May 11, 2012

CJR: THE WASHINGTON POST CO.’S SELF-DESTRUCTIVE COURSE: This isn’t actually all that new; two years ago, I wrote a long hyperlink and bullet point-laden post titled “Studying the Washington Post, Kremlinologist-Style,” running down just some of the insanity I was seeing coming out of the WaPo. But when the Columbia Journalism Review notices, the house organ of the media’s ancien régime, as Hugh Hewitt once described it, then you know things are getting serious there:

The Washington Post Company‘s dismal quarterly earnings release last week was received with something of a shrug—more of the same. But the report is worse than the reaction suggests and raises fundamental questions about the Post’s strategy, not just for the newspaper, but for the whole company.

If you hadn’t heard, the Washington Post Company is basically a for-profit college/SAT-prep firm that sidelines as a cable-TV provider and newspaper publisher. The august Washington Post (I’ll italicize Post here when referring to the newspaper and won’t when referring to its parent) contributed just 15 percent to its namesake company’s revenue in the first quarter but was a $23 million drag on the bottom line.

Kaplan, the Post’s education division, is the company’s cash cow, and a few years ago looked like the newspaper’s savior. But its revenue has fallen sharply over the last year and a half since for-profit schools, very much including Kaplan’s, came under pressure for predatory practices. Its sales tumbled 14 percent from 2010 to 2011 and dropped another 11 percent in the first quarter.

Its deteriorating prospects spells more trouble for the Post’s newspaper division, whose very bad first quarter included not only that $23 million loss but also a 7 percent decline in revenue. Crucially, its digital ad revenue—the paper’s main hope for the future—went into reverse and hit negative 8 percent. It’s just the latest in a long line of bad results.

The Post’s newspaper division (which includes Slate) has posted losses in thirteen of the last fifteen quarters, a trail of red ink that has led to cumulative losses of $412 million over the period. Its revenue has declined in twenty of the last twenty-two quarters and last year it brought in fully one-third less—$314 million—than it did at its peak in 2006. Layoffs have reduced the Post’s newsroom to a little more than half its peak size.

The CJR might not want to admit it, but the core product that the WaPo delivers to its consumers isn’t doing it any favors these days, either.

UPDATE: Stacy McCain adds:

Remember that last month the Washington Post fired a young blogger, Elizabeth Flock, for errors in her account of a controversy involving the Romney campaign. WaPo ombudsman Patrick Pexton headlined his account of that incident, “The Post fails a young blogger.”

OK, so who failed on the “BullyGate” story? And if Elizabeth Flock got fired for an inaccurate blog post, how can Jason Horowitz survive multiple inaccuracies in a 5,000-word front-page story? How does the WaPo plan to verify a secondhand quote from a dead man?

Stacy has contact info for the Post’s ombudsman, though as Bryan Preston writes at the Tatler, after attempting to contact him and receiving radio silence in return, “The Washington Post Could Not Be Reached for Comment, On Its Own Blockbuster Story.”