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Extended Interview: Washington Examiner Editor John Wilpers

April 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: To get started, could you talk about your background in the news business?

JOHN WILPERS: I’ve been in newspapering for over 30 years. I started here in Washington in Government Executive magazine, and I’ve since worked for the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, Ingersol Newspapers, America Online, Bridgeport Post, and lots of different papers up and down the East Coast mostly.

TERENCE SMITH: Including, which is relevant to mention, the Boston Metro.

JOHN WILPERS: Yes, the Boston Metro. That was the job I was in last, and I was the editor that took it from about 150,000 readers to 500,000.

TERENCE SMITH: And that is another freely distributed.

JOHN WILPERS: Yes, on the subway system and then around downtown, not to homes.

TERENCE SMITH: Describe The Examiner. You said it has to fit with a mission.


TERENCE SMITH: OK, what is it?

JOHN WILPERS: The mission is to give readers whose lifestyles have changed radically — the reader in recent years, to being very, very busy people, to give them enough information to get through their day so that they feel informed of what’s going on, most importantly locally, but also in the nation and the world and business and so on, and give it to them in a way that respects their lifestyle.

Because people right now are so damn busy — the (Washington) Post is a wonderful newspaper, but it’s just so damn big that not everybody can get through it.

So we’re recognizing that there is a different niche out there, and that’s our niche.

TERENCE SMITH: And who are those people in terms of age, or employment, or married, children, etc. Who are those readers?

JOHN WILPERS: I think they’re all over the map. I think they tend to be perhaps older than the model that the (Boston) Metro and the Express shoot for, which is 18 to 25 or so.

Ours are probably 25-to-50-something, and they’re people who — they’re all over the map in terms of occupation — but they’re people who care about what’s going on in their community, care about what is going on in the nation and the world, also want to know what’s to do, and also many of them are families and have kids playing in local sports, and so we cover local high school sports.

So we’re trying to be as much as we can to everybody without being a burden that would then force them not to read it.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you imagine yourself competing with either The Washington Post or its freely distributed daily Express?

JOHN WILPERS: I don’t think so. I think what I learned at (Boston) Metro was that when we launched Metro, people thought we were trying to take readers away from the Globe or the Herald, when in fact, with 500,000 readers, 250,000 of those readers didn’t have a newspaper habit before we came along.

The same thing, I think, is going to be true with us. We’re going to go to all of these 270,000 people in the D.C. area. Many of them have tired of the Post, tired of the (Washington) Times, don’t read a newspaper because they are too busy.

We’re going to give them an alternative that allows them to keep up. We’re going to create newspaper habits, and it’s going to be good for reading, it’s going to be good for democracy, people getting more involved in knowing what’s going on in their community and their world around them.

TERENCE SMITH: Can the paper get into the black doing that?

JOHN WILPERS: Absolutely. Absolutely. In Metro, we got into the black in 18 months. Fastest Metro to reach profitability. This is a little different model, but absolutely.

The advertisers are already responding very favorably. If you look at the paper, we can go to people that no other publication to go to because we can guarantee them delivery in homes that they want to reach.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s take that phrase, homes that they want to reach. The homes you have targeted, the areas you have targeted are the more affluent, upscale areas of Washington.

JOHN WILPERS: Sure, but we also have boxes and hawkers all over the city.

There isn’t an area in the city that you can go to where you can’t find us. So we are home delivering to a certain segment, but we are available to everybody.

TERENCE SMITH: So that’s to appeal to the advertisers who want to reach the more affluent people.


TERENCE SMITH: The paper, in its editorial pages, has a distinctive conservative tone to it.

JOHN WILPERS: On the editorial page, not the offset. OK.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, carry that thought out. I’ll phrase it as a question rather than an assertion. Is The Examiner a conservative paper?

JOHN WILPERS: On the editorial page I’d say we are a conservative newspaper. On the op-ed page we try to present a variety of viewpoints, because we don’t want to be predictable.

We don’t want to be a one-note newspaper like some other newspapers. We want people to come to read us who don’t know what they’re going to see there every day. They know they’re going to find smart, intelligent, provocative writing that could be left, right, center, you don’t know, but we’re going to make you think.

We’re going to get you in there and we’re going to entertain you with very, very good writing across the political spectrum.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you expect to compete with the Express, which is also trying to find another niche to service some people who aren’t regular newspaper readers?

JOHN WILPERS: I think their niche is not our niche. We’re going to be overlapping somewhat because we do distribute on the subways, and we do have boxes.

