In September Melissa Ludtke, editor of Nieman Reports, talked by phone with Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, about his experiences in trying to interest younger people in his newspaper’s work. Excerpts from this interview follow.
Melissa Ludtke (editor, Nieman Reports): As managing editor of The Washington Post, what have you been most interested in learning about younger audiences and how their lives intersect or don’t intersect with what newspapers do?
Steve Coll (managing editor, The Washington Post): The first and most important question is media use. And clearly, there are generations rising whose patterns of media use and information retrieval are really quite different from generations who have gone before them. And it’s not just the young adults that the newspaper industry understandably concentrates on, but the generations coming immediately behind them, whose use of instant messaging and search technology is altering in profound ways their relationship with information and media. That younger generation is crucially important to newspapers in part because it is so large. It’s larger than the baby boom generation.
And so, the first thing I struggle to understand is how these changing media use habits connect to the kind of journalism we produce, not just in the newspaper, but also on the Web. And then, as this generation ages, how can we capture them across all of our platforms while sustaining the business model that makes the journalism we do possible in the first place? It’s not enough to just find an audience as all of the dot-com venture capital investors discovered. We have to find an audience from which we can sustain journalism that matters and that involves resources.
M.L.: Are there distinct fundamentally different challenges now?
Coll: Yes. And most of those involve the breakout of the Web as the ubiquitous medium. But I think it’s important to see these challenges as a kind of synthesis, that is to say you have to conquer the new while you manage the inheritance in a successful and rational way. If you think about it in generational terms, it is a duty and a need of newspapers to serve the baby boom generation effectively until they pass, and we know for a fact that the baby boom generation is going to read newspapers well into its 80’s and do so loyally, and that’s very important for the future of newspaper-based companies. And the generation that comes after them, the evidence suggests they are going to have a less deep and less loyal relationship with newspapers. But they’re going to have some relationship as they age as well. So that platform and the journalism, and the newsroom culture, and the resources, and the organizational charts that serve it must continue even while you construct the transition. That’s what makes it so interesting.
It’s not a radical break. It’s a really energetic and creative evolution that tries to hold both fronts together—the defensive and the offensive front—and really pull them together, so they’re not fighting with each other but you are really just moving in the right pattern in both of these directions.
M.L.: Both directions at the same time. Is that physically possible?
Coll: This is a big advantage of the Web. In comparison to previous revolutions in media technology, the Web is much friendlier to newspapers than the last couple of media.
M.L.: Do you mean broadcast media and cable?
Coll: You start with radio, then television, then cable television, and each of those media changed the way Americans and the world interacted with news and media. And they certainly undermined the previous primacy of newspapers. But each of those media was narrower and much less compatible with what newspapers do journalistically. Broadcast news across television, it’s about the pictures first of all. Secondly, the delivery system of television news is really quite narrow. It’s a small pipe to pour information into; it’s what you can fit onto a screen over time. Thus even the best of the network news programs at the height of the networks’ power in the mid-60’s were pretty limited as sources of information about what happened in the world yesterday; only 27 minutes of what a newsreader or scattered correspondents could voice in that period of time.
By contrast, the Web is infinite in its spatial characteristics. It much more resembles the supermarket that a newspaper is. It has no constraints on time or space, yet it has many of the properties that make a newspaper attractive as a source of news. It’s continuously available, it’s easy to update, and so forth. And the Web is not that expensive to operate in comparison to a television network. So in some sort of big picture sense, I think the Web and newspapers are more compatible than some other technologies trying to partner and win allegiances of audiences.
M.L.: That brings me back to the conundrum you face in terms of retaining the business model that allows you to be a generator of news reporting in a way that you want to be for your current audience.
Coll: Right, and that’s at the heart of the matter in a sort of medium-run sense because part of the problem when you think about the synthesis we’ve been discussing is what is the scale ultimately of the Web business? Nobody knows. How much revenue ultimately will it generate, and how effective will it be in supporting the newsgathering resources that we’ve inherited?
We know that the newspaper platform, while eroding in some long-term structural sense, is very supportive of the newsgathering resources and culture that we’ve built up. So it’s more important in that sense than the unproven model of the Web. On the other hand, if you don’t invest in the Web and discover what its potential is, then you are absolutely foreclosing the possibility of making this transition successfully.
In a historical sense, we’re really very early in this story. It’s only five years since the Web broke out, and here’s what we know: The Web has become ubiquitous in American society. The rate of take-up is just astonishing in comparison to other technologies of its kind. The rate of penetration is just huge, and the pace at which that take-up has occurred is mind-boggling. There is no way that’s going to reverse. Secondly, we know that the audiences that have participated in this revolution want to use this medium for news. And so they are turning to Web news sources in very large numbers. At The Washington Post, the total audience across all platforms that consumes our journalism has roughly quintupled in four years. That accounts for an enormous new Web audience that we’ve attracted. So that’s another lesson we’ve now learned: There is a large audience that wants to consume journalism on the Web, the kind of journalism we and other newspapers produce.
