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Washington Post: “Our hybrid journalists sit side by side with engineers”

Key takeaway: The Washington Post’s journalists aren’t siloed away in a separate newsroom but sit next to software engineers and product designers to figure out the best way to reach and engage the title’s audience.

At this month’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor of the Washington Post, was interviewed as part of a panel chaired by Jane Barrett, Reuter’s Global Editor for Media News Strategy. The session in question was titled ‘Setting New News Metrics‘ which looked at the juxtaposition of journalism and tech in modern news media.

The session began with Downs Mulder explaining that the Washington Post has upwards of 200 software engineers working on everything from the Post’s ecommerce platform, journalism tools, subscription platform and end products. This isn’t surprising for a title of the Post’s size but what is highly unusual for a large media organisation is that the engineers sit next to the journalists and product engineers.

Our hybrid journalists sit side by side with our engineers and product designers to figure out the best way to package our journalism and send it out to our audience. Everything at the Post is tightly integrated.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, Washington Post
L-R: Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post; Nicolas Johnston, Editor-in-Chief, Axios; Jane Barrett, Global Editor for News Strategy, Reuters News

Downs Mulder then went on to explain how the Post’s journalists are not there to merely write stories but instead have to understand the “entire lifecycle” of a story from the moment of its inception to how and when it reaches its final audience.

The skills you need to be a journalist have not changed. What has changed is that we now require a much deeper layer of collaboration. Journalists, engineers and product teams now all have to work together to create things that will succeed in this new world.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post
Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

Downs Mulder went on to explain, “In the past journalists would write a story and put it online. Now it takes a team, for example, an audience development specialist might teach a journalist SEO or teach them the best way to create a newsletter that is really sticky.”

The emphasis on collaboration was a theme that Downs Mulder expanded upon, “The journalists who rise today are the ones who can adjust and learn with other people really well. We emphasise the ability to open-mindedly talk about a story before we even start creating it – what format will work best for it.”

We’re not looking for journalists who can code, but we are looking for journalists who can spot a story and package that information in compelling ways.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

Metrics that matter

The conversation turned to audience metrics and how the Post measures the effectiveness of its stories. Downs Mulder explained that every person at the Post had access to the performance of their own stories, “We share a lot of information so that journalists can understand better how their work resonates with readers – what we’re looking for ultimately is impact.”

We have a very open metrics culture at the Post, we have the screens, we follow the numbers. But we’re not tyrannical about it – the numbers don’t rule everything.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

Downs Mulder then went on to explain that the numbers themselves are a means to an end and that other metrics are equally as important, “There are other measures of success for us, for example, did we learn something? Did the work have an impact outside the audience size? It’s a nuanced approach that takes in other factors beyond simply clicks.”

It’s important everyone has access to the numbers so we can all have a conversation about how we can grow our audience.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

She then went on to explain that because the Post is reliant on subscriptions, this also colours their approach to how they evaluate their work, “Ultimately we’re a subscriptions-driven company so a lot of what we’re asking is: are the people we’re attracting into our newsroom willing to pay for it?”

“We use a funnel-based approach with the top of the funnel looking at how many new people are coming into our site, unique views, and how many people go down to the second tier of the funnel. Once we’ve attracted them, we then ask if we have engaged them, whether they signed up for a newsletter or downloaded our app for example. We then look at how many people entered the purchase funnel and what they ended up buying, followed by retention metrics.”

All of our metrics combined give us a very powerful overview of what our business looks like.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

Downs Mulder went on to emphasise that on a day-to-day basis, the Washington Post places more importance on metrics that teams are able to influence, “it’s more important for our teams to focus on metrics they can actually move – we leave the big metrics for our quarterly and half-yearly evaluations”.

Attitudes to social media

The conversation was then steered towards social media. Downs Mulder explained how the social media platforms are necessary but that the Post evaluates them constantly, “Our strategy is to meet our readers where they are but we are constantly evolving how we engage with these platforms”.

Platforms can give great reach but they can also take away revenue. We are engaged with every platform but we are constantly monitoring our involvement with them.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

Finally, Downs Mulder was asked how she viewed the near future, an area she felt would see a world of increased personalization, “I’m excited about continued progress in personalization and relevance, and how we can improve an individual’s learning journey.”

The second is the way we consume media. Most news products are 95% written words, but Instagram is hugely popular and is 95% visual. There is a craving for a more dynamic experience and there is a lot to be explored around news formats and making things easy for people to consume news.”

“People are overwhelmed with information and asking them to sit down for ten minutes to read a story is increasingly difficult.”

A combination of relevance and format is something we’re going to experiment a lot with moving forwards.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor, the Washington Post

With the world’s richest man at the helm, with the deepest pockets, it would take a brave person to bet against the Post driving further innovation in news media.

And fast.