Joey Marburger is The Washington Post’s (punk) rock star
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When Joey Marburger was in high school, he played bass guitar in a punk band. One day, the band was on the way to an out-of-state gig when the van broke down. Marburger knew a little about auto repairs, so it was he who saved the day, getting the parts from AutoZone to get the van going again. “That taught me that a lot about life is that, you still have to perform,” he recalls.
It takes cool-headed types like Marburger to work in publishing these days, even at The Washington Post. Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought it in 2013, he’s pumped money into the Post, hiring scores of technologists and journalists and moving it into a slick new office space on K Street, a fitting metaphor for its rebirth.
Since then, the Post has won two Pulitzers and surpassed The New York Times in traffic. But it has yet figure out how to turn that traffic success into a sustainable business. Digital ad revenue is harder to come by, ad blocking is on the rise and online subscriptions remain a tiny part of the Post’s overall revenue.
One of the key people the Post is looking to to solve this problem is the 32-year-old Marburger. Marburger isn’t your typical rumpled newspaper executive. In a town where sartorial choices drift toward the French collar, power tie and cufflinks, Marburger dresses nattily in punk-inspired black and has Star Wars skateboards hanging in his office. He proudly flies his geek flag. “I don’t lose my temper, I don’t yell at people. I listen. I don’t try and talk that much.”
His work speaks for itself, though. It’s hard to come by a digital initiative Marburger hasn’t been involved with since he started at the Post in 2010 as a mobile design director. Soon after Bezos bought the Post, Marburger joined the calls Bezos has every other week with a small coterie of senior executives. “Short of [publisher and CEO] Fred Ryan, there are relatively few people who have deep and ongoing conversations with Jeff,” says Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Post. “When Joey identifies something that’s interesting to him, it’s also interesting to Jeff.”
Today, it’s widely accepted that being a modern publisher is as much about the packaging and distribution of editorial content as the quality of the journalism itself. That’s led to the rise of the product head at digital news organizations. Whereas in the past it might have been enough to be the paper that broke the Watergate scandal and helped bring down a corrupt president, today the Washington Post considers itself as much a tech company as a media outfit. As director of product, Marburger has had a hand in editorial and business-side initiatives, from apps to web redesign to ad products.
The in-house therapist
Marburger’s colleagues say his influence stems from his ability to understand the Post through both a technology and news lens, something that’s not always found in a head of product. A lot of news organizations think they can use technology to reach a bigger audience, but getting the tech people and the storytelling people on the same page can be a challenge.
“He understands that attention needs to be given to both sides of the fence, the consumer and commercial side,” says Jarrod Dicker, the Post’s head of ad product and technology and a close collaborator with Marburger. “He’s unique because he’s looking at building the Washington Post in every single bucket. Other heads of product, they’ll focus on niche topics that are buzzy at the moment. Joey’s been very elastic in that he’s able to allocate right amount of resources to support the many pillars of the brand.”
Gilbert, who reports to the edit side, says Marburger defies the idea that someone’s either analytical or creative. “Joey can do both at a very high level. He can understand what it’s like to tell stories but here’s how product can do that better. Joey is not our games guy, our newsletter systems guy, our data science guy. He does a really wide range of things.”
That elasticity matters for a couple of reasons. It can ensure products do what they need to do and are built efficiently. Having someone who can represent the news and tech sides of the business means smaller and fewer meetings because that one person can stand in for many. One recent project Marburger was involved with, the Post’s new in-house newsletter tool, demonstrated his tech know-how but also his understanding of how easy it needed to be for journalists to use it.
His versatility also played a big part in a major site overhaul. In 2015, the Post decided to move away from doing big redesigns and do continual updates instead. Speeding up the site’s load time was a huge priority of Bezos’. Site speed was critical because the faster the site loaded, the more people would stay on the site, creating more opportunity to serve them ads and entice them to subscribe. Stripping the site down to its essentials required an understanding of what the Post needed to keep and what it could afford to lose — and importantly, the ability to sell it to the newsroom. Gilbert says Marburger is “like a therapist.”
“We had boxes and boxes of related links,” he says. “Getting people to let go of things was not easy. But he has credibility in the newsroom.” The Post ended up cutting its load time by 85 percent.