Their niche is younger and (their paper is) much shorter. Their papers tend to be anywhere from 24 to 28 pages. Their local news is one page with maybe three or four wire stories on it.

We have 12 to 14 pages of local stories, so we outdo them in terms of local news.

It’s a different niche. The Express is aiming at people who get on the subway and commute that way, most of whom are probably not local homeowners and taxpayers.

We’re looking at people who own a home and live in a community, and care about local zoning, local crime, local sports. So it’s a very, very different model.

TERENCE SMITH: If the paper offers all these things, why not charge for it?

JOHN WILPERS: Because we can get to more people the way we’re going about it, and the whole idea of paid paper content I think died with the Internet. You can get information for free, so why not get it for free?

And if we can make money through advertisers getting the newspaper to people for free, we’re going to reach more people.

Paid newspapers — the circulation is dropping like a stone. Look at the Washington Post. Three percent in the last six months; 5 or 6 percent in the last two years.

People aren’t paying for a newspaper anymore because they can get it for free, and we’re going to take advantage of that.

TERENCE SMITH: So the impact on the Post, then, should be — or may be quite dramatic.

JOHN WILPERS: It could be. But I think the Post is a paper in Washington that a lot of people feel they have to read. Those people aren’t going to go anywhere. And that’s a hefty chunk of folks. There are a whole lot of other folks who might read it because it’s the only paper that’s available — they wouldn’t read the Times, so they’re going to read that.

But given a choice — I think we might get some peripheral Post readers, but mostly I think we’re going to get people who (are) not subscribers to the Post. We’re going to get people who are looking — who find this as a good alternative to getting the news.

TERENCE SMITH: Given the conservative tilt of the editorial page, are you a potential threat to The Washington Times?

JOHN WILPERS: Possibly. Possibly. I think we would be more acceptable to people who hold those viewpoints because we are more objective in our news stories. The ownership has had absolutely no influence on the way we cover this. None.

TERENCE SMITH: But it has on the editorial page?

JOHN WILPERS: On the editorial page that he — Mr. Anschutz — has identified a couple of key areas that he believes are important for us; namely, tort reform, gay marriage, and there’s maybe one or two others, but that’s it which is 365 days a year or thereabouts. There’s a lot of other material we can go editorialize on. So it’s not a big deal. We’re pro-business.

TERENCE SMITH: But he has — I’m gathering from you — he has laid down some of his own ideas.

JOHN WILPERS: He’s made clear to —

TERENCE SMITH: On those issues that you just ticked off.

JOHN WILPERS: Sure. And I’ve learned a long time ago that the person who owns you, who buys the ink, has the right to say where the paper ought to go. And I think it makes it a more intriguing, compelling paper.

I’ve worked for papers where the publisher doesn’t have anything to do with it, and doesn’t become a force in the community, whose personality is not reflected in the paper. I think this is a great thing.

TERENCE SMITH: You have a staff now of —

JOHN WILPERS: Fifty-four.

TERENCE SMITH: And you now distribute how many?

JOHN WILPERS: Two hundred and sixty-one thousand copies.

TERENCE SMITH: What are the optimum numbers for both of those?

JOHN WILPERS: I think 54 is a good number, to do what we need to do, because the model wouldn’t allow us to have 850 people like The Washington Post does. We just couldn’t make money that way.

So I think we can do a very legitimate job — if you look at The Washington Post’s local staff, there’s 260 or so of them. But if you look at the Metro section every day, there might be 12 to 16 stories — four for Maryland, four for Virginia, and four for DC, and just change the order. We’ll have 16 stories about Virginia, so you’ll get more.

TERENCE SMITH: You know, Howell Raines once made an observation about The New York Times. He said, if The New York Times did not exist, no one would invent it today the way it is, with its editorial staff of 1,100 and 5,000 employees.

It seems to me that to a degree, with your staff of 54 people, you’re trying to reinvent that newspaper wheel.

JOHN WILPERS: Absolutely. Yes, it’s amazing to think about that newspapers are the only consumer product in almost every metropolitan area in the country in which a consumer has only one choice.

You can have as many kinds of Coke that you want, cars, clothing, and so on. But because the industry is so ossified in its thinking, that to do a daily newspaper you’ve got to have hundreds of people in the newsroom. You’ve got to have a huge staff, it’s got to be paid, you have to have a circulation department, and a marketing department.

