How The Washington Post leapfrogged The New York Times in Web traffic

The Washington Post proclaimed itself “America’s new publication of record” after it broke another online traffic record in October, surpassing The New York Times for the first time.

There are a lot of factors that have impacted the Post’s traffic, including a broad distribution strategy through social platforms and apps, an effort to speed the site load-time and the news cycle (plus, October was a big news month, with the looming battle for the presidency and the Oregon college shooting). The Post also has taken a discounting approach to its paid circulation (and claims it’s growing, but won’t say by how much), while the Times’ higher paywall and more expensive subscriptions will inhibit its growth.

Here’s a taxonomy:

Facebook
A big factor in the Post’s audience growth is clearly social. Digital news outlets today can no longer assume readers will come to them, so they need a strong social distribution strategy to reach readers where they are. The Post has been aggressive in distributing its content far and wide, from Facebook Instant Articles to Apple News, and its numbers reflect that.

From May to October, the Post’s Facebook traffic rose from 43 percent to almost 50 percent of its social referrals, according to SimilarWeb, which measures desktop traffic. There was a big spike from May to June, when the Post’s Facebook visits jumped 19.3 percent, to 11.5 million. (Two viral hits in June helped make it the 20th-most-engaging publisher on Facebook, according to Newswhip.) Facebook traffic ticked up again from September to October, by 7.4 percent.

Mobile
With social reading increasingly a mobile phenomenon, mobile is a big part of the story. The Post’s total audience grew 59 percent in the past year, according to comScore. But while the desktop audience grew just 6 percent, the mobile audience nearly doubled. The audience includes the Post’s mobile apps, which was a big focus this past year.

Viral fare
As is the case with other news outlets, the Post’s most popular stories show a traditional newsroom balancing the demand for viral hits with hard news coverage. In a staff memo, Post executive editor Marty Baron credited the October traffic record to a mix of stories. But the most-read story was not on the war in Syria or the presidential race but a social commentary by Alexandra Petri on famous sayings reworded for a modern woman so she doesn’t sound “bitchy.” Other most-read posts included an interactive piece that used a game to explain the concept of majority illusion and two inspired by viral videos, about a boy blessed by the Pope and a dancing cop.

Another way to look at the Post’s mastery of Facebook is that its Facebook posts’ rate of interaction is higher than the Times’, according to Brandon Silverman, CEO of CrowdTangle. So while the Times gets more interactions in total, the Post gets a higher interaction rate per post. The Times says this is because the Times has a bigger fan base across which its interactions are spread, so it has a lower percentage of its fan base interacting with each post. (It’s not always the case, but it’s true that for major news outlets, the interaction rate on Facebook tends to get lower as page sizes get bigger, Silverman said.)

Fast-twitch content
The Post also has been breathing new life into its fast-paced blogs, and that effort has paid off, according to Baron. He cited strong contributions from Wonkblog, The Fix and Post Politics, along with Capital Weather Gang, a local weather report; and Power Post, a vertical launched in June about the inner workings of Washington that’s aimed at D.C.’s power brokers.

The emphasis on clicky headlines, as well as the fact that the Post has been discounting its subscriptions, open the Post to criticism about the purity of its growth. But Steve Hills, president and gm of the Post, said that the strategy is paying off with more than just drive-by visitors, as people are spending more time on the site and visiting more pages per visit than they used to.

“It’s sort of a false choice: Do you need to be impactful or interesting?” he said. “There’s a huge overlap. But first, you have to have a big audience. It isn’t a tradeoff. We do have a low-priced strategy, but we’re playing the long game.”