Post looks to enhance appeal to online, print readers

Last year was one of the most tumultuous in The Post’s 132-year history. The staff was depleted by more early-retirement buyouts. There was upheaval in the newsroom, which was organizationally and physically restructured. Print and online operations, hitherto separate, were integrated. The newspaper underwent its most extensive redesign in more than a decade. The paper’s journalistic integrity was damaged by an ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record dinners involving the newsroom.

Can readers anticipate a less turbulent 2010?

“We would hope so,” said Marcus Brauchli, who just completed his first full year as executive editor. Last week, Brauchli and his top deputies, managing editors Liz Spayd and Raju Narisetti, talked about 2010. No major changes are planned in the newspaper, but there will be plenty online:

Business coverage will expand through an alliance with Bloomberg News, whose strong corporate and industry-specific content will augment The Post’s reporting on government policy and regulation.

Local online sports coverage will grow. An interactive, statistics-rich “microsite” will focus on local high school sports, beginning with basketball. Students and parents will be able to post photos and video of games, as well as their own written accounts.

Politics coverage will be bolstered, especially surrounding the important 2010 mid-term congressional elections. The politics section of The Post’s site will offer improved navigation and more aggregation of content from other news sources.

The “World News” section of The Post’s Web site will be broadened with content from Foreign Policy magazine, also owned by The Washington Post Co.

A common lament from longtime print readers is: “What’s happened to my Post?” They want the newspaper to remain as it was. And many are put off by The Post’s emphasis on the Web.

But with The Post’s survival at stake, the scope of transformational change has been necessary, and the online focus is critical.

The newspaper continues to produce the bulk of the revenue that pays for The Post’s ambitious journalism. But despite a strong fourth quarter, the newspaper lost tens of millions of dollars in 2009 and is projected to lose money (although less) through 2010. A bright spot is circulation, which in recent years has declined modestly compared with that of most other metropolitan newspapers. But the print audience is generally older, and there is no evidence that large numbers of younger readers will acquire the habit of reading a newspaper. So The Post must do everything it can to retain its loyal print readers while preparing for the day when its Web site is dominant.

But The Post online is a different business with a different audience. Only 19 percent of those who read the newspaper go to The Post’s Web site. And 86 percent of The Post’s online audience is from outside The Post’s newspaper circulation area. That helps explain why The Post last year launched a “Local Home Page” for those online visitors who live in the area.

It’s essential to maintain newspaper circulation, which inevitably will dwindle. But the online audience, already large, must grow to attract more advertising to compensate for expected declines in print revenue. The Post in November had more than 11.3 million unique visitors online, beating most comparable news sites. That was 28 percent higher than the prior month and 2 percent higher than the previous November, when the presidential election was held. On a single day last month, The Post’s Web site had nearly 15 million page views.

Brauchli said last year’s changes “built a base that will allow us to be more agile in how we cover news and how we serve different audiences, print and online.” The challenge is to provide journalistic content that appeals to disparate audiences — and do it with reduced staff.

Many in the newsroom, and more than a few readers, believe the quality of The Post’s journalism has suffered. In some ways, I agree. For instance, excessive typos and grammatical errors are hurting credibility. But The Post also routinely produces superb reporting on such news as June’s deadly Metro crash, the Fort Hood shootings, the Redskins and, yes, even the White House state dinner crashers. With less internal tumult in 2010, the hope is that there can be more time to focus on journalism. That will help preserve The Post’s core print readership. But it will also build the necessary Web audience for survival.

“Online, traffic drives revenue, and good journalism drives traffic,” Brauchli noted. “There is a nice correlation between doing good journalism and producing revenue.”

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