Back when I was reporting on The Washington Post in 2015 and ’16 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper was on a roll. Paid digital subscriptions were skyrocketing, profits were rolling in even as the staff was growing, and it was breaking story after story about the rising menace of Donald Trump. David Fahrenthold broke the two of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign: the corruption at the heart of the Trump Foundation and the audio tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Now Fahrenthold is at the Post’s ancient rival, The New York Times, and the Post itself is sputtering. The legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, retired in March 2021. His successor, Sally Buzbee, has had the unenviable task of maneuvering the Post through the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with controversies such as the Dave Weigel-Felicia Sonmez Twitter mess, which led to Sonmez being fired. And now the Times’ Benjamin Mullin (reprising a story he cowrote last December when he was still at The Wall Street Journal) and Katie Robertson are reporting (free link) that paid circulation is down, profits have turned into losses, and owner Jeff Bezos seems less interested in the place than he was in the early years of his ownership.
What went wrong? Bezos’ principal insight was his realization that there was room for a third great national newspaper alongside the Times and The Wall Street Journal — and that, in the digital age, he didn’t need to roll out print beyond the D.C. area. The Post was cheaper than the Times or the Journal and was available everywhere, through Amazon Prime and on Fire tablets.
Eventually, though, the Post ran afoul of some inherent contradictions. The biggest is this: It hasn’t really differentiated itself from the Times, which has left the Post in the unenviable position of being a less comprehensive competitor. The Times simply has more, especially in international coverage such as the war in Ukraine as well as arts and culture. The Post’s advantages are that it’s cheaper and its digital products offer a better user interface. Contrast that with the Journal, which really is different from the Times in its focus on business news and its hard-right opinion pages.
Judging from the Times story, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Post publisher Fred Ryan get his gold watch sometime in the near future. Buzbee hasn’t had a fair chance to make her mark, and I doubt that Baron would have navigated the past year any more surely than she has. In retrospect, it looks like Baron timed his exit perfectly.
In the long run — and the short run — the Post needs to establish itself as the go-to place for a certain kind of coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Its political reporting is broad and deep, but so is the Times’. With a much smaller staff than the Times has, what opportunities are there? In the final years of Graham family control, the Post emphasized regional coverage. Without abandoning its commitment to national and international news, maybe the way forward for the Post is to reconnect with its local audience.