Washington Post revenue chief: I applaud the duopoly and why millennials will pay for news

Forget the "Trump bump". Jeff Bezos becoming the owner and millennials paying for news have helped the Washington Post to hit one million paying subscribers.

Washington Post revenue chief: I applaud the duopoly and why millennials will pay for news

That’s according to Jed Hartman, the chief revenue officer of the Washington Post, who was speaking ahead of his appearance at Campaign’s Digital Media Strategies USA conference in New York on 15 November.

And, unlike some of his rivals, Hartman will not criticise Google and Facebook for sucking up most of the growth in the digital ad market.

"I applaud the duopoly," he said in an interview with Campaign, while noting the Washington Post has more than doubled its own digital ad sales in under three years.

Hartman said that investing in trusted, quality journalism, rather than cutting back as some other news publishers have done, has been key to the growth of the Washington Post, which announced in September that it had passed one million subscribers.

He said credit should go to Bezos, the founder of Amazon with a fortune worth close to $90bn (£68bn), who bought the paper as a personal investment for $250m in 2013.

"In terms of the Trump bump, what I would say is the most pivotal figure in the recent success of the Washington Post is Jeff Bezos," Hartman said, adding other senior staff such as the editor-in-chief Marty Baron were also "far more pivotal" than the US President in driving the paper’s growth.

He said its monthly online audience had more than doubled to almost 70 million between the time Bezos bought the paper and Trump began his run for office in the Republican primaries in 2016.

"I wouldn’t call it a ‘Trump bump’ because we were on our way prior [to the rise of Trump]," he explained.

However, Hartman conceded the drama surrounding Trump’s presidency "has added a pop culture element to politics".

The newspaper’s digital audience is now 95 million in the US, according to ComScore, plus about 30 million in the rest of the world.

Millennials are a generation that does pay

He said the controversy over fake news has made consumers, particularly millennials, appreciate the value of trusted news sources.

Young people under 35 have been used to getting their news for free online but Hartman said: "Millennials are willing to pay – you see with Netflix and Spotify and apps across the web all being paid for by millennials.

"I think it’s a generation that does pay. So then it’s about creating something that they want – if you’re a trusted brand that creates great content and that doesn’t divest in what makes you great.

"You see more and more publishers curating, rather than creating, because they’re unfortunately laying off journalists and content creators and then they become more commoditised. And then for them, it’s a ‘snowball effect’ the wrong way.

"By investing [in journalism and technology], we kept that Washington Post brand sacred and we’ve shown that millennials and others will pay for it."

Hartman added "the audience is getting smarter" as they see the perils of inaccurate and fake news and ask themselves: "Should I trust this source?"

"It’s driving more people to the Washington Post," he said. "Audiences know that when they come to the Washington Post, they are getting deeply-reported, deeply fact-checked information that they can trust."

The paper has run a series of investigations into Trump over the last year and Enders Analysis has said that "an openly liberal standpoint is surely one key ingredient of the Trump-era surge" in subscriptions enjoyed by both the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Industry observers say the Washington Post’s link to Bezos has also helped subscriptions. Amazon Prime, the online retailer’s shipping and streaming service, offers users a free, six-month digital subscription to the paper.

Doubling digital ad sales in three years

The Washington Post does not publish financial results but advertising is an important revenue source alongside subscriptions.

"We’ve more than doubled our digital business in ad sales – far more than doubled – in the not even three years since I’ve been here," Hartman, who previously worked at Time Inc, said.

That is proof that, despite the dominance of Google and Facebook, "there’s plenty of money for others too."

Hartman went on: "My perspective on the duopoly is we’re both partners but also they take a lot of ad dollars – good for them. They have really good businesses and do a really good job and whining about them is not a very good strategy as a chief revenue officer.

"If anything, I’m more envious of the fact that they have done a wonderful job of creating businesses that are able to scale at immense levels.

"We’re a small- to medium-sized publisher that has a clear mission and our goal is to deliver on that mission in a profitable, sustainable way and we’re doing it now and we’re going to continue to do it. And I applaud the duopoly."

The Washington Post only launched its paywall in 2013 and he said the fact it now has a million-strong paying subscriber base means it puts users first when it considers how to serve them with advertising.

His team has been "working very aggressively on the user experience of our ads" and "that also helps with our subscription business".

He explained: "If you’re more respectful of the user, if you don’t hold them hostage, if you don’t give them clumsy, slow ad units, then their experience is better.

"And if the experience is better, the engagement is better and the more likely they are to become a paid subscriber.

"You’ve got to be far more polite with your advertising, which is actually better for the advertiser. It gives them more share of voice because you’re going to have fewer ads and the user is more engaged."

It is "so ironic" that a lot of digital advertising across the web is clumsy and slow when "advertisers have messages of innovation and of service", Hartman said. 

"For us, it’s all about the user – the user comes first," he added, using similar language to how Bezos talks about focusing on the customer at Amazon.

An 'experimentation mentality'

The Washington Post is investing heavily in video because it’s often "the best way to emotionally connect with the audience", according to Hartman, who will be speaking at Digital Media Strategies USA in a session called Monetizing Innovative Storytelling: Making the most of AR, VR, 360 video and personalization.

"There’s a massive, massive growing audience, spending more and more time [watching video]," he said. "There’s so many ad dollars flowing to video."

So it is important to have an "experimentation mentality" and not be "afraid" to try new things.

He described the Washington Post’s branded content arm, Brand Studio, as "one of the great parts of the business right now – so much fun" because it is learning from innovation on the editorial side of the business. "I can mimic it at Brand Studio," he explained.

The Washington Post’s in-house technology team, RED, is also improving the digital distribution of that  content, so it is delivered in a more efficient, "friction-less" way on the website and app and on social channels.

"It puts the right content in the right format for the right person, so marketers are not paying to put content in front of someone who has never demonstrated any enjoyment of that kind of content," he said.

Hartman claimed the Washington Post has "added more audience than any other news publisher in the world since Jeff took over" because "we’ve been great at content and technology at the same time – not one or the other".

"We’re better at technology than all the journalism companies that we know and better at journalism than all the technology companies," he said. "So the combination makes us grow really fast."

Find out more about Digital Media Strategies USA 2017 at: https://www.digital-media-strategies-usa.com

Topics