The year of The Washington Post

“My real bet, though, is that the battle between the Times and the Post is being waged most when it comes to their rival international and national expansions. And the winner of that struggle is too close to call.”

The contemporary newspaper war between The Washington Post and The New York Times began as a traffic war, with the Post topping the Times in 2015 for the first time in history. The next battle may well be for digital subscriptions, but looking to other measures of dominance beyond just bottom-line revenue is also important to predicting the future success of either paper. These are soft factors that may well matter to those determining which brand to be loyal to for the duration of the new administration. My prediction for 2018 is that this it is the year of The Washington Post.

  • The Washington Post appears to be fighting Trump; the Times appears (to some) to be normalizing hate.
  • “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is actually an old Post saying (via Bob Woodward) and has nothing to do with opposition to President Trump. But try telling that to a public of readers primed for content that bolsters their arguments for (or against) the president. The subtlety of saying the new motto comes from a pre-Watergate First Amendment case is easy to miss. The Post says it isn’t jonesing for a fight with Trump, but its opinion pages would beg to disagree, and members of the public are likely to interpret the slogan as anti-Trump. James O’Keefe did make one point with his “expose” — that even Post reporters acknowledge that some perceive the newspaper as anti-Trump because of its aggressive editorial position.

    The Post, intentionally or not, has done well to position itself as different from the more milquetoast Times, which has gotten significant pushback from readers for being overly kind to intolerant voices (see Liz Spayd and her demise as public editor earlier this year for one example). It didn’t help the Times’ case when Dean Baquet brushed aside readers’ concerns about a profile of a Nazi many considered normalizing as a “ridiculous overreaction.” Note to both publications for 2018: You can’t play Nazis down the middle.

    Note that neither Marty Baron nor Baquet would say they see their newspapers as the opposition. (As Baron likes to put it, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.”) In fact, judging from the joint interview Marvin Kalb conducted with them, these editors would see their newsrooms as not having opinions at all. That said, when a Post reporter wins a Pulitzer in part by crowdsourcing his efforts to an audience hoping to stick it to Trump, it’s hard to see claims to perfect impartiality as anything other than outdated.

  • The Washington Post is a software company; the Times isn’t.
  • The Post’s Arc publishing platform is the best demonstration of its software prowess. Sales are going to major companies abroad (such as Canada’s Globe and Mail) and at home (the Los Angeles Times). The Post considers its software team as among the best in the business and says it’s able to attract top talent thanks to the Bezos association. Arc-driven sites boast superfast load times and the system is modular, meaning that news organizations can readily customize the product to its own needs. Combine that with other editorial innovations, such as annotations, adoption of commenting platforms via The Coral Project, and frequent A/B testing, and you’ve got some advantages that come from a new infusion of smart engineers and product managers, along with existing staff empowered to experiment.

    The Times also has many reader-facing innovations. It’s experimenting with personalization, has had great success with The Daily podcast, and is finally trying to open up most of its articles to commenting thanks to AI rather than engage in various forms of pre-moderation.

    As of now, though, the Times hasn’t to my knowledge put forward software it can sell to others. In fact, its in-house blue-sky R&D Lab, perhaps best known for a haptic news mirror and a visual “cascade” that showed how stories spread on social media, was shut down in 2016. As an occasional visitor to the lab, let me tell you that walking into the place felt different than the rest of the newsroom: Something about it made you believe that within this small room lay the future of The New York Times.

    Top talent has also left, and while talent moves around in all newsrooms with regularity, some names who have left since roughly 2014 and 2017 include digital leaders in the news and tech industry: Aron Pilhofer, Derek Willis, Jacob Harris, Andrew DeVigal, Alexis Lloyd, and Amy O’Leary, among others. There’s no question that working at the Times still holds tremendous cachet, but those mentioned above were huge losses.

  • The Post is playing with platforms; the Times is bowing out.
  • The Times bowed out of Facebook’s Instant Articles in fall 2016, noting limited returns from the platform. The Post has stayed, doubling doubled down on playing with Facebook; it will be one of ten publishers that Facebook is including in a subscription experiment.

    There’s also a question of tone on social media platforms that could have long-term effects on reader loyalty. The Washington Post’s playful Reddit is perfectly on point with the platform. The New York Times’ Snapchat efforts often include how-to guides (in a post from April 2017, a Snapchat crossword is promised as a reward for going through the trouble to subscribe to its feed). And the Times’ new social media guidelines limit the ability of its journalists to comment on their stories or news developments, which may be precisely the kind of assistance and orientation readers are hoping to get from their favorite journalists. Note there is explicit guidance against posting scoops on social media first, though some exceptions may be allowed. This retro attitude is akin to the publish-first-in-the-newspaper-then-online-later debate of the early 2010s.

  • The Post is getting a little extra romance these days.
  • 2015’s Spotlight has had a profound effect on future journalists, at least as far as I can tell from the students who show up in my classroom. Incoming this year is The Post with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. As the Times itself acknowledges, “if ever there were an Academy Awards all-star team, it would be the cast and crew of ‘The Post.'”

    The Times is no stranger to the movie treatment, of course, though Page One came out back in 2011. While the movie cemented David Carr’s place in journalism history, today it must be watched as a piece of the past. The Post is “inspired by true events” decades old, but the portrayal of investigative reporting into administration secrets shows the value of journalism and gives it a taste of contemporary relevance. Sadly, the Times doesn’t get much of a nod in the movie, though the newspaper was also critical to unmasking the Pentagon Papers and was the named plaintiff in the 1971 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the full publication of the investigation. Hollywood, however, comes down in favor of The Post in The Post in 2018.

  • The Times still leads in live events; the Post’s remain D.C.-centric.
  • Across the U.S., The Times is sponsoring live events that touch on news related events and local knowledge in ways that the Post has not yet begun doing. This is a huge opportunity to reach loyal readers — people willing to pay to see their favorite writers in the flesh. In D.C., a recent Times Talk featured a whisky tasting and a chat about feminism; in L.A., a Times Talk with Ashley Judd and Jodi Kantor, among others, considered sexual harassment; for students, The Times hosted a Times Talk virtual watch party with Trevor Noah this year. While the Post’s space for live events looks oddly like the Times’ digs, so far, the Post has mainly focused on in-town events such as a Gretchen Carlson book signing (though it was livestreamed).

My real bet, though, is that the battle between the Times and the Post is being waged most when it comes to their rival international and national expansions. And the winner of that struggle is too close to call. The Post has gone to pains to note that only 5 percent of its audience is based in Washington. Its bundling partnership with Amazon Prime has given the Post a huge opportunity, as has its partnerships with hundreds of local newspapers who offer a Post digital subscription along with their own. On the other hand, the Times’ national and international expansion involves putting people from the places that they hope to expand in charge of content; California Today notes that its curators are actually from California, while hiring and expansion in Australia and Canada have promoted key journalists with native roots. While I’m deeply nostalgic for The International Herald Tribune and global.nytimes.com, which provided a global editorial lens instead of a New York-centric one, cutting costs in Europe and centralizing news production in London makes the Times more nimble, especially digitally. The Times also already has Chinese and a Spanish editions which may propel global audiences to subscribe.

We’ll see what comes of the ultimate race between the Post and the Times — but for the year ahead, I’m putting my bets on The Post.

Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

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