When the New York Times published a profile of the Washington Post last year, it was hard to tell whether the paper's tone was mournful or secretly gleeful. What wasn't in doubt was that the profile was an advance obituary. With executive editor Marcus Brauchli's resignation at the end of last year, much of the lingering hope that the Post could be restored to glory seemed to go with him.
In a time when American politics has never been more closely followed, it seems odd that the paper so symbolically connected to it is so listless. Why? The Post's chief failure is that has steadfastly remained a metropolitan newspaper in a world in which only national or local papers will remain viable.
The Washington Post still has the potential for greatness. A new Post must boldly reinsert itself at the intersection of Washington and the world as a window for each to the other. At the same time, the Post has an obligation to continue providing illuminating local and lifestyle coverage to those who call the region home. The paper should be the first read for those in Washington, the "second read" (à la the old WSJ) for anyone nationally who has a strong vested interest in Washington, and the premier destination for international readers seeking to keep up to date on American politics. What should the Post do to realize its potential? Here are 8 ideas:
• The A-section should be the Financial Times of American politics with sharp, concise, insightful reporting and analysis. There's tremendous potential in bringing more of the stories that only get seen in insider publications like Roll Call to a broader audience. The Post has smartly left general business coverage to the WSJ/FT. Where it can and has failed to make an impact is in providing a shrewder look on industry regulation and macroeconomics issues than it is capable. For national and international news and general interest stories, the Post should focus on a crisper, more essential daily mix of stories coupled with an in-depth briefing.
• Double down on investigative journalism and opinion. Rupert Murdoch's haste to emphasize breaking news over long-form journalism following his takeover of the WSJ may ultimately be that paper's downfall (it's tough to compete with Bloomberg). The NYT has prospered from the WSJ's retreat from the slow work of investigative journalism with a host of Pulitzers in the past few years. No one says the Post can't compete too if it wanted. On the op-ed pages, too many important personalities are in papers other than the Post. The paper needs its own Martin Wolf of politics and should be the first-choice paper for ex-government officials to put their thoughts on paper. Like the FT/WSJ, the Post should also publish regular pull-out sections devoted to specific issues like education or environmental policy -- perhaps in partnership with a major think-tank such as Brookings.
• Better leverage its existing properties. Consider the once-celebrated Style section. The Washington Post should merge it with Slate, the online magazine which it also owns and charge its editors to take bold risks. A combination would be to the advantage of both -- the Post's prestige and circulation attracting higher profile contributors to Slate while bolstering a section that has become increasingly anemic in recent years. The Post should also look to Style as an opportunity to inspire the creativity of its journalists in the same way that the WSJ's quirky A-heds are beloved by both its writers and readers. Similarly, the Post should include Foreign Policy magazine as a monthly addition for Sunday subscribers, again creating a win-win in reader, advertiser, and writer interest for both properties.
• Improve the aesthetics -- starting with less grubby paper and by taking a few style notes from the International Herald Tribune. The front page should run seven columns, with one, like the Wall Street Journal, being an executive summary. Each day, the front page should have the outermost columns featuring stories exclusive to the Post or major events, with one story each on national politics, national interest, local interest/politics, international interest/affairs, and economics/business.
• Merge the Metro and Sports section. The move is more psychological than business driven. Total page count devoted to local news shouldn't be reduced at all: but for the Post to be the national agenda-setter it can be, it needs to mentally free itself from half of its daily sections being local to a third.
• Don't be afraid to outsource. The Post's defining product should be its political coverage; of course, that doesn't diminish its obligation to its regional readers. It can beef up general business and personal finance coverage in partnership with Bloomberg as it already has. For the weekly lifestyle supplements, consider partnering with soon-to-be independent Time Inc.'s magazines for content.
• Consider publishing a single Weekend edition like the WSJ and FT. This may be a step too far for the paper's local readership, but the savings, if intelligently reinvested, could actually result in a richer paper overall for readers -- especially if it means the return of a real book review.
• Implement a metered paywall -- yesterday. The Post commands one of the most popular newspaper websites in the country. Without a paywall, it undermines local demand for the print product and fails to capitalize on the broad national and international interest for its journalism.
There is still room in the United States for one more national paper (even if not physically in print). The New York Times and USA Today compete for different classes of general readers. The WSJ's push into general interest has left its historical strength in business vulnerable to the FT. The last slot is for the paper that does politics well -- but if the Post is not careful, Politico will usurp it. There's plenty more that can be said about the Post -- starting with the magazine -- but the most important is this: if the Washington Post does not start thinking and acting like a national paper, it will die the inevitable death of a regional one.