so that the change feels like it is building toward something.
- Respect one another’s craft. Journalism and tech are arguably both crafts, meaning each side needs to respect expertise. For journalists, that may mean looking to technologists to help shape multimedia storytelling or better understanding the business and analytics behind stories. For technologists, that may mean respecting editorial or ethical judgment and the craft of storytelling. Everyone has the same goals (to succeed, in one way or another), but a person’s background will often shape their opinion and approach. Respect those opinions and be willing to meet half-way or compromise.
- Integrate your newsroom/office. Journalists, technologists, sales, business and staff working side by side can lead to innovation. Talk to one another—it’s easier to become BFFs. It goes a long way to build a culture where journalists and technologists are equally important, without one “serving” the other. (It’s how we roll at Quietly, too).
Image Credit: Esther Vargas via Flickr