Inside the Beltway

Gabe Sherman has a very interesting article on problems at the Washington Post, but I’m going to dedicate my post to taking issue with one small part of it:


From these conversations, a picture has emerged of a paper suffering an identity crisis. Its peers seem to have coherent strategies for saving themselves: The New York Times is doubling down on journalism in the belief that it can persevere online as the global newspaper of record; The Wall Street Journal remains the country’s definitive chronicler of business; other large papers have tried to distinguish themselves by burrowing into local issues. But the Post seems to be paralyzed-and trapped. It can’t go completely local because the local news in Washington is, in many respects, national; and its status as the paper of record for national politics is under assault from numerous competitors–competitors it isn’t clear the Post can defeat.

I think the idea that the Post “can’t” go local is just a mistake. This is a very large metropolitan area. Lots of stuff happens here. The actions of the country governments in Fairfax, Arlington, Montgomery, and Prince George’s County and the city governments in Alexandria and the District of Columbia have a large impact on people’s lives. And you’re not going to find out about that stuff in The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or The Hill or Roll Call or Congress Daily or Politico.

The economics of printing and distributing large bundles of newsprint created a situation in which it made sense for the same newspaper that covers DC-area local news to also attempt to be one of the best sources for national political coverage in the country. And it also made sense for that very same newspaper to attempt to do at least a so-so job of covering national culture and sports stories and general international news. The economics of distributing digital content are just different and they imply a different kind of optimal firm size and orientation. But the reason the Post can’t just bifurcate into a Politico-esque website about politics and a DCist-esque website about local news has nothing to do with the local news being national and everything to do with the fact that it’s just hard for longstanding incumbents to radically alter their mission and business practices.

Word on the street is that the guys who brought us Politico are, in fact, planning to start a local news cite for the DC area. I assume it will try to capture some economies of scale by sharing some basic infrastructure (IT staff, office space, etc.) with Politico but it’ll be a basically separate publication. Which is exactly what makes sense in the Internet era. It’s just something that’s it’s easier for a start-up to do.