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Jun 16, 2024, 7:25pm EDT
media

The Washington Post looks to remake its identity

 Will Lewis speaks to the Washington Post's staff.
Washington Post CEO Will Lewis speaks to the Post's staff. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty)
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The Scoop

The Washington Post is shopping for a new brand.

The Post is in talks to bring aboard the legendary admaker David Droga to commission a new marketing campaign to redefine its image as it seeks to broaden its audience and find a space beyond presidential politics.

Droga — the founder of the ad agency Droga5 and CEO of the consultancy Accenture Song, which made The New York Times’ “The Truth is Hard” campaign — hasn’t yet begun work or formalized his brief, two people familiar with the conversation said. But he has told the Times that he won’t be available for its next round of marketing.

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The Post’s current slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” dates to 2017, as Donald Trump’s attacks on journalists had brought the Post and the Times into the center of America’s heated politics. Post proprietor Jeff Bezos had picked the phrase up from iconic Post journalist Bob Woodward, then-editor Marty Baron recalled in his memoir, Collision of Power. “Like others at The Post, I questioned the wisdom of branding all our work with death and darkness,” Baron wrote. But the line seemed to meet the moment. Post subscriptions boomed through the Trump years. In 2019, the Post aired a Super Bowl ad on the theme.

The Post later brought in the former CEO of Droga5, Andrew Essex, to work on its marketing in 2021, two former Post executives said. That fall they released one television ad on the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” theme, a kind of movie trailer for an investigation of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

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Know More

Now publishers are attempting to broaden their appeal beyond the hardest, darkest news. The Times is talking to agencies about a new campaign, an advertising executive said. The Wall Street Journal recently launched a campaign aimed at engaging “a wider demographic than what we’ve had in the past.” The slogan, “It’s Your Business,” features attention-getting propositions like, “Make AI girlfriends your business.”

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Both embattled new Post CEO Will Lewis and Droga were expected to attend the ad industry festival in Cannes, France this week, but Lewis is reportedly staying behind to try to put out some fires.

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Ben’s view

At their best, these corporate branding exercises force companies to decide what they’re selling. And the Post is in desperate need of a clear pitch, lest it simply be seen as a cheaper, lower-quality version of The New York Times.

Lewis, a veteran of the British media and former Dow Jones CEO, has suggested a half dozen different directions for a publication that was seen before its Watergate glory days as a local Washington outlet that occasionally punched above its weight.

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Lewis has suggested he’ll attempt to retake the Washington Post’s lucrative Beltway turf from outlets like Politico with new “pro” subscriptions; that he’ll go broad in search of 100 million subscribers (the outlet currently has fewer than 3 million); that he’ll do more to market the Post’s lifestyle coverage; that he’ll restore the Post’s preeminence as Washington, D.C.’s local newspaper; and that he’ll reach new audiences through a social media operation branded a “Third Newsroom.”

A brand campaign may force the Post to focus.

But in the meantime, Lewis is defending his own brand as the New York Times, NPR, and other outlets dig into his complex career in Britain, where he and his former colleague and incoming new Post editor, Rob Winnett, “acted unethically by US standards,” as NPR’s David Folkenflik put it. The New York Times reported Saturday that Lewis personally reported on phone records that the Times of London obtained by hiring a private investigator who impersonated its target to the phone company. The report ties Lewis to the practices that bloomed into a huge scandal and forced Rupert Murdoch to close his tabloid News of the World.

One question will be whether — as, in particular, with paying for the expenses material — Lewis and Winnett were pursuing true public-interest journalism by the rules as they existed in their market, or whether they were violating even looser British norms.

Perhaps most worrying for Posties are the other open lines of reporting in London about their new boss, which the dean of American media reporting, The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, noted in a speech at an awards ceremony last week. “Lewis doesn’t get a pass,” Auletta decreed.

There’s Lewis’ work for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which earned him a knighthood. And there’s the UK-based P.R. consulting firm he started in 2020. Lewis has cut ties with the company, a spokesperson said and public records reflect, but it still bears his name: WJL Partners.

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Room for Disagreement

The Post continues to contest suggestions, attributed to former top editor Sally Buzbee, that Lewis sought to interfere in its own coverage of his past.

“As a highly experienced Publisher, and as Editor-in-chief, William is very clean about the lines that should not be crossed and his track record attests to that,” an internal memo read.

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