Monday, October 6, 2014

The Washington Post, the News Industry, Jeff Bezos, Martin Baron and Innovation in News- Driving Change in a Changing World

Executive Summary: The Washington Post is neither an Amazon nor a Buzzfeed. Below are some elements of building a distinctive news organization that Jeff Bezos, Martin Baron and the news leadership would likely have considered at The Washington Post. They are structured as a framework, and presented with a parallel between building such a news organization and with managing innovation in fast paced industries. The metrics and insights that you may develop from these go a step beyond what the conventional audience, digital and social media metrics can do for you. No industry jargon was harmed or involved in the making of this quick essay. From the desk of A-Fine-Balance-between-High-Risk-Objectives-and-Metrics-For-Key-Results. 

Since Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year, there has been a lot of media conversation here (Businessweek) and here (Politico) about the news organization's personnel changes and also about its direction.

The most recent and highly cited one has been an article by David Carr of the New York Times (See link: ). The Washington Post, driven by Martin Baron and the leadership team, can take many paths towards building a distinctive news organization. For more about how New York Times handled its change, see here:

Let's address the elephant in the room.

What did Jeff Bezos gain by buying The Washington Post?

Digital is here.
Digital is not going away.
Digital will grow without Jeff Bezos' involvement.
Regardless of any potentially larger, altruistic reasons to own the newspaper that Jeff Bezos may share with the previous owners, The Washington Post offers Jeff Bezos a digital insight into minds on the Internet operating slightly higher up on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, compared to other websites. (Note: Maslow's Hierarchy is mentioned here only for simplicity- for a branding context, please feel free to refer to David Aaker's work here on the brand loyalty pyramid and Jennifer Aaker's work here on building innovative brands).

Additionally, while book publishing is a different animal from news, building a distinctive news organization that thrives in a digital world offers some transferable insights.

The Framework.

The framework below is one way to think about the trade offs involved in building a distinctive news organization. It offers a pathway to out-of-the-box metrics and potential key results the new organization's leadership could develop to manage a driven, aligned and responsive (towards stated objectives, not reactive) organization. I list a few dimensions of this framework to serve as guardrails.

The Objective.

Let's set a broad goal/ initial objective of this thought exercise for the Washington Post:
To build a widely read newspaper that has the sort of cache in the mind of the reader that Apple has relative to its competitors. It becomes a leader in an ecosystem for driving awareness, engagement and change, based on news elements, for the reader.

How's that for a start?

You will note that the objective explicitly sets the Washington Post a little higher on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs than a content farm. (Note again: Maslow's Hierarchy is mentioned here only for simplicity- for a branding context, please feel free to refer to David Aaker's work here on the brand loyalty pyramid and Jennifer Aaker's work here on building innovative brands).

The Dimensions

A few iterations through the structure below should yield some quantifiable objectives as well.

Dimension 1: Reader Impact Zones.

In terms of the reader, let's define how news may impact the reader in the scope of his or her daily life. We shall describe these as concentric circles.

Immediate Zone: The Giants winning the Superbowl is an Immediate Zone impact. So is news of a regulation cutting your taxes in half.

Near Network Zone: News about quicker or easier access to drugs for a sick relative would be a Near Network Zone impact.

Overarching/ Distant Network Zone: Immigration reform that does not affect you directly, but is important to you as an issue, would have an Overarching/ Distant Network Zone impact.

Dimension 2: Type Reader Network Effect.

What kind of a reader network effect can a news story have? We can draw from our experience of current metrics covering news, digital and social media here.

Awareness: This would go beyond just how many readers have read the news item on a topic (i.e. not just CPM as a sample metric).

Engagement: This is not just sharing on social media. This may involve the number of thought leaders engaged in the conversation in and around the news coverage. The news organization's leadership in facilitating conversation across the ecosystem on the news topic.

Change: Is there a change in the readership's views due to this news topic coverage (if that is important? If not, why not?) A change in law, as a direct effect of the new organization's leadership in news coverage, would be an example of the change effect.

Dimension 3: Timeline.

How long does the news coverage and its impact last.

Thinsliced: Commentary on cat videos is an example.
Short: From one to a few news cycles.
Medium: May require sustained effort towards engagement and may lead to change.
Long: Policy decisions that may change the nature of society.

Dimension 4: Originating, Curating and Funneling News Items (a la Innovation).

Just as organizations realize that the next great disruptive innovation may not arise in-house, news organizations would understand that they may not always be at the center of the next 'greatest news story ever'. How you manage origination, curation and funneling (you may replace funneling with acceleration of news ideas, if you like) of news stories is important. What percentage of ‘impactful’ stories would The Washington Post like to break?

Dimension 5: Distribution.

Top two on this list would be partners, along with cross medium, multichannel content and promotions.

Investigation into civil forfeiture and also posting a John Oliver video on the same topic is a great example of partner and cross medium thinking. See link:

Evaluate The Framework So Far

We can come up with a few more dimensions, however, let's pause here. How does this help the editor and publisher? Here are questions worth thinking about:

How many news items can the news organization run in a year that string together into a medium term topic, which impact user views on the topic, engage 50%+ of the thought leaders on the topic and lead to an actual change in the life (say via a change in law) of the reader?
What is a sustainable frequency for these efforts?
Does a higher frequency of such efforts lead to increased subscriptions and greater reader retention?
Does a reduction of thinslicing type of content (say commentary on cat videos) lead to a reduction in traffic and hence a reduction in audience engagement?
Can this reduction in audience engagement be offset by pushing content through partners and other channels?


Building a distinctive news organization requires and understanding of, and a sustained effort towards, the level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs the employees, the readers, the industry and the news organization as a whole, wants to operate at. Going by kudos from readers and media watchers (David Carr at the New York Times), the leadership is showing success at this. The dimensions and the framework shed light on some of the challenges they deal with on a daily basis.

What do you think?