D.C.’s Post-Trump Media Reality-Check Rumbles On

Washington Post
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty
Dylan Byers
April 1, 2022

Of course it was Mike Allen, the inveterate D.C. chronicler and media soothsayer, who broke the news this morning that Washington reporting power couple Peter Baker (The Times) and Susan Glasser (The New Yorker) were putting the finishing touches on a new Trump book, The Divider, out this fall. Baker and Glasser, of course, are among the most plugged-in people in town, and among those who possess the rare ability to both write for history while teasing the gossipy erogenous zones of many of the thirsty political creatures who populate the DMV. The book, Allen reported, is being touted as “an ambitious first cut at this historical moment.” But it may also be a bellwether on the salability of the Trump presidency in the more somnolent Biden era, one in which the 45th president still holds sway over his party but has proven ineffective at manipulating the anxieties of the mainstream media in his sweaty little palms. 

Last summer, bestsellers by Michael Wolff and Mike Bender suggested that the Trump phenomenon had yet to fade to embers. And certainly few reporters were more proximate to the story than Baker, in particular. Still, the precise appetite for second- and third-wave Trump books is unclear. Baker’s Times colleagues Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns have their own Trump-adjacent book ready for publication next month, followed in October by Maggie Haberman’s forthcoming tome. Are these future bestsellers hiding in plain sight, or vestiges of a multi-year book auction bonanza chasing the eye-popping success of Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain, among (many) others? An entire market is waiting to find out.

But the publication of Baker and Glasser’s book is a useful moment to reflect on how much has changed, and hasn’t, in the year-and-change since Trump left office, and D.C. media companies were left wondering what was next. Indeed, the past year has been illustrative in numerous ways: some have pivoted, others haven’t, some in between. 

After all, The Times, a New York institution with a pied a terre in D.C., used the Trump era to become synonymous with democracy on the left—all while brilliantly diversifying itself into a lifestyle conglomerate (The Wirecutter, games, Cooking, now The Athletic) that was poised to thrive when the temperature in the Swamp dropped. The Washington Post, as the Journal’s Ben Mullin recently noted, is trying to make some version of this pivot, albeit less adroitly. Axios is now a multi-fanged modern mediaco with a multi-faceted portfolio that includes things that traditional journalists understand (like a newsroom and a local news initiative) and some that they don’t (a valuation-multiplying SaaS business that could turbo-charge growth, if executed well). 

CNN and MSNBC, meanwhile, are no longer must-see-TV, with the former having just launched its own lifestyle-friendly, Bourdain-catalog packed streaming play. The Hill sold for $130 million and then there is The Atlantic and Politico, which are breaking in a new C.E.O. and owner, respectively. And since this is Washington, no one is gossiping and everyone is wishing their rivals only the best.

The biggest challenge for several Washington news organizations—the Post, the Atlantic, etc.—isn’t really the absence of Trump. It’s their failure to build sustainable business models that would outlast his presidency. You can’t build your business on the back of one historical event—even if that event lasts for five or six years, and feels like a sea change moment in American history. The brand needs to be a fixture in people’s lives no matter the story du jour. On that note, I think we’re starting to see a real split between the news outlets that rode the Trump wave with little contingency plan, and those that have positioned themselves as enduring, habit-forming lifestyle brands—of which, of course, there is no better example than The Times.

The aforementioned Washington Post pivot is effectively a play, perhaps too little too late, to catch up to the Times’ very savvy effort to be more than just an online newspaper. As I’ve reported, Times Company publisher A.G. Sulzberger and C.E.O. Meredith Kopit Levien have each done a masterful job expanding the aperture for what the Times can offer a subscriber—not just news, but games, recipes, retail advice, and so on. The Post is smart to at least try to do something similar, and with the bottomless pockets of Jeff Bezos they may one day get there. But at this point the Times is so far ahead it’ll be a long time before they catch up. 

Shortly after Bezos acquired the Post, the company focused on improving its technology capabilities. Its ability to execute the goal was a great accomplishment, in part, because D.C. is not filled with the sort of engineering talent one finds in Menlo Park, Austin, or even Flatiron. One wonders, however, if the Post will be equally successful at staffing up its lifestyle coverage. Indeed, the Post has always burnished its reputation through the politics and opinions sections (and Sally Quinn’s style section, back yonder), and largely treated tech or business coverage as backwaters. Will they be able to overcome their hometown biases and invest in products catering to leisure pursuits with the same zeal they bring to the midterms, and find the talent to execute the vision? That may be the true test of Sally Buzzbee’s nascent editorship.

Axios’ expansion, too, reflects a recognition that you need several revenue streams beyond the core political news product if you’re going to compete at scale. Axios can’t just be Mike Allen plus Jonathan Swan delivering scoops, plus bullet points for every industry and every niche. They’ve maxed out that audience, and have recognized the new market opportunities. The play to go local, with low overhead, is a smart one, especially given how much local news has been decimated in recent years. (There is a reason that private equity companies are increasingly interested in the space—civic pride, sure, but mainly financial opportunity to restart an age-old behavior.) 

Meanwhile, Axios also has formidable software and an attractive “smart brevity” concept, which might be appealing to all manner of businesses, governments and N.G.O.s for internal use. And these two things feed one another: every expansion of the editorial product to a new local market (Axios Charlotte, Axios Seattle, etc.) expands the potential audience of SaaS subscribers. And don’t forget that while the valuations on ad-based mediacos can be 4-6x, and subscription mediacos can fetch 10x, SaaS businesses can be valued at multiples of those multiples. So Axios sees a bright horizon. And their C.E.O., Jim VandeHei, is more confident and competitive than anyone in his comp set.

As for Politico… that’s Axel Springer’s problem to figure out now. Washington will always have room for a handful of politics-obsessed, inside-the-Beltway trades—no matter who is in the White House—and Politico has accumulated so much brand power in its fifteen years that it’s still a fixture for many people, even if its most exciting days are behind it. In many ways, the company redefined the market for D.C. media. Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million. Axel paid $1 billion for Politico. The company, perhaps inadvertently, will make a number of other upstarts in its wake very wealthy.

Perhaps the real threat to Politico isn’t competition from above, but rather from below. Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan left Politico less than two years ago to start Punchbowl and they’ve already become the indispensable must-read on Capitol Hill. The White House is an overly saturated beat where Politico gets but a sliver of the action. I think my question for Politico is, where do they intend to dominate? Or are they just going to coast along by dint of being a big institution with a captive audience? And, relatedly, how might Axel integrate them into a portfolio that includes Insider and Morning Brew. 

To be sure, Axel’s interest in American media suggests that the consolidation one sees in streaming will descend to digital media, too. Who will be the Zaz of this world? The Times Company and Axel are already trying, it seems.