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The Washington Post and Jeff Bezos' 'to do' list

Merrill Brown, former editor-in-chief, MSNBC.com
Monday, 12 Aug 2013 | 3:23 PM ET
Alex Wong | Getty Images

Jeff Bezos, his designees in Washington and his investment operation have a rather big challenge: How do they get their arms around an exceedingly troubled business, The Washington Post, from 2,500 miles away without a new management team in place?

If I had the opportunity to advise Jeff Bezos on his immediate priorities, here's how I'd structure the exercise. Here are the top 10 things I'd put on the table as immediate priorities.

1) Establish management. Get your head quickly around the question of who's in charge. The Post recently installed Marty Baron as executive editor, and by all accounts he's one of the country's great editors. Already since he came on board late last year, there's better execution on the big stories and morale is said to be improving. (Disclosure: Baron and I have known each other for many years.) But there's no one else in the senior ranks of the organization who is considered in Baron's league.

Significantly, the company also lacks critical expertise in digital revenue, an increasingly complex topic involving rich analytics, targeting and considerably more focused forms of ad network programs. There are a small number of publishing and advertising executives who get where all this is going. The Post needs to hire one as soon as feasible.

2) Create a product development culture. The biggest problem with traditional news organizations is that with only a few exceptions they do not even understand what product development means. Whether it's in the context of news coverage, "paywall" strategy, revenue development plans or new product initiatives, the company needs an aggressive focus on developing new products and a well-structured cross-discipline approach to the problem.

No more "church and state" divisions while at the same time acknowledging the basic and obvious requirements that advertiser relationships don't influence news decisions. Get at this right away because you'll immediately get the right people in the room having the right discussions that they're only infrequently in a position to have today. A weakness of the current online subscription strategy is that it appears focused only on the existing content rather than on exciting new initiatives that would invigorate the company and its audiences.

3) Clarify with precision the Post's local/national dilemma. The Post is schizophrenic about its role in D.C. and with the global audience. And it is complicated. But recent minimizing of local coverage in exchange for doubling down on the out-of-market audience, as The New York Times is doing, is not the right strategy for the Post. The D.C. area is too important, too influential and too prosperous to be marginalized. The Post barely covers its larger community and seems in odd ways to be dismissive of Virginia, a remarkable circumstance in light of the fact that northern Virginia is the economic engine that drives the entire region. (Why is so much more attention devoted to Maryland sports than Virginia sports, to pick an obvious example?) Rethink and expand local coverage, because there's audience and revenue in it.

At the same time acknowledge that the Post has to be the information company about politics and government, and expand both coverage and new product initiatives that at least begin to get the paper into the revenue streams that the large D.C. information companies play in as a result of their data and expertise about regulation, taxation and other public policy fields.

4) Take video seriously. Build a strategy that gets the Post in the game in ways far beyond the newsroom talking heads that are the core of the current strategy. When I ran MSNBC.com, I got the Post access to massive amounts of NBC News video—but back in 1999-2000, at a time when that kind of access was probably a bit premature and video was harder to deal with, produce, edit and distribute.

All that has changed. Acquire video, stream video and develop video products that are both integrated with the Post and valuable in their own right.

5) Rethink partnering. Again, the partnerships I helped create for the Post with NBC News, MSNBC and Microsoft 14 years ago helped bring new eyeballs to its content, but the commitments weren't there for a level of integration that would have been meaningful in dramatic ways.

Look at ABC News-Yahoo and other partnerships and assess new opportunities. Consider AP, Reuters, NPR/PBS, NBC, CNN and others. These work when the two sides restrain their egos and their employees are incentivized to collaborate. Without management commitment, they generally fail.

6) News and information company. Be absolutely clear that you want to be not merely a local newspaper company but a Washington-focused news and information company. Most Post people know but rarely articulate it. You and your management group need to say it over and over again to all internal and external audiences. The paper and website are not only important pieces of the company but where some of its best work is displayed. New products, new initiatives, new brands and new imagery can flow from the repetition of this new approach.

Read All About It: When the News is Under New Ownership
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7) Federal Washington. Get back in the game through new products or an aggressive acquisition strategy. Why cede "This Town" (name of much-discussed book by Mark Leibovich) to Bloomberg, Politico and others. With health-care, tax reform, climate change, Wall Street regulation and many other issues likely to be high priority for business in the coming decade, products such as newsletters, data services and customized research are business opportunities that the Post must seize.

8) Rebuild, re-energize and simplify the website. Before completely rebuilding the Post's site and iPad app (among other products to be redone), determine where the company is headed. While you figure out local and national roles, make the site simpler, easier to use and less overbearing.

9) E-commerce, self service, new revenue. Become a store, integrate with the larger Amazon stores, assess current tools for consumers and advertisers, and pull apart how the Post deals with digital revenue today.

There's plenty of innovation opportunity in audience measurement, self-service tools, personalization and creation of a contemporary technology platform. Start that discussion with revenue. The building of a new CMS is inevitable, but look for shorter-term projects that change the Post's revenue culture and how it intersects with advertisers, partners and sponsors. Set up a native advertising group at once.

10) Books. Seems obvious and easy. Jeff, get the Post back into the book business. Closing down its books coverage might have made short-term cost-cutting sense. To say the least, it's a new day.

Merrill Brown, currently director of the Montclair State University School of Communication and Media and a venture partner at DFJ Frontier, was the founding editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com. He also served as a reporter for The Washington Post and as director of business development for the Post's parent company. In 1999, he played a key role in assembling a content-sharing alliance among MSNBC, The Washington Post, NBC News and Newsweek.

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