Make your news brand addictive – that’s the advice of Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, for news organisations with limited resources to spend on innovation and experimentation.
“Think through what compels people to come to us every single day, what can we do that is of value, that's unique, that's distinctive, that nobody else is doing, and what is it that people will actually pay for,” he told Journalism.co.uk after his keynote address at the GEN Summit in Vienna today (22 June).
“[News outlets] are not going to get the same sorts of advertising dollars that they have in the past, they do need to develop the subscription business, and they do need to think through what is the kind of journalism that is going to cause people to buy a subscription.”
In his talk, he highlighted the one thing that never changes in the journalism industry: the mission. Missionaries make better products because they care more, he added, quoting Jeff Bezos. “You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you," the quote, which is displayed in the Post newsroom, continues.
"Some call it our brand, I call it our soul and it is our compass,” Baron told delegates.
“We now know that there is a business case in addition to the moral case for investigative journalism.“
As president Trump has chosen to make attacks on the media a centrepiece of his campaign as well as his governance, some have spoken about the ‘Trump effect’, which drove subscription numbers up as some people rallied to support the news outlets being criticised.
The Washington Post is expanding its investigative reporting, and has recently been hiring for its rapid-response investigative team, announced in January.
Other areas of expansion for the Post include video, where the organisation is doubling staff numbers to 60 this year, podcasting, and exploring platforms from Snapchat Discover to Amazon Alexa and other voice-controlled interfaces.
Promoting transparency is also a consideration in the Washington Post newsroom. Journalists from the title share their stories in a Facebook group where they are discussed with interested readers, and the Washington Post is part of the Trust Project, funded by Craig Newmark, Google, and supported by the Markkula Foundation.
In his talk, Baron quoted figures showing that 36 per cent of Republicans believe press freedom can do more harm than good. He told Journalism.co.uk there is pressure now for the Post to be more transparent, pressure that comes from platforms but also from the public, who want to know more about who the journalists are and what the foundations of their stories are.
“We want to be more transparent and I think that's really important, meeting the needs of the Trust Project, telling more about our writers, so there’s more readily available supporting material for people to take a look at.
“Anything that we can do to enhance our credibility. I am not suggesting that's the entire answer because if people don't want to believe it, there's not much we can do to change their minds, but there are enough people out there who will just say ‘show me more of your work’ and to the extent that we can do that, we will do that.”
The Washington Post as a technology company
Technology is also a core element of The Washington Post’s success. The organisation sells its suite of tools called Arc to other media outlets - tronc, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, became the Post’s biggest client in March.
Baron told delegates the Post wants to position itself as a technology leader, taking things step by step “often in ways that may not be dramatic but are effective”.
“[Facebook and Google] are fundamentally technology companies that are playing an editorial role, we're fundamentally a news organisation that's very driven by technology and where technology is becoming more important, so the balance is different, but we're both in each other's spaces.”
Update: This story has been edited on 23 June to clarify that the following quote is originally by Jeff Bezos: "Missionaries make better products because they care more. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you." Read the full quote here.
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