WaPo Publisher's New Year's Email Reveals Haughty Old Media Isn't Learning Its Lesson

The Internet doesn’t kill newspapers. Publishers do.

Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth emailed her year-end thank-you memo to a bunch of WaPo swells on New Year’s Eve (her first mistake). Before the electrons were even dry, the must-read Jim Romenesko posted her email in its entirety with the breaker that Weymouth blew air kisses to almost everyone at the Post–except executive editor Marcus Brauchli.

Image Credit: Washington Post

A C-Suite semaphore? Perhaps. But the real news wasn’t the errant Post Toasties. The real news was the unintentional candor with which Weymouth described how she is driving the paper straight into a digital tar pit.

If you care a whit about real journalism (in any medium), this memo will irk you, and not because of the grammar issues.

I can overlook the dozen or so typos–it was New Year’s Eve, after all. And I can ignore the “they’re-their” slip-up. Spell check doesn’t always catch that one. I can even see past the occasional subject-verb-agreement lapse.

No. No, actually, I can’t. She’s the publisher of the Washington Freakin’ Post, fer chrissake! Doesn’t she have people to catch that??

But what really gives me eye-bulge is watching the Sacagawea of the Fourth Estate instruct her expedition to press on after they’ve reached the Pacific.

The Internet asteroid has hit the Earth, threatening to bring an end to the Guttenberg Period of the Paleozoic Era. The time has come to challenge the talented WaPo team to innovate in the face this of pension-decimating upheaval. So what does Weymouth do? She instructs Wallace Hartley to keep playing the old favorites.

Four examples:

Celebrating Attrition: Unless Weymouth is employing the “Zeno’s dichotomy paradox” marketing strategy, there is no reason to celebrate “a rate of decline that is about half of what it was last year.”

Suffering from Polaris-is: The customer has always been considered the North Star in successful communications, even before the Internet demanded it. But Weymouth, apparently, is just coming around to that quaint notion.

“We set ourselves five priorities in the beginning of the year … 5) become more customer centric, by focusing on how we get our stories to people, how we package and promote them, how we can enlighten, engage, amuse and move readers.”

Early-onset Polaris-is: Worse, by Weymouth’s own admission, customer focus has only eked into the “top five priorities” in 2011.

“Customer focus has always been a priority at the Washington Post. By naming it one of our five priorities for the year, I wanted to push us to get even better and more disciplined.”

And even with that recent promotion, customer focus is still an also-ran.

“We are in the process of evolving to a company which uses data and our expertise to provide customers with more and more compelling consumer experiences. The most successful companies, from Southwest airlines, to Apple, to Walmart, have demonstrated, time and again, that a relentless focus on the customer always wins. Laura Evans, in her new role as Chief Experience Officer, will help us get there.”

“Strike up ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ would you please, Mr. Hartley.”

Investing in the past: It is a given that shredding trees into pulp, spraying the dried mess with ink, wrapping it in plastic bags, and tossing those bags onto doorsteps across America is a fairly antiquated way to communicate a message.

But when you’re the Top Dog of this enterprise, it’s your job to shine a hopeful, promising light on the looming overhaul of this 20th century story factory. It is incumbent upon you to give hope to the ink-stained wretches who actually write, print and deliver the daily paper. “[W]e will continue to invest in our newspaper as long as their (sic) are customers who demand it,” has kind of a Little Big Horn ring to it, don’t you think?

To her credit, Weymouth does address, briefly, how the Post is embracing new technology.

“We are telling stories using the tools available to bring our stories to life in new ways, through pictures, video, text and graphics.”

But I figured being the niece of of Tina Weymouth, the bass-thumping founding member of the Talking Heads, Katharine would have realized before the rest of us that “talking heads” are, in fact, the future of news, and that she would have already developed a plan to drive the Post to that bright future.


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