My hometown newspaper, The Washington Post, has been rocketing up the comScore rankings of top digital media companies. Last August, it wasn’t even in the top 50. Two months later, the Post ranked 36th, beating the New York Times (37th) for the first time ever. How much of that improvement is due to different paywall strategies is for others to debate. My question is, what did they change about their digital strategy to get where they are now?
Part of the answer is a different way of thinking. Instead of a newsroom that’s “digital first,” which implies that the web takes precedence, the Post is “story first,” according to Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives. “We publish in lots of places, from social media to apps,” he says. “We’re telling the story where people are.”
Another part of the answer is shared responsibility. “We put a lot on reporters,” says Ryan Kellett, audience and engagement editor at the Post. “2015 was the year of empowering them.” Reporters are now in charge of their stories and responsible for them “all the way through,” Kellett says. That means they’re expected to file stories with headlines, images and links to be reviewed by editors before publication.
Video is another growing component of the new digital Post. A staff of 17 video editors (who might be called producers in a TV newsroom) and 10 video reporters shoot and post video on multiple platforms. Many of them are “embedded” in sections across the newsroom, from Metro to Sports, says Micah Gelman, director of editorial video, which means they know about potential video stories early on. “It’s accelerating the process so we don’t find out about a story in the morning or afternoon meeting when it’s too late,” Gelman says.
Video is driving traffic, too, but not always to the Post website. The most-viewed video to date–of a 106-year-old woman getting her first look at herself dancing with joy when she met President Obama–got more than 6 million plays on Facebook compared to about 50,000 on the website. The Facebook post also logged far more comments than the website: 8,800 vs. 215.
Something else has changed at the Post, as well–a greater emphasis on the audience. It’s much easier to see what stories are attracting readers on different platforms. Notice in the picture at the top of this post the giant video monitor over the 24/7 news desk that displays metrics in real time. “We review metrics with reporters,” Kellett says. “They have to understand where the audience is, not just geographically, but where they read [stories],” whether it’s on the mobile site, an app or on social media.
And getting stories to the audience fast is now the name of the game. “Speed is incredibly important,” Gilbert says. “It doesn’t matter where we publish first but the fact that we do is important.” The Post tracks news alerts on multiple platforms, like email and mobile. “Did we beat our rivals to publication is a point of pride.”
None of this is lost of the New York Times, of course, which in January beat the Post in the rankings once again (38th vs. 40th). The Times recently created the position of director of push and messaging, signaling how much it values alerts. “What we’re finding more and more is that for a lot of users, push is the primary way that they’re engaging with apps,” the Times’ Andrew Phelps told Capital New York. “They’re not necessarily tapping the icon and browsing, which would be more pull, there’s sort of expecting news organizations to come to them.”