TOPICS > Nation

Extended Interview: Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie

April 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s talk about the Post a little bit first.

Like many newspapers, it’s losing circulation, with statistics something like down 5 percent over the last two years.

LEN DOWNIE: Two or three years, yeah. Something like that.

TERENCE SMITH: And 4 percent on Sunday. What explains that?

LEN DOWNIE: Actually, the paper — well, any kind of paper — has been losing circulation, but our readership has been growing on washingtonpost.com.

So our daily circulation now is the 700,000s, our Sunday circulation is right around a million. But we’ve added a million new readers every day on washingtonpost.com. And that’s part of the explanation, is that — particularly among younger people — people are reading is more on the Internet. Some read us on the Internet in addition to the newspaper, and some read us on the Internet instead of picking up the newspaper. So that’s where some of the audience has gone.

In addition to that, we can only speculate about people’s lifestyles. The Washington area is one of the most difficult commutes in the country.

People have to get up very early in the morning, don’t get home until late at night. So, that means there’s less time to read the newspaper as well, whereas they do have time at work to turn on the computer and look at the Internet.

TERENCE SMITH: Is that a trend that concerns you?

LEN DOWNIE: It is a trend. How much it concerns me is the question of how we organize ourselves in terms of presenting the news we gather to people and the best ways to reach them. So I am concerned about circulation of the newspaper.

Obviously, I’d like to slow the decline, if not stop it completely, and that’s what we’re working on very, very hard and trying to find ways to make the paper easier for people to use and bring it to their attention more. We’re doing that.

But at the same time, we’re also not unhappy that our readership is growing on the Internet or that the free newspaper we’ve started, Express — five days a week on the Metro — is bringing some new readers in that way.

And we’ve bought the local Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo Latino — because another reason I think why our circulation has declined in recent years is that most of the growth of the Washington metropolitan area has been through immigration.

So we have hundreds of thousands of new Americans living in our area of all different backgrounds actually coming from many different continents, but the largest group of them speak and read Spanish, coming from a number of Spanish-speaking countries. And I think El Tiempo Latino is going to be an important bridge for us to those Spanish readers over time.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you still derive most of the revenue, you the paper, The Washington Post, derive most of the revenue from the print edition?

LEN DOWNIE: Yes. Yes, from the advertising in the print edition more than the circulation price because we keep the paper low-priced in order to maximize readership.

But the advertising revenue is growing fastest at washingtonpost.com, our Web site. So I assume that Don Graham, the CEO, and Bo Jones, the publisher, and I don’t have to worry about this — look at the total revenue picture, and we also expect revenue to grow at El Tiempo Latino, too.

So I think there is a balancing out of new revenues in these new media platforms, a word I never thought I’d use in the past, and the newspaper itself.

TERENCE SMITH: And yet the Web site is free.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: People can read the paper for free.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: I know you had ads on the Web site.

LEN DOWNIE: Right, and that’s where the income comes from is from the ads.

TERENCE SMITH: I’m wondering if difference in revenue — the fact that the principal source of revenue remains for the print edition, now that it’s declining and where this other less financially rewarding platform is growing and growing very rapidly — are those two trend lines cause for concern?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, you know, I think they’re more cause for our interest than concern for our planning.

I should add that while our circulation has been declining some in recent years, our ad revenue has not. Our ad revenue for the newspaper is doing fine.

And in addition to that, ad revenue is growing on the Internet site. So I think we’re looking at — again, to use that word — “multiplatform” revenue business model here and I think that’s what the business side people are looking at.

TERENCE SMITH: In a new book called “The Vanishing Newspaper,” Philip Meyer calls this harvesting the product.

Harvesting, in other words, by raising ad rates in order to increase the advertising revenue at the same time that circulation was going down. He calls that harvesting the product and, of course, the problem with harvesting anything is you eventually use it up; is that a concern?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, I don’t see that as a concern for The Washington Post Co. any time soon because we are such a dominant factor in both people’s news lives and people’s advertising lives in the Washington area.

Even with our declining circulation, half the households in this area get The Washington Post newspaper in addition to the people that read us on the Internet. So that’s not my worry.

I actually look at harvesting in a different way than Phil Meyer does.

I see this newsroom that we’re sitting in right now, it costs a lot of money for all the outstanding journalists we have working here, as producing news that we can harvest for a variety of different platforms, a variety of different ways of reaching readers.

And as editor of the ink-on-paper Washington newspaper, I am not worried about how people receive our news as long as they’re receiving it.

