The Washington Post: ‘We are a growing business’

The Washington Post is enjoying a “remarkable” revenue picture, the paper said in a leaked memo.

The Post’s financial picture has been shrouded in secrecy since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took it private three years ago. So when figures do slip out, they often don’t tell the whole story. Still, they’re interesting because the Post is a rare legacy media outlet that, with Bezos’ deep pockets and patience, would seem to have the best shot at creating a sustainable online news model.

Now an internal memo got out that sheds a little more light on that financial picture. Yesterday’s memo, from Post chief revenue officer Jed Hartman, painted a rosy picture, saying, “We are a growing business.” The Post wouldn’t elaborate on the memo.

Hartman wrote that the Post’s annual digital ad revenue is a “nine-figure” business, which stands in contrast to the $60 million that New York magazine estimated in a recent profile. He wrote that total ad revenue is up year over year, led by a 48 percent increase in digital sales through August. Within digital, Hartman wrote that the biggest increase is in native advertising, up 275 percent; followed by programmatic, up 92 percent; and video, up 82 percent.

Still, the memo doesn’t say how much ad revenue the paper is actually taking in, how much digital contributes to the overall revenue picture or how much money the Post is still losing.

The much-larger New York Times, which the Post closely compares itself to, reported a decline in digital ad revenue in its most recent quarter, by 7 percent to $45 million. For all of last year, the Times did $197 million in digital ad revenue, which accounted for one third of total ad revenue.

The memo also includes previously reported figures on the Post’s 145 percent growth in digital subscriptions, the result of the paper’s intense focus on getting more people to pay for its content. It also notes the Post’s traffic hit another record, topping 82 million uniques in July. The Post has been on an online growth spurt, and surpassed the Times in site traffic for the first time ever last October (and again in November and December).

But again, these figures have caveats. It’s hard to translate page views into ad revenue, and while the Post’s growth has largely come from outside of its core D.C. market, it will take a while before advertisers see it as a truly national paper. And only a few publications have managed to get a significant amount of revenue from readers. Sources estimate that subscriptions (print and digital) make up only 30 percent of the Post’s revenue (compared to more than 50 percent at the Times), leaving it heavily reliant on the vagaries of advertising.

Here’s the relevant part of the memo:

To date, 2016 has been a good one for The Post. We’ve seen record traffic numbers (over 82 million people in July) and 145% growth in digital subscriptions. We’ve also won countless awards, opened state-of-the-art headquarters in DC and NY, and led the industry with both our powerful journalism and our digital innovation.

Having said all of that, I want to focus on the remarkable feat you’ve accomplished so far this year. As a result of your efforts, we are looking at a remarkable revenue picture. (And remember, 2015 was excellent as we beat our overall ad revenue budget by 3.5% and grew digital revenue 17.4%.) Through August, we are 6.3% over the total advertising budget (well above Publisher’s Club threshold!), and we have increased our total ad revenue year over year. Let me say that a different way: we are a growing business. Print is holding steady above budget. Our events group has doubled its revenue. Our biggest growth is in digital: overall digital ad sales grew 48% yoy through August. (Keep in mind that many of our competitors’ digital ad revenue have declined this year.) Within that number, programmatic is up 92%, video is up 82% and brand studio is up 275%.

With both a solid nine-figure total for digital ad revenue and better than expected print results, we have dramatically changed our revenue picture in just two years.

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