Now there’s one other big piece of this that we don’t know: What kind of business model is the Web piece going to produce by way of scale, and what is the pace at which that business model will emerge? And what are going to be the limits? Is this going to scale to basically the size of a radio station, in which case over 30 or 40 years it’s going to be difficult to support the newsroom outside my glass window? Or is it going to be the first in a series of ways in which news organizations like ours deliver quality journalism of a traditional type across multiple platforms to large audiences and in doing so are rewarded by the marketplace amply to continue with that kind of journalism? I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen over the next 20 years, but I think that’s the question.
M.L.: Can you take one news product and successfully put it across these different platforms?
Coll: Well, you have to evolve. You have to continue to operate in ways that serve the next day’s newspaper without yielding an inch. That is still the first priority. But in doing so you have to change to deliver simultaneously to this new and crucially important medium. This is where management comes in—figuring out how to do both of those things best not by operating from some theoretical manual, but by using common sense and a close adherence to the journalism. Put the journalism first, put the readers first, put the reporters first. And start to move. You have to insist on change because if you don’t you won’t evolve, and you’ll miss this opportunity. But you also have to work from the ground up.
One of the problems with the Web is that it’s always on, and a newspaper is used to operating once a day. So in starting to produce journalism for a Web site, you need to move across the clock in ways that you didn’t before and initially in doing that it can be disruptive and cause anxiety in the newsroom. But once you get your feet under you, you realize that in many respects, but not all, it’s quite compatible with what you would wish to do to make a great newspaper the next day. You end up having colleagues who are paying attention to the news earlier in the day than anyone else at the newspaper used to be. You have cycles of coverage that push you towards the edge of the story earlier in the day than you might have if you were only going to write once at six o’clock. Anyway you have this enormous audience on the Web that is just very exciting to be in touch with, and when you start to engage with them they stimulate you as a journalist. They push you, they give you feedback, they respond to your work, they consume what you do with real relish, and that energizes the newsroom.
It’s not easy. I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about it, and I know there are tensions between the two missions, but most of the time those tensions are minor in comparison to the sense of energy and excitement that this kind of journalism injects into the newsroom.
The Washington Post’s free newspaper for young commuters.
M.L.: This past August The Washington Post launched Express. It is a newspaper created with younger readers in mind. It’s not a Web-based experience, but readers hold it in their hands, and it reads like a tabloid. It’s a quick news read, particularly appealing to those who are maybe college age up to probably mid-30’s. Can you explain the editorial thinking behind Express and how it fits into this kind of discussion we’ve been having?
Coll: To see how it fits in you kind of have to start where it began and then follow its evolution. About five or six years ago a Swedish company called Metro rolled out the model that Express represents. They began publishing in Europe a commuter-oriented free sheet that is now given away on subways in some American cities. And these papers have certain characteristics, a kind of structure of circulation and advertising and a business model in which you could produce a quick read newspaper that was not tabloid in its journalistic sensibility and yet would appeal, by its brevity and its graphic design and other characteristics, to public transportation riders who were nonreaders of newspapers.
The key facet of the Express model, from my point of view, in terms of readership, is that every free sheet of this kind—in the United States and in Europe—has succeeded because it appeals to nonreaders of newspapers who are nonetheless attractive to advertisers. These tend to be younger males commuting on public transportation to jobs early in their careers. Sometimes it appeals to immigrants and others who rely on public transportation in big metropolitan areas like ours. But when we looked at the available research across a variety of companies and models, we concluded that even though there is an overlap around the edges, these papers succeed without cannibalizing in a serious way the readership of existing broadsheet quality newspapers.
Overall these are not readers of newspapers. Now why does that fit into our earlier conversation? In part, it’s an attempt to capture generations and just find different platforms to deliver to different audiences, but we think there’s maybe more of an opportunity than just that. Perhaps by operating intelligently, Express can cross-promote the Post’s Web site and the newspaper, and over time we can migrate some meaningful minority from the nonreader status on the subway to habitual users of the Web site and perhaps, even over more time, subscribers to the newspaper. I don’t know how many nonreaders of newspapers will ultimately migrate to The Washington Post through an Express strategy, but it can’t hurt. We certainly won’t lose anyone by trying, and I do think that in the research there is evidence that audiences that connect to Express are likely to be Web users for news and information. At a minimum we can migrate a significant number of people from Express towards washingtonpost.com and towards its search functions. And once they become part of our community on the Web, then that’s good. From there they may deepen their relationship with the newspaper in some respects.
M.L.: With some of these subway publications, there has been criticism that they are dumbing down the news to appeal to these younger audiences and thereby not upholding the standards of journalism. Is there a concern that you are introducing a different kind of news reporting to a younger generation, somehow diluting what journalism is?
