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The changing shape of US media, part 1: Washington DC

We’re launching our new media section with the first in a series looking at the state of US media by Yasmine Ryan, who is visiting newsrooms across the US under the auspices of the World Press Institute Media Fellowship. To kick off, a visit to Washington DC and the offices of The Washington Post and Politico.

Many people, journalists in particular, are scared about what media ownership contractions and dwindling job opportunities mean for the future of their industry. This series aims to take a candid look at how the US media landscape is transforming, and how the survivors are adapting, or even – believe it or not – prospering, in this new era of journalism.

The Washington Post. Photo: Xiaojuan Miao

The Washington Post. Photo: Xiaojuan Miao

First stop on this tour of US media is Washington DC, where tradition has long held sway, in media as in everything else. The first inklings that old media models were about to crumble came nearly two decades ago. In 1998, an upstart news aggregator known as the Drudge Report broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which soon became one of the biggest stories of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Despite the precedent it set – of the rise of partisan media, of muck-raking as news – media giants spent the next decade largely in denial that their world had changed forever. Many newspaper bosses seemed to only belatedly consider the internet to be more than a passing fad.

That’s where Politico came in. It was founded in 2007, when John Harris and Jim VandeHei left the prestige and security of the Washington Post to create a politics-only news site, a move that Harris describes as “initially whimsical”.

“At the time, I believed there was an old order of media,” says Harris, now Politico editor-in-chief. “That old order was under assault. I saw The Washington Post, which had been my home since I was 21, wasn’t adapting. I’d done well, shimmied to the top of the ladder, but that ladder was crumbling under me.”

As other media outlets are become more superficial and more generalist, Politico has made a name for itself by specialising in clearcut niches, of interest to anyone wanting to keep a close eye on policymaking. It is unashamedly “inside the Beltway”, as the DC-based world of national politics is called, often disparagingly. The site’s early adoption of round-the-clock coverage helped it become the go-to news source for Washington insiders, quickly surpassing the establishment newspapers.

“News enterprises that can identify an editorial niche will do better,” Harris tells our World Press Institute group. “Adjust yourself to the idea that you’re living in an age of disruption.”

Freed from the constraints of newspaper infrastructure and tradition, Politico has embraced the new digital-first era. It operates under a “freemium” economic model: articles on the main site, aimed at a general readership, are free, as is its daily newspaper – but only on Capitol Hill. To have the newspaper home-delivered requires a subscription. Politicians, lobbyists and Washington-based businesses can also pay a hefty fee to subscribe to the Politico “Pro” site in their areas of interest.

Politico’s cream and crimson-painted newsroom is divided into clusters of reporters. Each specialist group is focused on a specific area, such as healthcare, cybersecurity or defence.

“That’s the fastest growing part of our newsroom,” says Peter Canellos, Politico executive editor. “Subscriptions are a much more reliable source of revenue than advertising.”

Some 40 to 50 percent of Politico’s income comes from subscriptions, to the newspaper, the bi-monthly magazine and, especially, the Pro site. Display ads continues to provide solid revenue too – thanks to the site’s wealthy and influential readership, it’s able to charge a premium.

“Most of our money comes not from very high traffic,” says Harris, “but from very targeted traffic.”

The World Press Institute media fellows meet with Politico editor-in-chief John Harris and executive editor Peter Canellos.

The World Press Institute media fellows meet with Politico editor-in-chief John Harris and executive editor Peter Canellos.

While other news organisations are cutting back, Politico is expanding. In 2015, it launched Politico Europe, in partnership with the German publisher Axel Springer SE. There are offices in London, Berlin and Brussels (but no foreign bureaus). They’re also expanding domestically, with a move into state-level political coverage.

Playbook, the site’s morning newsletter, is a key reference for everyone in the Washington political sphere and the POLITICO 50, a list of “thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics”, has become essential reading for political insiders since its launch in 2014.

Its ability to mine the politics and policymaking niche is impressive, but Politico’s success can also be attributed to its ownership model. The site has a single deep-pocketed owner, Robert Allbrighton, who has encouraged innovation and creativity; he isn’t seeking to extract huge profits from the business.

Open-minded private ownership is something Politico has in common with the capital’s great legacy newspaper, The Washington Post. It is the paper that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency, but in recent years it had arguably lost its edge. When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos brought the paper from the Graham Holdings Corporation in 2013, there was plenty of industry scepticism that he could turn it around.

inside the Washington Post newsroom. Photo: Xiaojuan Miao

inside the Washington Post newsroom. Photo: Xiaojuan Miao

Accusations of bias from Donald Trump aside, most commentators now praise the transformations that have taken place at the paper during the Bezos era.

“Bezos is good news for the newspaper,” Bob Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter, has said. “I think he has a long-range view, staying in for 15 or 20 years and making sure The Washington Post is one of the surviving news sources in the country.”

In particular, Bezos is attributed with ensuring that the paper offers a wide range of digital products and reader experiences. For example, it has revived its newsletters, using sophisticated algorithms to make them much more targeted than in previous iterations.

We visit the paper in a year that has seen the paper stepping resolutely into the digital age. They moved into their new modernised (and rented) offices in January, abandoning the building that had housed them for half a century. The old building was built around printing presses, while the new building has video studios and audio booths.

Marty Baron, the paper’s executive editor, meets with us in the heart of the impressive new newsroom. Baron came to the paper from the Boston Globe (Liev Schreiber played him in Spotlight), but these days he’s a Washington Post man through and through. While the tech may be new, the paper has maintained many of its editorial traditions and Baron says it remains proud of its “legacy media” heritage. The newspaper has been responsible for much of the best coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, breaking multiple major stories including the murky practices of Trump’s charitable foundation. “We took him seriously when a lot of people did not,” says Baron. (Apparently in retaliation, the Trump campaign revoked the Post‘s press credentials in June, and only lifted the ban a few weeks ago).

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron

Under its new ownership, the paper has followed in the footsteps of Politico and other upstarts by creating an overnight news desk and a breaking news team. The paper’s mobile site is now “lightning fast,” managing editor Cameron Barr says. “[In news], speed is really important.”

The investment in technology is paying off. In July, the Post’s website recorded 82.3 million unique visitors, surpassing Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. It was a record for the organisation.

The Washington Post is looking to not only survive in the new media environment, but to thrive. There are still challenges, of course. Baron says the diminished public perception of media, along with a much deeper partisan divide, is making reaching some pockets of the population much harder. Meanwhile, alt-right sites like Infowars have helped spread disinformation, such as the falsehood that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or is a secret Muslim.

“Now we can’t even agree on a basic set of facts, and that has a profound impact on our democracy,” Baron says. “These days, when we do our fact-checking and we do our investigations, there will be some segments of the population who won’t believe us.”

The US news business is showing promising signs of life, but in a deeply divided media landscape, there are still huge challenges ahead.

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