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"Levey Live" archives

Q&A With Alan G. Spoon

Tuesday, August 31, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/
Bob's guest today is Alan G. Spoon, president of The Washington Post Company since September 1993 and chief operating officer and a director since May 1991. Previously, Spoon served as president of Newsweek and chief financial officer of the company.

Alan G. Spoon
Alan G. Spoon
Before joining The Washington Post Company in 1982 as vice president of planning and development, Spoon was a partner of The Boston Consulting Group. He holds degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Law School. He lives in Potomac, MD with his wife and three children.

Here is a transcript of today's session:

Bailey's Crossroads: How often, if ever, do you mix and mingle with the reporters and staff workers -like Levey- or are you too busy most of the time? What is an average day like for you?

Alan G. Spoon: The Post Company is a big place, with operations all over the country. I try to spend time with staff in all the locations. So there's a fair amount of travel and not enough time with each of the teams. But one of the great treats is , as you might guess, spending time with our reporters and editors here in Washington, at Newsweek and at the TV stations.

Bob Levey: is a pretty wonderful source of goodies, if I do say so myself. But it isn't making money, and that isn't expected to change any time soon. When will it? Surely management isn't going to keep losing money on this venture forever.

Alan G. Spoon: We couldn't be more proud of what the folks at bring to the web every day. The internet is unquestionably part of the expanded media future we'll all enjoy in the future. To swim in that new ocean, the Post needs to get wet thoroughly and early. We've done both and are making nice progress. Too early to say when profits emerge, but the trend lines on expense versus revenue give us encouragement that we're building a real business and, more importantly, a new consumer franchise.

Washington, DC: Unlike the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and even the LA Times, the Washington Post has never really been available nationally -- even though it has enjoyed great influence and a national reputation. However, the Post now offers the leading -- and most innovative and interactive -- website among the national's biggest papers, and you just introduced the new on-line afternoon edition. Have you changed your marketing strategy -- or has the new technology just led you in new directions?

Alan G. Spoon: What a nice compliment. Thank you. But be assured that the web site you like today will evolve in exciting ways -- both as a function of available technology and as we learn how best to take advantage of the special strengths of the web. It's amazing how much our web team learns each month. Our marketing mission hasn't changed -- namely, be the comprehensive web source for Washingtonians. We do, however, have a major new opportunity in getting Post coverage and commentary out to folks not in Washington, but far away. Folks who know and recognize the brand but haven't had a chance to actually read us. I'm pleased to note that the Post, because of the web, is now read by more people by far than at any time in its history.

Bob Levey: Being of a certain age, I have the newspaper habit real, real bad. If I don't start the day by reading The Post, it's as if I forgot to put on my socks. But many younger people don't feel that way. How can you (and others in the business) build that "need to read" among younger people that we oldsters have?

Alan G. Spoon: Washington is a bit different than other markets. The reading habit -- whether print or electronic -- is deeper because of the government, policy and technology presence here and the education levels. So news consumption -- whether in the Post or online -- is certainly going to continue to be a big part of the daily diet here. Habits will change as to how young readers take in their information, but the mix will always include a print version. I know plenty of kids who are complete web-heads who grab for the sports section of the paper each moring.

Bloomington, IL: Just wanted to say thank you for I just re-located to the midwest from Virginia and I don't know what I'd do without the Post.

Alan G. Spoon: Thanks. One of the biggest complaints we here about the Post is how much it's missed by Washingtonians who have moved AWAY from the area. Now they have

Manassas, VA: The Washington Post is much more than a newspaper and website. What are some of the other business operations and companies that it owns?

Alan G. Spoon: Newsweek (worldwide); six major market TV stations affiliated with ABC,NBC and CBS; cable systems serving about 740,000 subscribers; a fast-growing education services company called Kaplan; a technology magazine publishing company here in the Washington region; and other business including ... an online law school!

Bob Levey: I asked Don Graham this question on this very program, and he ducked it like a 30-year veteran of the Senate. So let me try my luck on Spoon.....
Will The Post ever buy a big-league baseball team and move it to Washington? Please say yes.... please.........

Alan G. Spoon: There are some good owner groups trying to bring a ball team to the area. I'm rooting for them.