Coll: In the case of Express, this doesn’t worry me. I think it’s a legitimate question, but it doesn’t worry me because what’s in Express are wire service stories. It does not have a tabloid sensibility. The content in Express is quite hard news driven and derived from The Associated Press primarily, from the Los Angeles Times, and off of the wire service secondarily. It’s not a different kind of journalism. It’s very solid journalism. I think of it more as headline news. It’s just a sense of scale and brevity and graphic design. There’s no question that time use is changing in our culture and the need that everyone feels, even people who are very seriously interested in news, for efficiency and speed is greater than it was a couple of generations ago.
The Washington Post Sunday section for young readers.
M.L.: The Washington Post has launched a Sunday section with lots of graphics and charts that you were quoted as calling “webby and experimental.”
Coll: We launched a section called Sunday Source. It is a straightforward newspaper section. In content terms, in many respects, it is derived from the mainstream of service journalism that we and other newspapers do. It was developed in part to address a structural problem in our Sunday newspaper, which was kind of a historical accident. Monday through Saturday we have all of these vertical sections that provide really rich lifestyle and service journalism: We have a broadsheet health section on Tuesday, a food section on Wednesday, a home section on Thursday, a very robust entertainment section called Weekend on Friday, and we do real estate on Saturdays.
On Sundays, we have a travel section, but these resources we’d built up in the newsroom that produced all of this exciting service journalism were underrepresented in the Sunday paper. So part of what we were trying to do was to pull them together into a news section in a Sunday paper that could draw on all of this expertise and staff that we’ve built up over the years to deliver something extra on Sundays.
So that was step one. Then step two was, okay, let’s execute this in a way that is designed to try to include, if not directly target, younger readers. Let’s not execute it in a way so that it is designed and presented with sort of baby boomer design and journalism sensibilities only in mind. Let’s try to think about presentation, format, look and feel that tries to go down a generation or two. And what would that mean, and how do you connect it to the sensibilities that seem to attract large young audiences on the Web?
And so we ended up with a section that in design and presentation terms is closer to the Web than anything else we publish or design. It’s more graphic-driven. There is less pure text, more stories broken down into component parts and presented through graphics and captions and boxes and such. Obviously, this look and feel is derived in substantial part from design innovation pioneered by USA Today and others. And also fundamental to this section, in a more traditional way, are pages of listings and sort of calendar and entertainment functions that we thought were missing in our paper on Sunday.
M.L.: What mechanisms have you put in place at the Post to assess and measure ways that these approaches are working or not working?
Coll: We’ve got a terrific research department and we do quite a lot of research both on a sort of project basis and on a continuing basis to measure perceptions of the paper and the Web site.
M.L.: Is this done through focus groups?
Coll: No. We do scientifically grounded quantified research of the sort where you need a pretty large sample size to get to some level of validity.
M.L.: Have you gotten any feedback from this yet?
Coll: Yes, we’ve gotten some feedback, which is very positive. We did research before we launched Sunday Source to make sure we weren’t delivering “new Coke” in some way that we couldn’t perceive. It’s sort of not surprising that an organization of this size with all the talent can get something out the door that people would generally like.
The more important question is over time, where does it lead us? How does it help us, or to what degree does it help us? Because of the ownership we have and the resources we have the Post is very much of a long-run place. This section’s place in the Sunday paper is something that we will all measure more in the long run.
M.L.: As these younger generations get older, can you envision 20 years from now how they’re going to look at the newspaper as part of the way they will take in news?
Coll: I wouldn’t pretend to see the future in 20 years out, but I think you can start to sketch it. Some of this is just my hope, but I think that if you look backward 200 years and ask what values and needs of an open society like ours are likely to endure, then you would say that the American people are always going to want to be well-informed by independent journalists who hold government accountable and who report on the exercise of power and the world we live in. And they will support organizations that deliver the news they need in attractive and accurate and reliable formats.
And what’s the delivery system? And where do newspapers fit in that? The baby boomer generation is going to live until 2020, so newspapers are going to be a part of the delivery system for at least 20 years. Can you connect the community of readers and the journalism and resources that produce it over those 20 years to other platforms that are equally ubiquitous and exciting and attractive—the always-on Web delivery, mobile Web delivery, news and information that arrives in your car without causing you to drive into a tree, and news and information that arrives across your cell phone? Or will news and information be customized for you in an intelligent way so you can take advantage of the Post’s independent reporting about your school district to go deep on the subjects that matter to you and your neighbors? When your local government interacts with you, what role does The Washington Post play in helping you to evaluate your government’s performance? Is it only going to be the story that we write in the newspaper the next day, or will our journalism across other platforms including the Web also be a part of the way you live as a citizen and as a curious American?
Journalism is going to survive. The trick for people who have jobs like mine is to muster it and manage it so that we can preserve the quality and traditions we’ve inherited, and they’re certainly under pressure. And I don’t know that we’ll succeed, but I certainly don’t take failure for granted, either.