The big move is happening, and one of the uncertainties for The Washington Post this fall was where, exactly, we were going, at least in the eyes of the U.S. Postal Service. As late as early November, no one could say for sure whether our new home would have a mailing address of “1301 K Street NW” or “One Franklin Square.”
The Postal Service thought the first street address was accurate. The Washington Post preferred the second address, which is what the landlord calls the place and which obviously has more of a literary tilt, perhaps even a whiff of grandeur. A lot of company stationery hung in the balance.
The guy who has had to worry about such details is Steve Gibson, The Post’s chief financial officer. He has been the point man for the move, the person on every e- mail chain and in every major meeting. He’s the one who could tell you authoritatively that The Post would definitely hold on to its exclusive Zip code, 20071.
The relocation has been going on for weeks, but this weekend marks the final valediction at the old home and the frenzied lurch from 15th and L to 13th and K. Ideally the move will be so smooth that no one will notice the slightest hiccup on the Web site, no delay in loading stories on the mobile app, no blank spots on the front page and not evn ay typpos or garblx9seies@@@. On Monday, Dec. 14, we should all be in the new home.
Steve showed me around the new headquarters one morning in October, and the place was still very much a construction site. We eased our way among a couple of hundred workers in hard hats. Some walked on stiltlike contraptions to better reach the ceiling. The few complete offices had video monitors on the walls or a space to put one. There will also be monitors in the elevators and a big screen in the lobby — 250 monitors total, not counting individual computer screens. This is our future: Never far from a screen showing us what we’re reporting and how we’re doing on digital traffic.
The work crews had cut a hole in the eighth floor to create airspace over what will be the Hub, the seventh-floor command center where editors will control the news machinery in real time. People on the eighth floor will be able to look over a railing and shout at someone below, or throw wads of paper or do whatever it takes to get an editor to grant better play to a story.
“It’s going to appear to be larger and more open, brighter, more connected,” Steve said, a theme I heard from many other top Post executives. Compartmentalization is out, connectivity in. Developers — tech people — will be embedded in news units. The two-floor newsroom will have four locations for live video shots. And on the business side, a lot of people accustomed to having an office will be in open workspaces akin to newsrooms and Silicon Valley tech firms.
The new Post will commemorate the old Post, the historic Post. Near the Hub will be a wall reserved for Pulitzer Prize winners — with much of the wall empty, in deference to future excellence. Editors will meet in a story conference room named for Ben Bradlee, the executive editor during The Post’s emergence as a top-tier news organization. Sally Quinn, his widow, says: “I don’t think that anybody should be allowed in the conference room unless they put their feet on the table,” a reference to Ben’s habit. A quote from Ben will loom over the meetings in that room: “The truth, no matter how bad, is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run.”
The photo studio will be named for photographer and photo editor Michel du Cille, the three-time Pulitzer winner who died in December 2014 while covering the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
Down on the fourth floor, a major conference room will be named for the Graham family, which owned the paper for 80 years. Don Graham, who loved the paper but didn’t see how it could thrive under a corporate ownership answerable to shareholders, sold it in 2013 to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The Meyer Principles — seven guiding thoughts penned decades ago by Eugene Meyer, Katharine Graham’s father and Don’s grandfather, who bought the paper at auction in 1933 — will be displayed prominently.
One Franklin Square has a fairly majestic profile by downtown standards, and there will be a big sign on the west tower declaring that this is the home of The Washington Post. The Post has at least part of six floors, 4 through 9. The two newsroom floors, 7 and 8, stretch the length of the building, essentially a city block. Steve and I walked across one in 1 minute 24 seconds.
Still, Post staffers will discover there’s less real estate than they were used to. The old Post complex boasted 400,000 square feet of usable space. The new home is about 242,000 square feet, Gibson said. Even executive editor Marty Baron’s office will be about half as large as his old one, an obvious injustice given Marty’s emergence as a Hollywood hero in the new movie “Spotlight.”
Three blocks away, at 15th and L, we’d been getting almost daily memos from bosses telling us to purge files, pack boxes and get ready for the big move. One could sense a growing anxiety among the executives that the pack-rat employees were not purging with alacrity.
As the days ticked by this fall, those of us in the old newsroom stared at our files, notebooks, printouts, magazines, books and all the stuff that accretes when you’re working with information. What to save? What to throw away? What would we need in our new home and new journalistic existence?
Nostalgia isn’t part of our business plan.
It’s a journey of just three blocks — but it feels as though we’re on an epic voyage into the unknown.
It was a pleasant thing, being the dominant paper in a growing, affluent, highly educated, news-hungry metropolis. For decades no newspaper in America had anything close to the household penetration of The Post’s print edition. Advertisers needed it. If anyone else wanted to get into the game, they faced a daunting entrance fee. You needed massive high-speed presses, plus a fleet of delivery trucks. In the 1990s, The Post bought eight presses, four for the College Park, Md., printing plant and four for Springfield, Va. Then the Internet changed everything. Four of those presses had to be sold for scrap metal.
Now the old building is on its way to the wrecking ball. The move was announced, and the headquarters put on the market, even before the sale to Bezos. Carr Properties bought the site and has rented it to Fannie Mae, which will consolidate its headquarters in a big new building.
