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The Washington Post publisher disclosed the paper lost $77 million last year. Here’s his plan to turn it around

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

On Wednesday, Will Lewis, the newly minted publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, strode on stage before gathered staffers at the company’s D.C. headquarters to outline his vision for shepherding the iconic newspaper into a financially prosperous future.

Dressed in a navy blue blazer and button down shirt, along with his trademark sneakers (the Brit is known to be partial to the casual footwear), Lewis first delivered the cold hard reality to his assembled workforce. He candidly explained the depths of The Post’s recent financial woes, revealing that it had lost $77 million over the last year and seen a dramatic 50% drop in audience since the highs of 2020.

“To speak candidly,” Lewis told staffers at the top of the 90-minute meeting, “we are in a hole, and we have been for some time.”

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But Lewis said he has a plan to rescue the renowned newspaper that has broken some of the biggest stories of our time and turned its most influential journalists into household names. That plan, officially dubbed the “build it” phase of the turnaround project (which follows the “say it” and “fix it” phases), was defined by a pyramid shared with staffers in a Powerpoint presentation.

The pyramid, aimed at helping employees visualize new business opportunities, showed the traditional subscription membership stacked along with new subscription and payment offerings for readers.

Among the new revenue streams are “flexible payments,” which were described to staffers as “frictionless payments” that would target a “likely untapped” audience. In other words, a person who may be interested in reading a single story on The Post’s website will soon be able to make that one-time purchase via a service like Apple Pay. I’m told that feature will, in fact, start to roll out next quarter.

Additional subscription tiers, dubbed Post Pro and Post Plus, are also in the works, targeting working professionals and diehard readers with additional products, including a forthcoming newsletter focused on the climate and economy. The plan follows similar premium subscription offerings from the likes of Axios and POLITICO, which have introduced “pro” plans that have helped tap into new revenue streams.

“We think that we’ve been a one-size-fits-all organization for too long, so we’re excited to create a new set of consumer and professional products that better meets the needs of our multi-faceted audiences,” Karl Wells, chief growth officer at The Post, explained.

Lewis’ plan, however, included more than just revamping The Post’s subscription offerings. Silicon Valley veteran Vineet Khosla, the newspaper’s chief technology officer, appeared onstage, speaking to staffers about the need to integrate artificial intelligence into The Post’s newsroom.

“I totally get that there is a huge fear of A.I. everywhere,” he said. “But I want us to go beyond the fear. The way I see us operate is we have A.I. everywhere. We have A.I. in our newsroom; we have A.I. with our consumers; we have A.I. in the business… Start thinking of it as a copilot.”

The experimentation with machine language models is already underway. The Post has started using A.I.-generated voices to allow people to listen to select newsletters. And, last week, Executive Editor Sally Buzbee announced in an internal memo an expanded version of article takeaways, which will be generated by A.I. and edited by humans in the newsroom.

At the same time, Kathy Baird, The Post’s chief communications officer, told staffers at the Wednesday meeting that the newspaper plans to strengthen audience relationships with its journalists, aiming to promote key journalists that create its reporting and connect them with readers. While The Post clearly plans to bet big on infusing its products with A.I., it wants to emphasize the human element of its journalism.

Whether the multi-pronged initiative is enough to turn The Post around, of course, remains to be seen. It goes without saying that Lewis and the newspaper’s leadership team have their work cut out for them, as evidenced by the poor state of affairs that Lewis himself disclosed to staffers. But the new publisher voiced confidence that these measures will put The Post on track for success.

“I really hope at some point in the future, when you look back on this day,” he told staffers, “it’s actually quite a significant day in the history of our company.”

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