It's Not Her Grandmother's Post

Washington Paper Spawns Niche Products, Buys Out Staffers Under Weymouth

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NEW YORK ( -- Katharine Weymouth is the fifth member of her family to serve as publisher of The Washington Post, but she presents a firmly unassuming air. "I hope I will prove myself to be a competent and able leader," she told Ad Age when we visited last week.
Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post
Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post Credit: Scott Gries

A Bostonian by birth, a New Yorker growing up and a prosecutor by training, Ms. Weymouth didn't expect to enter the business once dominated by Katharine Graham, her grandmother.

"I've always wanted to prove myself and that I'm contributing," she said. "I didn't know if people would resent the family coming, and I just didn't know if I'd be good at it."

But she dipped in a toe, as a loaner from her law firm to the Post's legal department, and became assistant counsel in 1996. Subsequent assignments took her into ad sales. Since becoming publisher just four months ago, however, she has shouldered an entirely new level of expectations and demands.

Difficult work ahead
Ms. Weymouth, 42, is taking control of a storied newspaper, a magnet for Pulitzer Prizes that boasts scoops from Watergate to Walter Reed, at a time when the format and function of all newspapers is under pressure. New buckling is evident every day -- such as last week, when McClatchy Co. revealed plans to cut 10% of its work force, or 1,400 positions. Or last week's announcement from The New York Times Co. saying ad revenue fell 13% in May, its worst drop so far this year.

"[Newspapers are] in a very difficult migration to newer media," said Alexia Quadrani, a JPMorgan analyst."They have to figure out how to go from mass to niche marketing, how to go from print to digital."

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The Washington Post saw print-ad revenue sink $77 million last year, while digital ad revenue grew just $6 million. Paid circulation fell 3.6% in the latest report. And Ms. Weymouth just attended a sendoff for more than 100 newsroom staffers who accepted the paper's third round of buyout offers, designed to save money despite incurring severance costs approaching $80 million.

Ms. Weymouth is well-liked at the Post, but her ascension opened a new set of questions. First among them: Would the next-generation publisher oust longtime Editor Len Downie Jr., 66, for a next-generation editor to match?

"I am in no hurry to rush Len out of here," Ms. Weymouth said. She is, however, scouting successors for the day he resigns -- and said newspapers' decline has created a new prerequisite for editors, in addition to intellectual capacity and leadership ability.

Making up for print-ad revenue
"The third piece is the ability to work with the business side, without crossing church-state lines," she said. "To the extent that we need to effect change either in our structure or our head count, I think you need people who can do that effectively without overly demoralizing the staff or hurting the product that we put out in print or online."

To replace some of the print-ad revenue it is losing, the Post has introduced niche products including a free commuter paper called Express, a hyper-local web play for Virginia's Loudon County, an eco-centric women's site at and a current-events site called The Root that emphasizes black voices.

Its recently introduced incentive program for subscribers, Post Points, has signed up more than 80 advertisers and 142,000 consumers. It also partnered with a Brooklyn, N.Y., company called to host "Buzz Maps" of blog posts and Post stories organized by precise location.

And this fall, in a move that echoes competitors such as The Wall Street Journal, the Post will introduce a glossy called Fashion Washington in a bid for luxury ad spending. "There's a huge market for that and there's a lot of our readers that I think would love it," Ms. Weymouth said. "It's just never been our forte."

But the Post still enjoys a "very solid position," so she won't try just anything. "I've had advertisers beg me to put ads on the front page, and we're not ready to do that," she said. The same goes for ads on Post-It notes affixed to the paper. "We declined to do that because we thought it cheapened the front page."
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