All accounts of the departure of Marcus Brauchli as executive editor of The Washington Post concur on one element of the drama: Brauchli fought with his boss, Publisher Katharine Weymouth, over newsroom resources. In a now-deleted Facebook comment, Maggie Farleycommended Brauchli, her husband, wondering, “how has the Washington Post of Watergate fame become the place where you can’t speak truth to power?”
In a little-noticed follow-up to that comment, also since deleted, Farley wrote a clarification: “saying ‘truth to power,’ was a bit of an inside reference. I meant that the publisher could not bear to hear that the only way to further revenue and future success was to innovate, not cut, cut, cut. I think they have had very hard-hitting journalism that took on the powers that be: Top Secret America, The McChrystal report, financial self-dealing in Congress.”
Brauchli declined to comment on the situation, so Farley’s take will have to do.
The accumulating evidence on the events of last week — or, if you count foreboding and accurate rumors, of the last four months — points to a running dispute stemming from more than just resources. An alumnus of the Wall Street Journal and a student of media business models, Brauchli wasn’t just bristling at budget cuts, to judge from informed sources and published reports; he was bristling at what he clearly regarded as the limp efforts to monetize the product his people were creating.
Attempts to determine just what elements of the Post business plan cleaved the executive editor and the publisher haven’t resulted in much clarity. A look at the paper’s financials, however, yields some clues.
One of Brauchli’s consensus achievements relates to Web productivity. He integrated the once-far-flung print and online staffs and boosted readership of washingtonpost.com. Traffic figures provide evidence of the progress: Over the first six months of 2010, washingtonpost.com racked up an average of 12.3 million unique visitors; this year, that figure jumped to 18.4 million unique visitors, an improvement goosed to a degree, no doubt, by the presidential election.
A news executive who improves Web performance might expect the company to reap the rewards of the endeavor. Under Brauchli’s tenure, such wasn’t always the case. Have a look at The Post’s most recent annual report for 2011, “Revenue generated by the Company’s newspaper online publishing activities, primarily washingtonpost.com and Slate, decreased 8% to $105.8 million, from $114.8 million in 2010.”
The newspaper industry managed gains of 7 percent in online advertising revenue over the same period, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). Plus 7 percent, that is. Put the two figures together, and The Post trailed the newspaper industry by 15 points in this crucial category. No wonder there was tension. (The Post’s corporate suite contends that its online revenue figure and the NAA number compare different fruits, although it adds that a more direct comparison is not readily apparent.)
Consider, too, that the digital-advertising standard set by the newspaper industry isn’t the loftiest of benchmarks. “Anybody that is performing at the industry standard is underperforming the marketplace,” said news industry analyst Alan D. Mutter in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. As Mutter pointed out here, total Internet advertising revenues jumped by nearly 22 percent in 2011, leaving The Post about 30 points behind the pace set by digital natives.
“The idea that anybody can go backward in this expanding market is hard to fathom,” says Mutter.
Tough times have a tendency to break down firewalls. The ideal at newspapers is that business people stay out of the editorial product and editorial people stay out of the business product. That ideal, though, didn’t prevent Weymouth from inspiring something of a reboot of the Washington Post Magazine, which she thought was too depressing; and it apparently didn’t prevent Brauchli from raising questions as to how the company was working to generate revenue.
The bickering carries towering implications for the accession of Martin Baron to the executive editorship of The Post. Since he was named as Brauchli’s successor, Baron has repeated the same theme over and over, about how resources in the newsroom must follow the revenue.
So stipulated. Yet repeating a core reality of the newspaper industry doesn’t address the more complex and anguishing reality that Brauchli faced for a significant period of his editorship — namely, online revenue underperformed other publications that didn’t offer as fine a Web product as washingtonpost.com.
His frequent references to “realism” notwithstanding, Baron, too, would likely buck at such a setup. Fortunately for him, The Post has done a better job of late in converting the paper’s Web offerings into cash. During the third quarter of 2012, The Post Co.’s newspaper online publishing revenues rose 13 percent over the previous year’s tally.
When asked for comment on all of this, Weymouth via a spokeswoman pointed the Erik Wemple Blog to that number.