WaPo’s 6 lessons for B2B media

Jeremy Gilbert, Washington Post

By James C. Sulecki

I had occasion to listen in on a presentation by Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Washington Post. You know, the supposedly failing and “fake” newspaper that has enjoyed a spectacular turnaround under the ownership of Jeff Bezos.

What been the secret to the WaPo’s success? Well, it doesn’t hurt to be owned by the world’s wealthiest man and one of the foremost tech barons of our era.

But it comes down to this – and hold onto your hat . . .

  • It’s about serving the audience . . .
  • . . . And producing quality journalism

Gilbert put it best: “Great journalism drives subscriptions and advertisers.”

Here are my six biggest takes that we in B2B media can learn from his talk:

1. “No more obligatory coverage.” Gilbert said that as far as WaPo is concerned, there are only two ways to tell a story:

  • Live – in which case as a news organization you must be the first to report a story. “If as one of our subscribers you also hear about something live somewhere else, we are not doing our job,” he said.
  • In-depth – in which case the depth and extensiveness of the WaPo’s coverage must surpass that of all others’.

WaPo’s magic quandrant: stories that are either fascinating or critical, or ideally both.

“Critical and fascinating.” That is the WaPo’s sweet spot, Gilbert said – not “obligatory” and/or “meh.”

2. Bring the steak AND the sizzle. But what if a story is critical but not fascinating, Gilbert was asked. He quoted a question his own boss, Jeff Bezos, once asked of him: “Don’t you think it’s your job to make important news interesting?” Bottom line: Seeing coverage as either important or interesting is a false choice. As journalists, it’s our job to make important stories compelling, not only via text but also through graphics, data, video, etc.

3. Create a triangle of news people, marketers, and engineers. It’s not always rosy, and they’re not always looking at the same analytics, but a blend of journalists, audience developers, and technology architects is what is necessary to build a true digital-first content business.

4. Don’t let a good crisis go to waste. Gilbert says that with the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, “our journalism felt absolutely indispensable,” and led to a boom of more than 1 million subscribers to its COVID-19 newsletter. At the same time the WaPo is looking to leverage that pandemic coverage to familiarize subscribers to the value of ALL of its coverage – especially in preparation for next March and April when many of the paper’s new one-year subscriptions will be up for renewal.

5. Provide good service journalism. At the center of the WaPo’s COVID-19 coverage is a graphics-intensive section titled, “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve.’” The feature has generated five times the views of its previously most trafficked story (the breaking of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” scandal) and has been translated into fifteen languages.

6. Focus on partnerships with advertisers that build both revenue AND audience benefit. For instance, AT&T’s sponsorship of WaPo’s coronavirus coverage brought sponsorship revenue as well as high-speed routers that the paper’s video teams used to bring high-quality video coverage to its subscribers.

Bottom line: If all of this amounts to failing, then plenty more B2B media outfits need to fail like the Washington Post.