When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250m in 2013, the paper was facing the prospect of a seventh straight annual revenue decline and a loss for the year estimated at as much as $40m.
That same year, the New York Times (NYT) recorded a net income of $65m – half what it made the previous year, on broadly flat revenues of just over $1.5bn.
Though the Post was clearly experiencing a protracted fall, along, of course, with much of the rest of the print media in the US and elsewhere, the much bigger NYT was still looking like the legacy business it was.
In the almost a decade since, these twin icons of US newspaper journalism have both engineered successful digital-focused turnrounds. But the gap between them has, if anything, widened. It’s a telling example of the winner-takes-most dynamics of news in the digital age. The Washington Post, slower to move than the NYT and always driving from a narrower customer base, looks destined to remain the smaller sibling in America’s quality news landscape.
Of course, one might have thought that being owned by a man who has regularly topped the richest person in the world rankings would have presented the Post with a chance of taking the crown.
After all, Bezos’ ownership didn’t take long to make an impact. The paper rapidly moved back from a narrowing focus on the Washington Metro area and embraced a more global outlook in search of new readers.
Within three years, the Post claimed to be profitable, and had doubled its web traffic. Bezos’ not exactly surprising investment in product and technology led not just to an improved online presence for the newspaper, but the development of a content management system that was licensed out to many others. By 2019, its newsroom had added 200 journalists to grow to 900 people.
The new owner, rapid turnround and promising numbers turned the Post into a poster child for making old media new again, at a time when digital startups were offering similarly promising, if short-lived, stories of a bright online future emerging from the embers of print.
But that turbocharged turnround appears to be losing momentum. At the end of 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported Post leaders were concerned about a post-Trump bump decline in traffic of 28% to 66m, and more concerningly, a fall in total subscribers from 3m to 2.7m between January and October.
Other publications also saw falls in traffic, which has been widely attributed to declining interest in news, or at least some form of news fatigue after a furious Trump presidency and a global pandemic, but not as severe. The NYT, for instance, saw a drop alost half as small, while that other online news behemoth CNN was also down less percentage wise.
But, while the Post appears to be bumping up against a ceiling, the NYT continues to grow. It hit 8m subscribers last year, helped, in part, by its Cooking and Crosswords/Games digital services, but also inevitably by sheer dint of its overall reach. The NYT hit 525m visits in May according to SimilarWeb data, making it the 4th most visited news site last month, helped by the acquisition of word-guessing game Wordle. Washington Post didn’t even make the top 25.
The question is, of course, what can the Post actually do to close the gap?
A couple of insights from the Reuters Digital News Report suggest that, in many ways, the Post is badly positioned to keep growing in the NYT’s shadow. The total number of people paying for news subscriptions appears to be plateauing in some regions, indicating that there may simply be an upper limit on the total market for paid for news. And, while the report also provided an encouraging sign that more people who already paid for news were now taking out a second news subscription, that looks likely to benefit publications that are complementary to the ‘first choice’ not direct competitors.
The Post might be complementary to the NYT for a small set of US news junkies, but much of what it does will inevitably overlap because it is trying to serve the same function in the market – a primary news source. That leaves it fighting to pull away NYT readers in the US, or, when it comes to a potential growth market among international readers, offer a better option than a similar newspaper with a bigger newsroom and its own impressive suite of complementary products. The NYT has a big lead.
But international expansion does look more promising for the Post. There are few better marketing tools than a storied history taking in Oscar-winning films All the President’s Men and Spotlight. But, again, the Post is playing catchup. This summer, it launched a news hub in London which – along with a base in Seoul – is designed to create a more global newsroom serving audiences around the world as well as supporting the US. But, at the same time, the NYT has been beefing up its already extensive London team, taking its editorial staff in the UK to more than 70.
Of course, for Bezos this won’t matter much. A man reputedly worth $113bn will scarcely have noticed the initial outlay of $250m. And, while the acquisition has created some political problems, it has done more to burnish his repudiation. And that’s not just as a benefactor, but as someone who helped turn the Post from an ailing reminder of better days into an example of a healthy news business that looks stable enough to survive even without his largesse. In a market so dominated by the New York Times, the Washington Post may never challenge for the top spot, but its legacy and a future of quality reporting have been secured in the decade since Bezos arrived.