Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post
Jeremy Gilbert is Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, he led digital strategy at National Geographic, taught journalism at Northwestern University and worked at the Poynter Institute.
There’s a reason that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t have subscribers, they have members, and that really matters to them because they believe that that kind of membership loyalty that public radio stations and public television have had for years drives deeper loyalty and, therefore, in their case more subscriptions, ironically, than it did when people felt like it was a transactional subscription business.
If you look at the New York Times’ subscription numbers, they’re really, really driven by crosswords, not just news. I’m not saying that as in they don’t have a good subscriber base, but there’s a utility that is being provided by the crossword puzzle.
I think one thing news organizations can do is help their local advertisers be more successful. For a long time that was a fairly turnkey relationship: You give us a camera-ready ad, we will put it in your newspaper; you film a local commercial, whether it’s high quality or low quality, we will put it on air. Now we’re trying to be a little bit more of an intermediary between the local ad agencies and local businesses and the newspaper, and we’re doing that in-house. And we can charge for those services but we can also look at a model that says you are making roughly this much from the advertising you run now, if we can improve that take rate, then what can we charge you for the difference there, so that we’re helping them but they’re helping us at the same time.
I think the rise of more and more both fully nonprofit organizations but also nonprofits that live inside for-profit journalism organizations is interesting. Seattle (Times) is an example of that, of the nonprofit centers within the for-profit organization. But I don’t know that we know enough about the long-term sustainability of those organizations. I think, if it’s a member-based nonprofit, then it ends up looking a lot like a subscriber-driven news organization. If we’re talking about something that is very foundation-specific, I think that’s a little bit more complicated. I’m not saying that it couldn’t work, but I don’t know that that’s automatically a better model than depending on subscribers.
Experimentation has to be just that. It can’t be that we have committed to a course, that we’re sure that it will work and we’ll be disappointed if it fails, but rather that we’re going to try something, we’re going to see if it works, and as long as we learn something we’re going to consider that a success.
The companies that started experimenting first with metered access or paywalls are many of the companies, not all, but many of the companies that are in better positions relative to offering subscriber member experiences today.
It becomes very difficult in a business that is otherwise struggling and trying to deliver its core services to leave enough room as to create a culture where you can really value some experimentation if the outcome is going to be unknown. And I don’t believe that you can be innovating and experimenting if you already know it’s going to work. So, you have to leave room for some of the experiments not to work out, and for some newsrooms, they might not have enough resources to take those risks.
There has been tremendous growth in audio journalism. Some of that in terms of people’s use of public media, the NPR-affiliated stations, public radio stations, those kinds of things. Some of that is about interactive audio devices like the Amazon Echo family, the Google Home, the Apple HomePod. I am really curious to see how local publishers engage there. …
So there’s an intimacy that I think is even more intimate than having the local news on in terms of TV, listening to the news while you cook in your kitchen or prepare coffee in the morning or get ready for work via one of these interactive audio devices or listening in your car on your commute, however you commute, to this news, it feels very personal in a way that I think would be powerful and could let people really engage with brands, news brands in a way that would be positive. However, I don’t know that enough publishers have figured out how they're going to get into that and how discovery would work finding the podcasts, finding the skill that you could enable. Those are really difficult things to do right now, so I think that that’s a big cause of concern.
For a long time, I think journalists conflated the number of people who came to visit an article with a successful piece of journalism. And I think the good news is, at least from the viewpoint of the Washington Post, it’s really much more about deep engagement than it is about the total number of people who ever see a piece of journalism. The people who engage deeply, who spend their time, who share an article, recommend it to others, those are the people who are most likely to be subscribers. And so, when we craft the journalism, we need to craft journalism that engages people, not journalism that just attracts people. I think if I were to say what does clickbait look like, clickbait looks like journalism that attracts people to at least glance at a story but has nothing to support deep engagement. And good, powerful journalism, well told, that’s the kind of journalism that creates the deep engagement that merits a subscription.
We divide stories into critical and fascinating categories. Sometimes they can be both. We talk about stories that are live and stories that are really in depth. Again, they can be both. But we can do a story of the moment, a really live story, where all we have is a paragraph or a couple of sentences, and that paragraph or couple of sentences, it is the thing. So, when people go and engage with that journalism, they’re not going to spend a lot of time, but that might be exactly what we need to do when we have the news of the moment that will define the agenda, set what people are talking about.
So, we need metrics that are flexible enough around engagement that they don’t say a longer story is always better, because that is not true. It also has to be that we don't want circulation to be the only metric, but then say, well, wait a second, it was so engaging that you spent seven or 10 minutes and that was five or six minutes more than you thought you were going to spend, and therefore, you don’t look at a second story, but you still had a very successful engagement with Washington Post journalism. The metrics have to be flexible enough that they can account for the different types of stories we might have and the different moments we might reach people.
I would say the big difference is that local television, the graying of that audience on the primary distribution channel, is probably as aggressive or more aggressive than the aging on the newspaper model. I think a lot of the newspaper subscriptions declined so aggressively, so quickly over the last few years that now that trend is slowing in a lot of places. … I worry about television. I do think that there is this enormous age divide in terms of who has a television and whoever thinks about local news. And in the same way that fewer and fewer people grew up with a newspaper, now many of those people have never seen even their parents watch television news that way.
I really do believe that it is the job of the news media to make the important things interesting so it’s not some sort of choice between those things that are important and those things that are interesting. But if you are not making, especially on a local level, the important news interesting, like if you say the city council is important coverage to have but you can’t find a way to make that coverage interesting, that’s a failure on the news staff. It’s not a failure of the audience. You have to find a way to make the audience understand why they should care, and maybe that says that you have to throw out traditional story forms to get there, or maybe you have to try new channels, or maybe you have to find new ways to engage directly with the audience about what they care about that’s happening at the city council level.