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October 25, 2014

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How The Washington Post was lost

Many U.S. newspapers were doomed to decline from the moment the Internet arrived on personal computers. But The Washington Post, just sold off unexpectedly to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, was never really one of them.

This is something the sentimental send-offs for the Graham family and its stewardship tended to ignore. As disruptive as the Internet has been for journalism, the Post was uniquely positioned to succeed amid the chaos. And it has struggled, in part, because the paper’s leaders failed to step into an online-era role that should have been theirs for the taking.

The nature of that role is suggested by a scene in the Thatcher-era British sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister” in which a politician explains who actually reads the British papers.

“The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country,” he tells his aides. “The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who own the country. The Morning Star” — a paper founded as a communist organ — “is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country. And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”

Back when “Yes, Prime Minister” aired, this comic analysis didn’t really fit the U.S. journalism scene. There were ideological and interest-based papers, especially in the big cities, but mostly geography rather than identity determined what newspaper you read.

With the arrival of the Internet, though, the U.S. media landscape began to look more British. Once you could read any paper from anywhere, the advantage went to properties that could brand themselves nationally, and define themselves by their audience as much as their city.

In this landscape, The Wall Street Journal has a clear role as the paper of the U.S. business class, with The Economist, The Financial Times and the Bloomberg empire as its supplements and competitors. The New York Times fills a similar role for the intelligentsia and the liberal professional classes. The Huffington Post is basically the nation’s left-wing tabloid, and it has several right-wing rivals and imitators. And various outlets, from BuzzFeed to The Atlantic, are competing to find or build a general-interest niche.

Since there aren’t that many major niches, most existing newspapers were always going to be losers from this shift.

But The Washington Post was different, because even though the Grahams placed a fierce emphasis on being a local paper, the locality the Post covers is inherently national. And given that D.C.’s influence has only increased the past 20 years, and the public’s interest in national politics has surged, it would have been natural for the Post to become, in the new-media dispensation, the paper of record for political coverage — the only must-read for people who run the country, who want to run it, who think they run it, etc.

Instead, it’s possible to date the moment when that opportunity slipped away: It happened in 2006, when John Harris and Jim VandeHei left the Post to found Politico.

Now, there are many reasons a publication like Politico was easier to build from scratch than it would have been to create inside a traditional, cost-burdened institution. But that’s also hindsight talking: From the vantage point of 2006, VandeHei and Harris looked like gamblers, and the Post’s grip on what the press critic Jack Shafer called the “political news from Washington” beat still seemed secure.

Today, though, it’s Politico rather than the Post that dominates the D.C. conversation, Politico rather than the Post that’s the must-read for Beltway professionals and politics junkies everywhere, and Politico rather than the Post that matches the metabolism of the Internet.

I say this as someone who doesn’t particularly like the Politico style or the role it plays in our gilded capital, and who misses the Post as it was when I arrived in Washington. But nostalgia is for columnists, not publishers: Politico has claimed a big part of the audience that the Post needed in order to thrive in the world the Internet has made.

That’s why I’m skeptical of the various theories about how the Post’s new genius owner might invent some new way to deliver content or bundle news or otherwise achieve a profitable synergy between his newspaper and Amazon.

Maybe such a synergy exists. But it’s more likely that the best thing Bezos can offer his paper is more old-fashioned: the money and resources necessary to take back territory lost to a sharp-elbowed competitor.

What Bezos can deliver, in other words, is a newspaper war, with clear and pressing stakes. For the Post to thrive again, Politico must lose.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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