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Washington Post Exec Katharine Weymouth: I Wish Our Headlines Were as Good as Huffpo’s

Huffington and Weymouth

Old media, meet new media, meet old media’s new media. Arianna Huffington’s self-named Web site is one of the most prominent (and fast-growing) examples of the new-media aggregation model: Produce a smattering of your own content and spread it across a site filled with stuff everyone else has made. Katharine Weymouth runs the media arm of the Washington Post Co. (WPO)–which happens to be the family business. Unlike the rest of the company’s flagship paper, the Post’s online revenue is still growing. But not fast enough to offset the rest of the company’s decline. Can the Post figure out how to survive? Can people like Huffington survive without the Post and its ilk? Time to find out.

Session Highlights

Live Blog

  • Intro: A video from the Post proclaiming that rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated, illustrated with remixes of viral Web videos (fat kid with light saber, laughing baby, numma numma dude, etc.). We’ll be able to publish it soon, and you should watch it. Good stuff. UPDATE: Here it is.
  • Kara tries out an Arianna impression. Arianna approves.
  • Time for some polls! No surprise: People like to read newspapers online. Also no surprise: People don’t pay for it. Somewhat of a surprise: People say that they are willing to pay for some kind of news.
  • Kara asks Katharine to describe the newspaper landscape: I took the job in January 2008. Bad timing. Big seismic shift in industry. We’re reorienting Wapo for the digital age. Print circulation is declining but relatively stable. Online we have a big audience: 10 million uniques. 90 percent of our traffic is from outside the Washington area. We don’t have a print footprint outside of DC, unlike The Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Home delivery has been flat after a price increase. But it’s not about “saving the newspaper.” I believe in the newspaper, and it’s good to remember that people feel passionately about the printed product. But we have to adapt. “We can put our head in the sand and hope it all goes away or we can move.”
  • The newspaper is losing money, and we’re not proud of that but we’re working on it. Online group revenue is increasing (see above).
  • Arianna: We now have 20 million uniques. Also, happy birthday, Katharine! We got to that size by moving away from doing only politics. Half of traffic doesn’t come from politics. April was our best month. We’re expanding into local. Did Chicago, now doing New York. Now trying out investigative journalism. We poached a Wapo guy to head up that investigative effort.

Arianna Huffington

  • Katharine, do you consider Arianna’s site a problem? Whoops, before we can get to that, Arianna wants to argue that describing her site as “left-leaning” is “incredibly obsolete. What’s happening in area after area cannot be described as right versus left. That’s very old-fashioned.”
  • OK, back to Katharine: “I think Arianna has built an amazing site and drives a lot of traffic to us, so thank you!” We need to learn from what Huffpo does: Headlines, display, navigation. They have better headlines than we do. And its “brilliant, clever” packaging, which works on the Web.
  • Arianna: My turn to butter you up and praise your Web reporter. Also, you guys have figured out how to meld stories and content. Geniuses in the audience, please figure out how to filter comments for vile stuff. We have 30 people moderating comments right now.
  • Kara: Can you imagine a day where most people get political news from sites like Huffpo or Politico? Katharine: We need to learn how people want to digest news on the Web. We’re learning. We’ve blown up our newsroom organization. Not getting rid of people, but rethinking the way they work. We’re still learning, though: Our new lady-friendly section ran a funeral story instead of Oscars on Oscar Sunday because they were afraid of encroaching on our style section.
  • Arianna notes that everyone now consumes information by grazing throughout the Web. “Once you are a denizen of the Web, you never just visit one site.”
  • Katharine: In Washington, more 18-34 year olds read the print version of Wapo than watch “American Idol.”

Katharine Weymouth

  • Kara: Wapo has smaller staff than before, but still a lot of people–an editorial staff of 800 to produce the print and Web products. How do you deal with that when online revenue is so low? Katharine: Don’t think of them as substitutes.
  • Arianna: It’s all about journalism. It has to be about saving journalism, not newspapers. When I see newspapers asking for special priveliges, I think of Detroit in 2001. And look at how well that turned out. A plug for “Disrupting Class,” Clayton Christensen’s tome on disruptive innovation.
  • Kara: Do you want special privileges Katharine? No.
  • How about monetization? Arianna: We’re breaking even. We raised $25 million, but that’s not for operations, it’s for expansion. We’re break-even from advertising. We absolutely never imagine subscriptions. Unless you’re selling porn, and especially “very weird porn,” you shouldn’t sell subscriptions.
  • Katharine: There’s no doubt we have to cut costs. We have to do that smart. Kara: But what does that mean? Katharine: We are shutting printing plants; we are making cuts in newsroom. But we’re not getting less good. When we broke Watergate we had 375 people in the newsroom. We used to lose money up until the 1950s. We can get smaller. We know people don’t have mind. People want a smaller package, but quality.
  • Arianna: Good point! Wapo is doing great work, but what journalism has failed to do is the right reporting in the lead-up to the war and predicting the economic crisis. American journalism has missed the two biggest stories of our times. Even worse, the Wapo had a skeptical story about WMDs, but they buried that story. Point is: Very often, journalism has been practicing a Pontius Pilate-style of journalism and presenting two sides, when, very often, the truth is one on side or the other. Also a big shout-out for I. F. Stone.
  • Katharine: We need to remain a for-profit business. But our commitment to journalism is fully intact. We have a $1-million-a-year Baghdad bureau. We did the AIG story. But we also have guys from Facebook telling us how to make fan pages.
  • Arianna, would you ever spend $1 million for a Baghdad bureau? Arianna: We’d consider it. But there are other ways to try this. Citizen journalism is great. She cites Mumbai tweets, the Hudson airplane landing, etc. Kara: Does that take the place of a professional journalist in Baghdad? Arianna: No, but note that most of those people have been stuck in the Green Zone there until recently.
  • In the future, will Wapo exist in print? Katharine: I like print, but I don’t know. We’re looking at Kindle, looking at DX, looking at Plastic Logic, but to my mind, I haven’t seen anything to replicate the print experience yet.
  • Q&A: It’s a sad when big papers close, but a tragedy when local papers close. How do you solve that problem? Arianna: Check out Voice of San Diego, funded by Knight and other nonprofits, very successful, and MinnPost in Minnesota. We’re talking to Voice of San Diego. We’ll do other partnerships. Also, we don’t do enough follow-up stories, and we should do that. [None of this really answers the question about who’s going to do the daily grind that is the daily newspaper business.]

Questions and answers during the Huffington/Washington Post session

  • Question for Katharine: What about a “bespoke” version of a print newspaper? Yes, online we can do that. In print, it’s too difficult to deliver multiple versions of a paper.
  • Steve Levy (former WPO employee, now at Wired) wants  to know how many people move from Huffington Post aggregation to the original sources. Arianna: “The majority of people go to the original story.” The extracts are are supposed to lure you into the story. “Intellectual property is completely honored.”
  • Arianna criticizes access reporting, whereby reporters become stenographers for whomever they talk to and provide them with stories. [Amen.] She argues that online journalism is helping to solve this problem. [Don’t know about that.] Katharine: “I totally take issue with that.” We produce hard-hitting news every day. Arianna: I agree. I was critiquing the Times “and Bob Woodward’s books.”
  • Arianna, where will you be in four years? Not running for president, because I wasn’t born here. I don’t make five-year plans. I think this is a great era for journalism. We’re making a great generation of news consumers.

A note about our coverage: This liveblog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as we were able. It was not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.

Arianna Huffington and Katharine Weymouth Session Photos

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Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post, onstage at D7.