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Fighting For Quality—and Revenue—In The Digital Age

Washington Post Editors Make their Case on The Kalb Report

Gil Klein
By Gil Klein
  • Kalb Report

Two top Washington Post editors marveled at the new ways that technology allows newspapers to tell stories at the same time they conceded they were struggling to deal with the financial pressures that are forcing the paper to continue to make staff reductions.

“We have new, powerful ways of storytelling; we can reach far more people,” Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told host Marvin Kalb on the latest edition of “The Kalb Report” Monday night.

But he said the paper still has not turned the corner toward financial stability that will allow it to begin to rebuild the staff after severe cuts.

“There’s no question that we have to cut costs,” he said. “That forces us to make choices. Once we've made those choices about what areas we want to focus on, we need to do those extremely well.”

So far, he said, that has meant eliminating the Post’s national bureaus—among many other reductions—to concentrate on the core of what makes the paper special and important—coverage of the federal government and politics.

Baron and Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida were Kalb’s guests at the National Press Club as part of a continuing series of programs co-sponsored by UMUC to examine the changing role of the news media in society.

With home delivery plummeting from a daily high of almost 700,000 copies in 2007 to about 462,000 last year, the Post, like all major newspapers, is seeing the print edition evaporate at the same time that online viewers of the paper expand dramatically. The problem is that advertisers are not completely following the readers online where readers currently get all of the information for free.

That means revenues are drying up, forcing major cutbacks in a newspaper industry that was awash in money just a decade ago. At the same time, technological breakthroughs are forcing all news organizations into a race to be first on the Web and to develop new ways of reaching readers on Smart Phones and iPads.

The challenge, he said, is to tell stories on different platforms in new media that attract larger audiences, and then to find ways to make money from them.

“We’re in an inventive phase,” Merida said, referring to the Post’s video journalists as well as new forms of interactive graphics that are attracting readers to the Web. “We’re constantly creating journalism that hasn’t been invented before.”

Even with all of the cuts, he said, the paper still is producing quality journalism. Quality is not based only on the size of the staff or the size of the circulation. The Post gained its national reputation with the Watergate investigation when it had a staff that is smaller than it is now, he said.

The Post has been late to adopt new ways to get readers to pay for the paper online, Baron conceded, but it is now about to implement a pay model that will charge regular online readers.

Creating a pay model is difficult, he said. Internet advertising does generate revenue that will decline if fewer people visit the Web site because it now costs money. But the paper cannot continue to give away a product that is expensive to produce.

While the pay model will not generate as much money as advertising in the print newspaper used to produce, he said, it is a step toward finding new revenue sources.

“We need people to pay for the work that we do,” he said.

This edition of “The Kalb Report” marks the end of its 19th season. It is a join project of the Club’s Journalism Institute, UMUC, The George Washington University, Harvard University, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.