business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

In the world of journalism, yesterday represented a kind of milestone - it was the last day on which Martin Baron was serving as executive editor of the Washington Post before heading into retirement.

Baron, the New York Times writes in its assessment, is worthy of journalism's Cooperstown, having served as top editor of the Miami Herald during the coverage of the 2000 election recount and Elián González’s repatriation.  After that, he moved to the Boston Globe, where he oversaw the investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church - it was turned into the film Spotlight, in which Baron was played by Liev Schreiber.

Then, it was on to the Washington Post.

Now, I recognize that for some readers, the Washington Post represents everything that you think is wrong with America.  For others, the Post is a hallowed institution.  (Full disclosure - count me in this latter group, even though they didn't hire me when I went there for an interview more than 30 years ago.)  But let's put all that aside for the moment, because there are business lessons in Baron's tenure at the Post.

One is that resources matter.  When Baron started at the Post, it was with the expectation that he'd have to figure out how to do more with less.  Like many newspapers, the Post was losing money … and it was only with the purchase of the paper from the Graham family, which owned it for 80 years, by Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos , who had plenty of money and a commitment to making the Post viable.

Which leads to the second lesson:  vision matters.  Give Bezos credit here, too.  Bezos understood the pain that traditional newspaper journalism was feeling, but also felt that the internet offered them a gift - the ability to distribute content globally at an almost negligible cost.  Bezos didn't just offer Baron money, but also a challenge - turn the Post from a local paper (albeit one covering a locality called Washington, DC) into a global paper.

Baron knew what to do with that:  "I had long felt — actually well before that — that we needed fresh thinking in the industry,” he said. “Because I was not hearing any new ideas from anybody.”

The Post wrote over the weekend that "during Baron’s tenure, the Post grew to have more than 3 million digital-only subscribers, even as print circulation has declined, and has enjoyed five straight years of profitability. The staff grew from 580 to more than 1,000. The Post opened new bureaus, after years of shuttering them, and this year expects to have 26 locations around the world. The Post, under Baron’s leadership, has won four Pulitzers for national reporting, two for explanatory reporting and one each for public service, investigative reporting, criticism and photography."

Not bad.

But there was another line from the Post story over the weekend that grabbed my attention, and that I think illustrates a third and perhaps most important business lesson.  It was a line delivered by Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, who described Baron as someone who "operated as an editor who was wedded to news but not to paper."

Which strikes me as really important - that form is less important than the core expertise.   It is an Eye-Opening lesson that is important for newspaper editors to learn, and for retailers, especially these days.