Path to product
As a college kid from Peru, Indiana, Marburger, 32, wanted to go into journalism. News and politics were regularly discussed at the dinner table growing up, and when he joined the college paper at Purdue University, the Exponent, he caught the journalism bug. But he’d also taken computer science classes. When he got his first job at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, his boss needed him to help edit the site and help create new editorial templates for the web. Marburger saw how he could combine his two interests, journalism and technology.
“I looked at it as, this is a way to further our journalism and do new stuff,” he says. “So it was like, this is what I’m supposed to do — I’m trying to make journalism better by making better products.”
This was pre-iPad app, and Marburger helped build the Star’s first app, which got the attention of the parent company. Gannett called him up to help oversee app development there. Seeing his work there, the Washington Post came calling.
It was a time of big change at the Post. It was still owned by the Graham family, and it was still deeply rooted in print. The Post had decided to integrate its dot-com and print sides, and it needed people to help. Marburger was part of crop of new digital-forward thinkers who joined the Post.
Then one day in the fall of in 2013, everything changed. Marburger was at Apple’s Design Lab offices when his boss called and told him to drop everything for an emergency town hall to announce the Post’s sale. At first, Marburger wasn’t sure about having Bezos as an owner. “I wasn’t nervous because I’d dealt with big-name people before, and design challenges. But I’d heard how he yells at people.” In calls with Bezos, he came to appreciate how the new owner was open to new ideas, talked about his thought process. “Jeff was like, ‘I’m a kid and I want to play in the sandbox,’” Marburger says. “I try to make him laugh on every call.”
Melissa Bell, one of the Post’s early digital hires and now publisher at Vox Media, says that as the Post got more aggressive digitally, Marburger went from being one of the new digital kids operating from the sidelines to playing a central role. With his punk style and skateboards, she says, “People didn’t entirely know what to make of him. But he so deeply loves journalism, he’s managed to make people at the Post understand and care about him.”
Assessing the threats
The pace of change quickened, but so did the digital landscape. Today the Post finds itself having to navigate a world dominated by Facebook and Google. Other publishers have been wary of ceding power and content to the platforms when their ability to monetize them and count on referral traffic to keep coming is uncertain. Growing audience is the name of the game for the Post as it trolls for paying subscribers, though, so it’s posted all its articles on Facebook Instant Articles and thrown its support behind the Apple News aggregation app and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, its fast-loading articles initiative.
Publishers have softened in their views towards the platform giants. Marburger said in a 2015 interview that he definitely saw Facebook as a competitor; today, he says of Facebook, “maybe they’re a threat, but we’re going to be right there.” He contends that the bigger concern is the loss of public trust in the news and the fact that the platforms treat serious news outlets like the Post the same as everyone else, including fake news. “I think Facebook is smart. But any platform algorithm has its limitations,” he says. “So you can look at ‘how do we build more trust’ as a product challenge.”
The Post is participating in Google’s Trust Project, which is exploring how responsible journalism can stand out from the crowd on platforms. Marburger also is looking more broadly at how he can find and exploit places that people don’t think of for news. To that end, he’s exploring how to use Amazon’s voice-activated speaker, Echo (another obvious area for synergy between Bezos’ interests).
Using components he got from China, he also created what he calls a “smart mirror,” that would display things like the time, weather and headlines when activated by voice or motion. The mirror sits in his office and there’s no specific plan to put it into action, but Marburger envisions having it on display at events or in the bathroom so people can get caught up while they’re shaving in the morning.
Bezos’ checkbook may give the Post a longer leash as it tries to figure out a business model (as a private company, the Post doesn’t share its finances). But executives say they assume the money won’t last forever. Despite some fanciful products coming out of the Post, Marburger says revenue is always considered in the new product development process, although the idea of revenue has broadened to include the value of buzz and audience growth. “The common misconception is that we’re lighting money on fire,” he says. “That’s not happening. He’s very frugal. It’s more, ‘Is this a good idea?’”
In some ways, the Post has been a victim of its success. Several of Marburger’s peers who were core to the Post’s digital transition, like Melissa Bell, Cory Haik and Julia Beizer, have left for other media companies (though it’s also replenished its talent with hires like Gilbert and Dicker).
Marburger would seem like an obvious candidate for poaching, too. But for him, the Post offers a combination he can’t get elsewhere. “There’s no Jeff anywhere else,” he says. “The day I’m bored at work, maybe I’ll leave. But I ignore people who reach out. I want to stay in journalism. I want to help fix the journalism model. There’s no better journalism organization to be at than the Post.”
Photos by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
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