When journalist Dave Kindred wrote a book on The Post just a few years back, he titled it “Morning Miracle.” That title already feels dated. We publish 24 hours a day. The print paper still shapes the workday, but that’s like a bad habit everyone’s trying to break.
We’re trying to meet readers wherever they consume news, whether that’s through a print subscription or a desktop computer or a smartphone or something you wear on your wrist or your head.
When you talk to the young editors here, they speak of platforms and apps and news vectors that didn’t exist a few years ago, things such as Snapchat, Periscope, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Google AMP. They talk about “distributed platforms.” Or maybe I misheard and they said “distributive petforms.” Maybe we’re going to start using monkeycams or passenger pigeons. (Imagine the look on the faces of those folks at the New York Times when they hear about Post Pigeon Express.)
In any case, the buzz in the executive suites is that we’re not just a media company, but also a technology company. We’re not going to wait to see what becomes popular; the goal is to invent that new form of storytelling if possible, and own that space. Post editors are exploring how to leverage virtual reality and augmented reality technology, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens.
“We’re becoming a digital news organization, and everything that that means,” Marty Baron said one day recently. I sat on a couch in his office, and he was in the matching love seat — no room for this sprawling furniture in the new place! On a table beside him rested a vintage manual typewriter that had belonged to Bob Kaiser, who spent 50 years at The Post and served as managing editor.
“The fact that there’s no facility for presses in this new building is symbolic of the changes that are taking place in our industry and in our new company,” Marty said. “The world is becoming digital. We’re going to have a newsroom that more closely integrates video, developers, graphics.” He said we’re reaching more people and reaching them with new storytelling forms:
“The issue we always have to confront is to make sure that we’re doing quality storytelling and we’re true to the core values of our industry, to present the news accurately and fairly and honorably and honestly. There’s a lot of pressure in the business right now. We have to move very quickly.”
There’s been a strategic shift under Bezos. Just a few years ago the company’s strategy was “For and About Washington.” But Bezos didn’t buy The Post with the idea of managing the slow decline of a metropolitan newspaper. He wants it to grow — and take advantage of the scale of the Internet. Bezos, who did not respond to a request for an interview for this article, told CBS News on Nov. 24: “What we’re doing with the Post is, we’re working on becoming the new paper of record.”
“In many ways, what we’re doing is being for and about America,” publisher Fred Ryan told me. The goal, he said, is “to vastly expand our national and global reach, and not at the expense of our local coverage.”
The Post’s digital traffic has surged, particularly on mobile platforms, where traffic has almost doubled in the past year. The Post has passed the New York Times in both page views and unique visitors, according to the latest reports from the tracking service ComScore (which does not include international traffic). The October numbers show The Post had more page views than such digital news titans as BuzzFeed, USA Today, Vox Media and the Wall Street Journal. Even if the ultimate business plan remains unclear, there’s a general belief that size matters for legacy news organizations and that getting bigger digitally is essential.
Bezos rarely visits the paper, but Post executives and editors speak to the owner once every two weeks in a one-hour conference call. When Bezos bought the paper he said he could offer it “runway.” There are no delusions that this runway goes on forever.
“As a privately held company, we can do experiments and be ambitious and bold in testing things, knowing that we don’t have this quarter-by-quarter life cycle,” Fred Ryan said. “We have done a lot of these experiments, and frankly the results have been incredible. You see the numbers there. That didn’t just happen by accident. It happened first because of the incredibly strong journalism that’s taking place here, and also the embracing of technology as an important aspect of journalism today.”
The digital growth is encouraging, but converting those readers into subscribers is a key. The Post doesn’t release how many digital subscribers it has.
Ken Doctor, a media analyst, said news organizations today have a funnel of sorts, with a large audience at the top and the subscribers at the bottom. “What The Washington Post is doing right now, and I think it’s a smart idea, is it’s widening the top of that funnel,” Doctor said. “The national strategy is smart because it uses the scale of the Internet.”
The biggest challenges are not journalistic but economic. Legacy news organizations are famously trading print dollars for digital dimes. When The Post began thinking about its digital future circa 1992, and when it started its Web site in the middle of that decade, no one could imagine that search engines would suck up so much digital advertising.
“The 10 companies that dominate digital advertising, none of them create original content,” Doctor said.
The presses, meanwhile, aren’t about to stop running: The print edition remains the source of substantial company revenue, and the presses are used to print other newspapers under contract.
This will also remain a local paper even as it scales up the national ambitions. One senses that The Post under Bezos is layering new strategies atop the old ones rather than throwing the old ones out the window.
One issue was solved by mid-November: The Postal Service got its way, and our new mailing address will be 1301 K St. NW.
But no one knows how the larger business issues will play out. We are now renters rather than owners. Our lease goes for 16 years with options to renew, Steve Gibson said.
The news business today is “highly unsettled,” Marty Baron said. No one has cracked the code on a business model for a major legacy newspaper.
“The more certain someone is about what the model is, the more removed they are from the responsibility of actually making it happen. The closer you are to it, the more you’re aware of the uncertainties.”
And so how does that feel, boss?
“It can be exhausting and it can be unnerving,” Marty said, “but it’s also exciting at the same time.”
Marty’s been packing like everyone else and purging anything nonessential. But of course the Kaiser typewriter will make the journey.
Joel Achenbach has been a Post staff writer for 25 years. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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