Well, that’s one way of doing things, but we think there’s a way of delivering a very legitimate news product. We have The New York Times, the Associated Press — a lot of other news services. We do it just the way a classical newspaper would, with less resources to service the needs of a different clientele, that we think numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

TERENCE SMITH: Is this the future of newspapers in urban areas in this country?

JOHN WILPERS: I think so. I think there will always be The Washington Post. They’re a great newspaper. There is a niche for them that people will pay for. It’s just not as many people as are currently paying for it.

But I think you’re going to find that with the advent of the Internet and successive papers like ourselves — the San Francisco Examiner is doing gangbusters. They have great advertising, they have total acceptance in the market. We’re brand new, so it’s a little new to them in D.C.

But I think if people understand that they can get it for free, it’s a legitimate product that they can trust, delivers the advertising that they’re looking for, why not.

And if you can make money doing it, we’re going to make money doing it.

TERENCE SMITH: And you put this product online as well?

JOHN WILPERS: Yes, we do. Yes, completely.


JOHN WILPERS: Free. Just like the Post. So we’re free on your driveway, or we’re free on your computer.

TERENCE SMITH: For somebody such as yourself who has worked both for traditional newspapers that have a price on the front page, and free newspapers — what does this development of free newspapers say to you about the newspaper business in this country today?

JOHN WILPERS: A lot of people think it says that the decline of the traditional newspaper represents a dumbing down of the population, that people are just not reading anymore. I don’t think that’s true.

I think that people aren’t being given the right vehicle to read the news. So I think what this does — to me, if I was a journalist, particularly if I was an unemployed journalist — I would be cheering this trend on enthusiastically because we are creating jobs, we’re creating readers, we’re creating a market.

This could be the biggest thing in newspapering since USA Today, and USA Today didn’t affect the business model, USA Today affected content.

This is affecting the entire way the industry operates. If this works, it’s going to shake the ground under which journalism was built, in a very good way.

TERENCE SMITH: The owner, Philip Anschutz has copyrighted — if that’s the right word — the Examiner name in 60-plus cities. Are we going to see 60-plus Examiners across the country?

JOHN WILPERS: I don’t know. I run Washington, so I’m not part of that.

TERENCE SMITH: I’m told that there will be at least two more Examiners —

JOHN WILPERS: Again, I’m not at that level of planning. I’ve heard similar things. I’ve heard two, four — unfortunately, I can’t tell you. I don’t know.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there room for one in Boston, in your opinion?

JOHN WILPERS: Absolutely. I think there’s room in Boston. I think there might not be room for two home delivered, subscription-free newspapers, but there’s certainly room for a paper that’s delivered free on the subway and a paper that’s delivered free at home. Two different markets.

TERENCE SMITH: The first already exists.

JOHN WILPERS: Yes. They already have Metro in Boston. Right.

TERENCE SMITH: So you’re saying there may be a niche there, too.

JOHN WILPERS: It could be there, too. Anyplace where the dominant dailies aren’t getting to a penetration in the marketplace that advertisers would like.


JOHN WILPERS: San Diego, Las Vegas. If I was a newspaper publisher sitting in a city, I’d be thinking about starting my own.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, the Post has started its own with the Express.

JOHN WILPERS: Right, but not home delivery.

TERENCE SMITH: Maybe for different reasons.

JOHN WILPERS: And maybe for different reasons, and a very different model.

It’s not a substitute paper. It is a quick read if I ever saw a quick read. It is a real rapid — we’re not. We are both actually — you can go into our nation page and get at a glance what’s going on, but we also will grab a terrific, deep Christian Science Monitor story on something, or a New York Times take-up on an issue.

And so if you want to get in-depth news, we’ll give you that, but we’ll make sure that you get the briefing, too.

The Metro and the Express are designed for that 20 minutes on a bus, on a subway, got to get it quick, done.

TERENCE SMITH: How many of your readers read only the Examiner?

JOHN WILPERS: I wish I knew. We haven’t done a readership survey. If the past is prologue, in Boston about 500,000, 50 percent only read us; 50 percent read us and the (Boston) Globe and (Boston) Herald. So my guess is it’s possible that’s the way it would break out, that we will be a sole read for hundreds of thousands of people.

TERENCE SMITH: Just a final question — define success.

JOHN WILPERS: I think success would be when we get to whatever the number is of households that want us, that say that we are their paper, that they read us every day, they can’t wait to read us every day, that they have fun reading us, and that it’s smart and it’s fun.

It’s informative, but they always know there’s a surprise in there, something that’s going to brighten their day, make them laugh, make them think. And when we get to that point where people are saying, gosh, that’s a great paper, that’s success.