TERENCE SMITH: And paying for it?

LEN DOWNIE: And, well, paying for it one way or another.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

LEN DOWNIE: Advertising can be paying for it. With public television, other folks pay for it. The viewers pay for it. It all depends on the best way to pay for it.

TERENCE SMITH: Given this picture that you’ve just described what then explains and what’s the logic behind publishing Express, a free five-day-a-week newspaper that you distribute without cost, without charge? What’s the logic?

LEN DOWNIE: Express is designed to reach those people who are not regularly reading a newspaper right now and to reach them at a point in their daily lives, namely, riding our Metro subway system, when they are less likely to be reading something else.

And even people who subscribe to The Washington Post will often pick Express as they get on the subway. It’s a quick way to catch up on some of the news.

But what we’re mostly interested in and have succeeded so far — according to our surveys of Express readers — in making into Express readers people who were not previously reading a newspaper. And I hope in the long run that it’ll translate then from Express into also reading The Washington Post.

And free newspapers are here now in this country, it’s a trend, and rather than fight it we decided to put out our own free newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there any evidence to date that Express is in fact bringing new readers in, especially younger readers, to subscribe to or purchase The Washington Post?

LEN DOWNIE: Not yet, we have not surveyed for that yet because Express is only about a year old. What we have surveyed so far are the people who are reading Express.

Eighty percent of them are subway riders. A disproportionately large number of them are younger people of the kind you described. And a disproportionate number of them who weren’t otherwise reading a newspaper before they started reading Express.

So just establishing that habit of reading a newspaper I think is a step in the right direction.

TERENCE SMITH: Isn’t it a bit odd for someone such as yourself who has been in this business a long time and of course the purpose has been to sell newspaper to suddenly start giving away newspapers?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, it’s also as you’ve pointed out free on the Internet as well in its own way. They’re all supported by advertising.

The Express newspaper is also supported by advertising. I’ve never been terribly involved in the business side of things or the revenue-raising side of things. I think I’m regarded by the business folks as the guy that spends the money rather than brings it in.

What I’m interested in is whether or not the fine news product we put out is reaching enough eyes and ears out there, and I think it is.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you want the Express to maintain the same standards, journalist performance level, that you require of The Washington Post?

LEN DOWNIE: In terms of its standards, yes. In terms of its overall content, obviously it’s a small newspaper, it’s a digest. It doesn’t have anything like the depth of The Washington Post. And so far it is not publishing many Washington Post newsroom produced stories, although other things in Express, entertainment listings and lots of other things, do come from us.

But mostly their news comes from the wire services right now as we experiment with this new form and see where we’re going to go with it. But its whole purpose is to be a digest and not to be the full Washington Post newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: Was another purpose in starting, launching Express a year ago (16 months ago) to keep other free newspapers out of the Washington area? Metro, for example, has gone to a number of metropolitan areas.

LEN DOWNIE: Well, it’s a highly competitive world, the media world, and obviously if there is going to be a free newspaper in Washington, we’d like to be the one publishing it.

TERENCE SMITH: And yet now a year later suddenly there is competition in this bizarre race to see who can give away more papers, Express or the Examiner.

LEN DOWNIE: Right. The Examiner is still something of a mystery to me. The Examiner is based on a suburban newspaper chain that was languishing in the Washington area and was bought by a man with a lot of money, Philip Anschutz.

And what they’ve done is produce a paper so far that looks something like it’s in between Express and The Washington Post. It’s bigger than the Express, it has longer stories, again, mostly wire service stories. It has a small reporting staff of its own.

But yet it’s not nearly as fulsome as The Washington Post. And so I’m not quite sure yet what readership niche they’re looking for and what readers are making of it yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, one thing they’re doing is distributing it free in the more affluent neighborhoods of town. Doesn’t that tell you where they think they’re going?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, that’s certainly what they want to do for the sake of their advertising sales is to be able to say that they’re being read by the affluent people in town. So far I don’t see a lot of evidence of that readership building very fast.

I know that they’ve had distribution problems and there are people that have chosen not to receive it even though it’s free.

TERENCE SMITH: You said at first that the Examiner is a mystery or something of a mystery to you.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the mystery?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, I haven’t quite figured out what market niche they’re looking for, what kind of newspaper they expect to be, what they want readers to think about them yet.

