Washington Post begins combining print & digital

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Washington Post Combining Print and Digital

Washington Post Combining Print and Digital

Washington Post editors are now slipping into new roles designed to simplify the way news is gathered and presented at one of the nation’s most significant newspapers. The change will be sweeping: the newsroom’s core will tighten as the Post’s two distinct print and digital teams begin merging into one. But just because the ride – which has been a long time coming – is in motion, there’s no guarantee the journey will be smooth.

With a reported average of 6.6 million unique visitors a month, the Post’s Web site is a steady success. But the print side is a money pit, as is typical of the newspaper business. Several rounds of buyouts have occurred over the past five years, and the Post has quoted an e-mail from its publisher stating layoffs are possible for the first time. To increase both print and digital success, the Post believes it is time to put aside the division that began in 1996 when a separate digital newsroom in Arlington, Va., was created for the then-new Web site.

Howard Kurtz, Post media critic and host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, put it in perspective for inVocus via an e-mail interview. “We’re all accustomed to writing for the Web by now. But that is increasingly becoming more important than ever, and yet we want to preserve the time to report and craft stories for the next day’s paper.”

With an anemic economy and a struggling newspaper industry, integration increasingly looks like a good option for the Post. Not only could consolidating space and joining efforts improve the product, but it could also break the Post of its own bad habits. Kurtz noted, “For years Post reporters joked about what was dubbed MLE, or Multiple Layers of Editing, and in a tough financial climate that’s something we no longer need, if we ever did.”

The changeover was foreshadowed last September when the Post hired the man who merged the Wall Street Journal newsrooms, Marcus Brauchli, as executive editor. Brauchli named Liz Spayd, managing editor of washingtonpost.com, and Raju Narisetti, as the paper’s new managing editors. Then, key digital editors began to split time between the Arlington newsroom and the Post’s storied Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Brainstorming became reality on April 16, when Brauchli sent a memo to Post staffers outlining key personnel changes for the reorganization. The memo said that come May 1, a new universal news desk will bring together all departments and both newsrooms. In addition, all news reporting groups will answer to either the national or local editor. “We want to simplify the handling of words, pages, images and new media, building on the prescient move to ‘two-touch’ editing,” Brauchli said in the Post’s lengthy memo co-signed by Spayd and Narisetti.

Zachary Seward, assistant editor of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, is closely studying the Post’s transition. He notes that all publications have some room to trim the editing process. But, “the real question is which bricks to pull out to try to find the essential ones [to keep]. It’s hard to say if it’s the right bricks they’re pulling out.”

The trial-and-error process that may ensue is risky due to the instability of the newspaper industry as a whole. Multimedia skills are coming to the forefront, as many Post editors will now oversee one topic across all platforms, including the Web and social media. Those skills are not only necessary for success, but also for survival. When reductions take place, Seward said, “The reporters they will tend to save are the ones with multimedia skills and online experience.”

Post fans may recall that in December 2008, washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady announced he would leave after the presidential inauguration in January. Brady told the Wall Street Journal that he saw his role fading away when the newsrooms came together. He said the change was necessary, but that, as a veteran of the digital world, his own options would be limited by the new arrangement. It is a trend we will continue to see: old roles being put aside for the sake of the craft, and those who love it deciding when it is time to go. That is, if they aren’t told to go first, by way of layoffs and buyouts.

Aside from the struggle to stay current, physically combining two offices creates another issue.  “The challenge here is not just to physically move the online staff from Virginia to D.C. but to merge the two different cultures,” Kurtz said.

For those in PR, a newsroom in the process of integrating can be a confusing place to pitch. Keeping contact lists up to date is essential, as reporters and editors may be changing locations or areas of coverage. An integrated newsroom at the Post eliminates the need to contact reporters in two different offices. But an integrated staff requires more specific pitching.

Patience will probably be the most powerful tool for anyone contacting a newsroom in transition. As modern newsrooms evolve, there will be adjustments on every level. Even Kurtz is not sure of things to come. “I’m not entirely clear on how the new process is going to work,” he said, “but clearly some streamlining is in order.”

–Lisa Rowan

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