< The Powers That Used To Be


Friday, May 09, 2014

Clip: Look, Mcgovern’s dropped to nothing. Nixon is  guaranteed re-nomination. The post is stuck with a story nobody wants. It’ll sink the goddamn paper. Everyone says, ‘Get off it Ben.’ And I come on very sage and I say, ‘you’ll see, you’ll wait until this bottoms out. But the truth is i can’t figure out what we’ve got  

BOB GARFIELD: What he had -- Ben Bradlee, that is, as portrayed by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men -- was a story that ultimately dislodged a president and secured the Washington Post immortality in the pantheon of American journalism.

BOB GARFIELD: Of late, however, the paper has fallen on hard times. Daily print circulation, which generates most of the income, is at half its 1994 peak. Advertising revenues have halved in the past 5 years.  Before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos stepped in last fall to buy it from the Graham family for $250 million dollars, the Post had recently been losing roughly $75 million a year. It’s all a part of the chaos inflicted on almost all traditional publishers by the digital revolution -- as Conan O’Brien reminded everyone at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner.

Conan O’Brien: Some people say print media is dying, but I don’t believe it. And neither does my blacksmith.

BOB GARFIELD: What with the formalwear and all, the affair had a sort of captain’s table on the Titanic vibe -- although that’s a characterization the Post’s executive editor Martin Baron strenuously dismisses, at least for his paper.

Martin Baron:  It’s far from the titanic. I think we’re doing very well. We do great work, agenda-setting work.

BOB GARFIELD: True. The Post just won two more Pulitzer Prizes, one for its part in covering the Edward Snowden NSA leaks.  But what about the upstart competition, the Grahams’ capitulation to financial extremis, and that slight, you know,  newspaper-industrywide death spiral?

Martin Baron:  I don’t think we’re in a death spiral. I think the entire industry is reinventing itself. We have 26 million unique visitors on line, and growing. Our audience is far broader than print. It’s worldwide. It’s nationwide. And I think what we’re we’re doing in that sphere is really impressive.

BOB GARFIELD: Actually, it’s up to 32 million unique visitors. And they are nothing to sneeze at, although 90% of them are outside of the DC area, and the ad revenue they generate is pitiful compared to the obscenely profitable good old days. But hold the thought; we’ll be back to Baron later, because if the reinvention of the news industry is going on, it didn’t start at 15th and L.

Just across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia, resides Politico, a newspaper named for its target audience.  Founded by two Post reporters seven-years-ago, it quickly became an inside-the-beltway institution. Co-founder and Editor John Harris:

John Harris: We do not try to be all things to all people. But we are obsessed with dominating the Washington conversation.

BOB GARFIELD: As such, Politico is equal parts stock market ticker and the Daily Racing Form, both monitoring and handicapping every up or down in the political fortunes of a person or a policy initiative. For better or worse, it is the paper of record for the horse race.

John Harris: Are we indispensable in Washington at the most elite and consequential levels of politics and policy making? Must we be read in house speaker John Boehner’s office because we are producing journalism that is of such consequence. Is the west wing of the White House reading politico not just to see what we're covering but because we’re generally informative and revelatory to them. When the answer is yes, we're succeeding.

BOB GARFIELD: They’re succeeding -- as evidenced by both the Post and the New York Times newly mimicking Politico’s signature feature, an early-morning newsletter called Playbook that has become something of official Washington’s unofficial agenda. Harris doesn’t fault them, but does advise his legacy competitors to identify their knitting and stick to it.

John Harris: What I would say if I were editor of the Washington Post, or to be honest if  I was  the editor of any publication, is what is our comparative advantage, to use the economists phrase? What do we do distinctively well?

BOB GARFIELD: Funny he should ask. Back across the river, not far from Chinatown, I trudge up the stairs to a loft space. Exposed brick, Ikea furniture, four young non-ink stained reporters at their computers, including one chasing down a lead.

Evan Santoro: Hi, is president brewer there, I’m Evan Santoro a reporter with Buzzfeed in Washington. I’m working on a story about something he said about a meeting with Eric Holder.