Because, as I say, they’re sort of in this Never-Neverland between a free digest newspaper like Express and a full-service newspaper like The Washington Post. We don’t have a tradition in Washington of the larger-sized tabloid newspapers which is what Examiner is, as New York and Chicago have, for instance. So I’m just quite sure what this is going to be here yet.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of it — of the product?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, I think it’s a cleverly designed product and cleverly packaged, that most of it is derivative information from wire services, feature services, freelancers who are working part-time for them as columnists and so on and have other jobs.

So I don’t see it much, much of a competitor with the Post yet, but we’ll see how it develops.

TERENCE SMITH: Does it meet in your opinion as a professional the kind of professional competence that you want to see in a paper?

LEN DOWNIE: It certainly does in its design and editing. In terms of its reporting, to be fair to them, they’re just getting started, they have a very small reporting staff, some of the decisions they make about what they cover seem odd to me, but I think they’re just getting going.

TERENCE SMITH: Does it reflect in your opinion the very pronounced and conservative political views of the wealthy owner?

LEN DOWNIE: Only he can answer that question, I guess, but I have to say that one notices in the tenor of the editorial page and many of the columns certainly there’s a kind of libertarian/conservative slant for them that I can see.

TERENCE SMITH: So in essence, it seems to be, in your view?

LEN DOWNIE: It seems to be a more conservative newspaper, ironically, not unlike that of The Washington Times, the other newspaper in town.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, which of course is another source of competition for both the Examiner and for you.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes. Yes, a small circulation newspaper that appeals primarily to a conservative audience. That’s what The Washington Times is.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Observers and critics have pointed out to me that the Examiner is generally on most days about twice the size of the Express, twice as many pages, and therefore they say a more satisfying meal. Is that a more satisfying read? Is that, is that a concern?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, that’s my question because the whole purpose of the Express — which we know is very satisfying to its younger reading audience — is that it doesn’t take long to read, about the length of a subway ride, and it gives them the top of the news.

As well as some clever, interesting things besides the news and also help with them in their entertainment choices and so on. It seems to suffice for them.

My question is, why would you want more in a tabloid as opposed to everything that you can get in The Washington Post? And only readers are going to answer that question, and I’m watching to see what happens.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, the Express is produced by a different staff than the Washington Post.

LEN DOWNIE: By separate staff of editors, yes.

TERENCE SMITH: Why?

LEN DOWNIE: All of our products are produced by separate staffs because I don’t know how to put out a newspaper like Express. I wouldn’t know how to edit a newspaper like El Tiempo Latino.

I know how to deal with a newspaper like The Washington Post. So we have people who know what they’re doing in those particular formats dealing with those newspapers.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, but in theory you could digest The Washington Post using edited-down versions of some of the very good writers and columnists that you have.

LEN DOWNIE: That’s possible. That’s possible, but that’s not what Express is doing. Express — I read the paper carefully — is very, very smartly edited for the type of reader that they want to attract during that subway ride, and I really don’t know how to do that very well. I’m sure I could learn, but I’m not a specialist at it, whereas the editor of the Express is somebody who has done this before in another city and knows how to do it.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, I read recently that you’ve increased the run of the Express.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes, they have.

TERENCE SMITH: Was that in response to The Examiner in part?

LEN DOWNIE: I think they’ve been steadily increasing the circulation of Express to meet the demands of its audience.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s an amazing kind of newspaper war isn’t it?

LEN DOWNIE: Yes, it is. Yes. Whether it’s become a war — a full-fledged war yet or not I’m not certain — but there are more different kinds of newspapers in Washington now than there were a few years ago.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you see it as competition?

LEN DOWNIE: Yes, I see it as competition either for Express, our free newspaper or for The Washington Post itself, but so far I can’t figure out which one it is because it sort of sits between the two at the moment.

TERENCE SMITH: Where do you see the Express going? In other words, if you’re publishing and distributing about 200,000 copies now, giving it away to people largely in the transit system, where do you see that going?

LEN DOWNIE: I’m not sure where it’s going to go. It’s a new product and the wave of these free distribution tabloids is a new phenomenon in the country only a few years old. I’m not quite sure where it’s going yet.

But I do know that it’s satisfying a certain audience at the moment that we’re glad that we’re reaching.

TERENCE SMITH: I mean do you have in your head a number — an optimum number?

LEN DOWNIE: No. That’s not my responsibility either.

TERENCE SMITH: Does it make money?

LEN DOWNIE: I believe it’s going to be making money. I just don’t know if it’s turned the corner yet or not. It’s around break even, I believe.

