Since Jeff Bezos’ $250 million buyout of The Washington Post in 2013, the publisher’s fortunes have turned around. In recent years it has been seen – alongside the New York Times – as a poster child for a successful digital transformation of a legacy brand.
Three years into Bezos’ ownership, the Post had doubled its web traffic and gone from losing as much as $40m a year to reportedly being profitable. By 2019, it had added 200 journalists to its newsroom, bringing the total to 900. Its ‘turbocharged turnaround’ was showing promise.
But as the New York Times sets ever loftier subscriber goals, The Washington Post seems to be slowing down.
A tale of two papers
- The New York Times continues racking up subscribers. Following its acquisition of The Athletic, it set itself a new target of 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027.
- The NYT hit 525 million visits in May, making it the fourth most visited news site last month. By contrast, The Washington Post didn’t even make the top 25.
- The Washington Post has seen traffic decline 28% to 66 million a month. Their total subscribers fell last year from 3 million to 2.7 million between January and October 2021.
From bump to slump: The Washington Post isn’t the only publisher struggling with traffic declines. This has been widely attributed to news fatigue and news avoidance, following Trump’s headline-generating presidency and the pandemic.
The NYT has seen small traffic drops but continued subscriber growth. This has been helped by separate subscriptions to products not reliant on news, such as cooking and games. Its acquisition of viral word game Wordle has almost certainly helped boost traffic numbers.
Can The Washington Post close the gap?
The total number of people paying for news subscriptions appears to be plateauing in some regions, according to Reuters’ 2022 Digital News Report.
- While there is a market for some people taking out second news subscriptions, the NYT and the Post are likely to be too similar to benefit from this trend.
- “The Post might be complementary to the NYT for a small set of US news junkies, but much of what it does will inevitably overlap because it is trying to serve the same function in the market – a primary news source,” says Flashes & Flames’ Colin Morrison. “That leaves it fighting to pull away NYT readers in the US, or, when it comes to a potential growth market among international readers, offer a better option than a similar newspaper with a bigger newsroom and its own impressive suite of complementary products.”
International expansion may offer promise according to Morrison. But it’s another area the Post is playing catch-up in.
- The Washington Post launched a news hub in London which – alongside its Seoul base – is designed to create a more global newsroom.
- But the NYT is currently expanding its London team, bolstering the numbers of editorial staff in the UK to over 70.
The bottom line: The Washington Post will probably never challenge the top spot. But that’s unlikely to bother billionaire Bezos “as someone who has helped turn the Post from an ailing reminder of better days into an example of a healthy news business that looks stable enough to survive even without his largesse,” Morrison concludes.
The data and analysis in this story is used here with kind permission from the Flashes & Flames story: Bezos saved the Washington Post but… Subscribe to read more detail about the history of The Washington Post and whether it can catch up with the NYT. Flashes & Flames provides exclusive weekly analysis and insights for media executive and entrepreneurs. Learn more and subscribe at flashesandflames.com