FFX, VA: I too have the newspaper bug that has bitten my friend Bob. I will always prefer ink on paper to TV news, although I am a huge fan of the, especially those twice weekly forums hosted by "Old Two Fingers" himself. Do you think you will forfit new paper readers to the electronic age? How do you plan to keep your circulation averages as the web-based news takes off?

Alan G. Spoon: A few years ago a saavy industry observer suggested that if the web had come first, someone would have invented, to great applause, the newspaper. The physical "thing" pulls together the flood of information pouring through the web in a convenient portable format and, perhaps more significantly, presents editors seasoned judgment of what's most important that day. The finiteness of the paper forces interesting decisions everyday. The web does not impose that same rigor. I see circulation strength on all fronts.

Bob Levey: I've heard nothing but raves about the new printing plant in College Park, with the exception of sports fans. Apparently the deck has been reshuffled, so subscribers who used to get late editions now get earlier ones. Therefore, they aren't getting all the late West Coast sports scores. Is help on the way on this issue?

Alan G. Spoon: We're aware and we're working on it. Take comfort in the fact that top decision makers on both the business side and news side of the organization are serious sports fans.

Washington, DC: The Post and the Washington Post Company have certainly had a lot of successes over the years. What would you say is the Post Company's biggest mistake -or missed opportunity- in your tenure here?

Alan G. Spoon: We tried with some considerable success to get bigger in TV and cable. Wish we had been even more successful when we were in the market. We've had more luck in growing our education business aggressively, though off a much smaller base.

FFX: How much influence does management have over the stories in the paper and online? Are the levels of involvement different for the two? Do online reporters enjoy more freedom than the traditional print guys?

Alan G. Spoon: None. We might suggest to editors stories or themes that we as individuals or business people find interesting, but those suggestions get no special priority over other ideas sourced elsewhere. When you have great editors and reporters, you stand back and let them be the pros they are. What we work to support is an environment and a set of shared beliefs about excellence that can attract the best in the business to our newsrooms. As for greater "freedom" in web journalism, I'll note that character of web presentation is different, the rhythm is different -- but the commitment to high standards in that new context is as high as it is on the print side of the house.

Adams Morgan: Could you please explain your job to those of us not familiar with the news industry? What do you do in a typical week? Thanks.

Alan G. Spoon: Each day and week is different -- for me that's an attractive part of my work. If I had to draw out some generic summary though I'd say I do roughly 4- 5 things in varying amounts depending on needs of the moment: counsel with (on only the biggest issues) and, as necessary (happily, not often),choose the people who run our businesses; allocate resources (staff time and capital) when we're entertaining big commitments; negotiate goals (budgets etc.) with our managers; study and learn about issues we're facing through mixing, travel, reading etc.; and communicate with -- employees, clients and shareholders.

MCLEAN, VA: I am a foreigner and have been living in this area for three years. I am a loyal reader of Post -both print and on-line versions- and Newsweek. I even recommend my friends and family members to check your website. Has the Post ever planned expanding its operations overseas?

Alan G. Spoon: As I mentioned earlier, the web allows the Post to be accessed all over the world. So our distribution is dramatically expanding. Newsweek already circulates in about 190 countries, as does the International Herald Tribune which we own together with the New York Times Co.

Washington, D.C.: Where do you see several years from now? How do you see it changing over the years?

Alan G. Spoon: We see it being as bigger part of people's lives here in the region -- with all the national and international news you'd expect, plus more regional news. Further it will have marketplace features from classified to buy/sell transactions ("e-commerce" in the parlance). There will be more directories of useful information that we can't squeeze into the printed Post. Community groups will be able to "publish" within our web umbrella. There'll be more interactivity of all kinds, plus customization for the kind of information individuals want to see regularly. Yes this is an advertisement for ambitious plans that we'll be rolling out in the months ahead. "Years ahead"? Hard to know.

Bob Levey: No time for more, alas. We'll invite Alan Spoon back soon; many thanks to him for taking the time to be with us. Our guest next Tuesday will be Andrew Altman, the new director of planning for the District of Columbia government. And don't forget "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our weekly anything-goes show. It appears Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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