BOB GARFIELD: Yes, on the subject of knowing what you do best, my location is the Washington bureau of Buzzfeed, the world’s leading arbiter of cat-video greatness. As I write this,  BuzzFeed’s homepage headlines include “26 Must-Have Spring Flats For Under $50” and “28 Shocking Pictures That Prove That The Illuminati Is All Around Us.”   But now Buzzfeed joins  Politico, the Huffington Post, the Daily Caller, Vox, The  Drudge Report, Atlantic.com, Bloomberg and hundreds of other online outlets for national politics and policy to mammothly out-page-view the Powers that Were. The bureau chief is John Stanton.

John Stanton: We have caught the attention of people in congress. We’ve caught the attention of people in the white house and K Street and importantly, I think, the public as well -- particularly the younger demographic, which all of those people want. They want their attention and we are becoming THE outlet that does that.

BOB GARFIELD: Stanton is 6’7” with a shaved head, skull rings and tattoos covering his arms. He’s wearing a t-shirt that says (of course) ”Worlds Collide.” He looks like a bouncer, basically, which he was once. But now he’s on the list.

John Stanton: We don’t write a bill that passes. We don’t write about the micro politics behind that bill. But we will try to find a way to write about that that gives the readers and the public some context of what’s happening in Washington. I did a story this last winter about what happens when you get deported if you’re a Mexican and what your life looks like when you get back to Mexico, and that was our way to show the immigration debate and that was an angle that wasn’t really being looked at by people.

BOB GARFIELD: But it’s not just the news features he can cherry pick from the traditional media’s orchard, it’s the effect the new ecosystem has on the old guard. The Post’s most viewed story of the past year wasn’t the Snowden leaks; it was a listicle of shoddily built hotel rooms in Sochi for the Olympics. The Buzzfeedization of The Man. John Stanton.

John Stanton:  Easy to understand and shareable and catchy. Watching them learn that and go from sort of poohpoohing and saying, oh, all you guys do is these lists and whatever. To suddenly realizing that like these kinds of lists and this kind of journalism is a new take on an old form. It’s satisfying i guess.

Bob Garfield: Satisfying I guess?

John Stanton: If they want to do what we do, that’s great.

BOB GARFIELD: OK, but what about BuzzFeed’s ability to do what the Post does? Will his reporter, Evan Santoro, get his phone call returned on the Eric Holder story?

John Stanton: The folks that work here, they get their phone calls returned. They get scoops given to them by random people they’ve never talked to, because those people know that giving it to us means something. Even the White House knows that if you decide to shrug us off it’s gonna come back to bite you in the ass.

Garance Franke-Ruta: Well I think it depends on who you're trying to reach.

BOB GARFIELD: Garance Franke-Ruta, formerly of the Washington Post and the Atlantic, now Washington editor for Yahoo News.

Garance Franke-Ruta: I mean, the president has reached out to all kinds of different media with advertising and with interviews. You know he has done stuff with Reddit. He's done stuff with all kinds of different publications. There's just more people.

BOB GARFIELD: More people in the hunt for stories and more people in the audience. The Washington Post has 32 million monthly unique visitors. The New York Times has 67 million. Huffington Post has 90 million. Buzzfeed more than 130 million. Yahoo has 800 million. No living journalist lay awake at night as a child dreaming of writing for Yahoo news, but almost a billion potential readers? Ya-HOOO!  

Garance Franke-Ruta: I think there's a lot of attention still to the shift as if it's something that is new and happening. The shift happened. It's over. We're over whatever that hump was. We're on the other side of it already

BOB GARFIELD: Which is why the Post’s Marty Baron is unapologetically copying Playbook, launching vertical blogs, publishing Listicles and search-engine optimizing everything.

Marty Baron: One of the reasons we face such economic challenges is because we have this proliferation of competitors we never had before. Newspapers in the past were oligopolies or in some cases monopolies. That’s not the case today, all right. We’re competing in that environment. We intend to experiment every which way. And I expect that we will succeed. Just because we don’t have all the answers today doesn’t mean we won’t arrive at answers in the future.

Bob Garfield: I guess I’ll save the most important question til last.  Ben Bradlee had Jason Robards. Who’s playing you?  

Marty Baron: You don’t really expect me to answer that.

BOB GARFIELD: No. But, as we’ll see in a moment, it was not a stupid question. Coming up, Hollywood on the Potomac. Can you understand our democracy via House of Cards? This is On the Media.



Martin Baron, Garance Franke-Ruta, John Harris and John Stanton

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Bob Garfield