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How Jeff Bezos’ insistence on experimentation became part of The Washington Post's regeneration

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for US$250 million late in 2013 he challenged the staff of the declining legacy newspaper to push the envelope in terms of experimentation with digital storytelling. What followed was not only remarkable growth but also “the opportunity to invest heavily in staff and technology”.

One of the most critical things Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asked the staff of The Washington Post shortly after he bought the paper was whether they were pushing themselves hard enough in terms of experimentation? To nurture this culture of experimentation, he tabooed the concept of the ‘one-way door’. 

One way doors ()

“Jeff regularly asked us if we are going through a one-way door? Because the truth is, none of our doors are one-way. Every decision we make, especially digital decisions, can be undone,” explains Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post. He spoke at FIPP and VDZ’s annual Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin. Read the edited version of his talk below, or, if you prefer, watch the video instead.

Once this culture was understood, says Gilbert, the spirit of experimentation became part of The Washington Post’s regeneration. Much sooner than they expected, the paper showed “dramatic increases in not only scale (audience size) but also in terms of depth (depth of engagement). This has led to significant increases in revenue as well.” 

Made for TV

Good storytelling stood at the heart of this, insists Gilbert. “One of the experiments we invested in was to try to tell the (US) election story not just on the channels we control (the newspaper, their own website and apps) but also in ways that made sense on other platforms. We can now create through video the kind of stories that you would think have been provided by cable news.” 

On election night, as one example, the Washington Post told the election story on their own website through an eight hour long video production that also run on Facebook Live.  

Gilbert says with this they proved that the Washington Post can do “TV quality journalism in a way that makes sense for the web… and social media”. What worked very well with this experiment was that viewers interacted directly with the production team. “Interaction went both ways. It wasn’t just a TV style push but actually a genuine conversation.”

Automation of content

Another experiment was to “push very hard to tell automated stories”. The reason for this was that during the 2012 presidential election four journalists worked overnight and managed to cover (only) 15 per cent of the election results. “But The Washington Post had changed dramatically in four years. We now see ourselves as a national and international news organisation. And accordingly we wanted to make sure that we told all the stories, because, depending on where you live your local race is important.”

To manage this they developed a system that could take in structured data feeds and automatically output stories through an artificial intelligence system. They ended up publishing more than 500 stories with the ability to also do more structured analyses of election results. 

Targeted content

To target the right information to the relevant audience The Washington Post used targeted email newsletters. “Email newsletters are becoming increasingly important to our business. It’s a great push-way of reaching people… Depending on the state you are from, you could get very specific results.” Similarly different readers were targeted with different information on the Post website.

Jeremy Gilbert ()

Jeremy Gilbert speaking at DIS 2017

Prize-worthy use of social media

Gilbert also emphasised that social media has become an important part of business growth. Not only to distribute stories but also in the way stories are being researched and told. 

He references The Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold who started reporting on the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s charity drive to fund war veterans. (Ed: Fahrenthold received a Pulitzer earlier this month for his work).

When Fahrenthold started to battle to get information from the Trump campaign on how some of the money that were raised are being spent, he turned to Twitter for answers. 

A large bulk of the information he needed to get to the bottom of the story was received from his growing list of Twitter followers (his followers grew from 4,000 to 330,000 while investigating the story).

“This changing relationship between our reporters and their social followers has really helped growth because it is not just that we are asking our journalists to help us distribute stories and it is not only because we are asking their (our journalist’s) followers to distribute our stories, it’s that we are engaging with them deeply to help us to understand which issues matter to them and really help us to make our news gathering a two-way relationship.”

Audience growth, and change

Gilbert suggests experimentation in new ways of storytelling led to “fairly large growth” on domestic website traffic. “When Jeff bought The Post in November 2013 we had about 30 million domestic unique visitors and now we are hovering around 100 million. 

“Our audience is also very different from where we started. We (now) have a much younger audience. Far more of our audiences are coming to us on smartphones… When Jeff bought The Post we were about 60 to 40 (per cent) desktop to mobile, now we are about 80 to 20 mobile to desktop”.

Newsroom investment: philosophies, storytelling and tech

Growth has made it possible "to invest heavily in our newsroom", continues Gilbert. They have appointed more than 60 new people. This allows them to cover issues that they were not able to cover before, like launching a “millennium women’s focused version” of The Washington Post, increased international coverage, doubling the size of their video team, starting to license their content management technology, invest in audio, increase the size of the investigative journalism unit and experiment with new ways to cover politics and leadership.

Bezos also instilled a philosophy within The Washington Post that the staff have not given a lot of thought to before, says Gilbert. He questioned them about why they would invest months of hard work to come up with a news story that competitors could copy within 15 minutes. Instead, he asked, what is it they can produce that cannot be copied by others right away? 

“We had to think about that for a while… What we realised was that our most visual and multi-sensory stories were the hardest to copy. It was the ones we spent most time on to think about… Those were the ones that were the most unique to us for the longest period of time.”

This principle has lead to major investments, as well as much deeper engagement with their audience. In fact, The Washington Post has now doubled the amount of time its audience spends online.

Other fields of investment Gilbert listed were “very different, highly visual” videos on Snapchat Discover, audio and podcasts, and “new tappable ways” to engage with audiences. The example he mentions is an online story about barriers (‘Walls around the world’). This story offers readers various ways to interact. Not only can they read it, they can also tap into videos of interact with graphics.  

What Gilbert says he is particularly proud of right now is The Washington Post’s ability to do both compelling and serious journalism - but also do technical experimentation. It is the ability “to push the bounds of what is possible. Although the political climate may be challenging for a free press, we are doing our jobs - and our jobs require both experimentation and good journalism”.

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