TERENCE SMITH: Based on its advertising revenues?

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s fascinating in itself.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: That you can make money in the newspaper business by giving it away.

LEN DOWNIE: Right. Well, you know, broadcast television is the same way where you get to watch it for free but the advertising pays for programming.

TERENCE SMITH: So are you going to start giving away The Washington Post?

LEN DOWNIE: No. No.

TERENCE SMITH: Not a chance?

LEN DOWNIE: No. But on the other hand, we don’t charge $1 — or $2 or $3 — for it either as some newspapers do.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And that’s deliberate.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: You are holding that price down to keep the circulation up.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes. We don’t want price to be a reason why people don’t read The Washington Post. We want people to read our journalism, and so we want to make it successful to as broad a base of people as possible. We’re not an elite newspaper. We’re a lower-case “d” democratic newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: Going back to the first question which is this circulation decline of the print version of The Washington Post.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: At what point do the alarm bells go off?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, we’re already concerned about it and we’re already taking of lots of steps as I said earlier to try to make the paper more accessible to readers.

The print version of The Washington Post is a very big product. It’s got lots and lots of pages, lots of stories, lots of ads. It’s one of the biggest newspapers physically in the country.

And so we’re trying to make that paper less intimidating and more accessible to readers and, you know, that’s a product of our concern over our circulation decline. We would like to stop that decline.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you relating the two in your answer there? Are you saying that you need to change the mix of things you’re putting in the paper in order to arrest that decline?

LEN DOWNIE: We need to make the paper more accessible to readers, easier to read for readers, without changing its content, and that’s what we’re working on.

TERENCE SMITH: What does that mean, more accessible?

LEN DOWNIE: Well, that means, for instance, we have enlarged the box on the front page telling you what’s inside the paper so that, so that if there’s something that interests you that’s not on the front page it’s easier for you to find. We’re going to be doing that on other section fronts in the paper.

We’re trying to organize things as logically as possible so people can find the things they most want. Is it possible for any human being to read The Washington Post in its entirety every day? My job is to do that, and I can’t do that.

People instead read the parts of the paper they want to read most, and different people read different parts of the paper. We’re trying to find ways to help guide them to where they want to go so they don’t give up because it’s such a big newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think you’re covering what you should be covering in order to hold or even build an audience, or are you writing about some of the wrong things and not writing about some of the things that you should be covering?

LEN DOWNIE: We’re always changing the mix of our coverage and we always have to continue changing the mix of our coverage, just as life changes.

Twenty years ago there were not many foreign-born people in the Washington area. We now have immigrants from countries all around the world. That means we have to change our coverage. We have to cover those communities here in the Washington area. We have to cover the countries where those people come from in a different way than we did before.

Twenty years ago technology was not of the interest it is to people. You’re going to have to be worrying about coverage of cell phones and computers and pocket diaries, all those kinds of things, and we do that now because that’s part of what’s going on.

Two-parent families mean that we cover education in a different way than we did before.

We’re always evolving our coverage and we always have to continue to be evolving our coverage not only to maintain our circulation as high as we can, but to be doing our jobs as journalists.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you penetrating those immigrant communities? Are they learning English fast enough to — are they buying The Washington Post?

LEN DOWNIE: Some are and some are not, depending on how advanced they are in learning English. But whether or not they are at the moment, we need to cover those communities so that when they are ready to read English, they’ll want to read The Washington Post.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, maybe a final question. What are your thoughts on this free newspaper movement — I think you said — is nationwide now.

LEN DOWNIE: Well, if you look over the history of American newspapers, there are always ebbs and flows of trends at different times of American newspapers. Once there were dozens of newspapers in big cities each with small circulations. They tended to be partisan representing different points of view in the community.

Then we arrived at a point where so many American big cities only had one newspaper. And now we’re having more alternatives again as was once the case. Not to mention the Internet and television and so on, there are more choices.

I think that’s healthy for Americans and our job is to make The Washington Post as good as it can be not only to maximize its own sales, but also to maintain high readership in all the other ways in which we distribute that news, primarily on the Internet.

TERENCE SMITH: So is it, is it fair to say that you welcome it, this free newspaper phenomenon?

LEN DOWNIE: I can’t say that I’m opposed to it. I think it’s always important to not think that new media are somehow going to kill off old media but, rather, old media need to adapt to the presence of new media. So that’s where our focus is.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s great. I appreciate it. It’s a fascinating trend.

LEN DOWNIE: Yes, it is.