Following a New Talent Roadmap at the Washington Post

The newspaper's head of HR reflects on the culture shift that has helped the organization enjoy success.
By: | November 19, 2018 • 9 min read
Topics: HR Leadership

The last few years have painted a rather dismal picture of the future of print journalism.

According to the Pew Research Center, newspaper circulation has been on a steady decline for the last two decades, with weekday print circulation dipping by 11 percent between 2016 and 2017. As publications have struggled to bridge the divide between print and digital, many have suffered mass layoffs and closures. Pew estimates that employment in U.S. newspaper newsrooms dropped by 45 percent between 2008 and 2017.

However, the tale at the Washington Post has been a decidedly different one. With a heavier emphasis on digital, its online audience has grown from 30.5 million readers in October 2013 to a monthly average of 83 million today. It regularly breaks 1 billion page views a month, up from an average of 217.3 million five years ago. Last year, it surpassed 1 million digital subscribers, while its average weekday print circulation in the Washington area is more than 250,000, a number that climbs to nearly a half-million on Sundays.

On the back end, the Post has hired nearly half its workforce in the last five years. Just last month, it announced it was hiring six reporters and an editor to exclusively cover the 2020 election.

Much of the company’s recent growth was put into motion after the organization’s 2013 sale to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, says Wayne Connell, vice president of HR, who has been with the newspaper since 2005 and in his current position since 2009.

“The transition [after the Bezos sale] was epic,” he says. “There are lots of case studies written about how to manage change, and we were living through a real case study.”

Connell notes that, in addition to the new owner, within 18 months of the sale being signed, the company had an almost entirely new leadership team: CEO, CFO, CRO, CTO, vice president of communications, and vice president of audience development and analytics. This was all on the heels of the Post hiring a new executive editor and CIO shortly before the sale.

At the time of the sale, Bezos said he aimed for the $250 million deal to bring about a “golden era” for the daily newspaper, which has been in print since 1877. Fulfilling that lofty goal meant all hands on deck, and HR was instrumental in leading the transformation.

Creating the Catalysts

To help the organization and its workers ride that wave of change, HR developed a long-term strategic talent roadmap with six elements: diversity, technology, data and analytics, culture, leadership and marketing, with a particular emphasis on the latter three aspects.

On the culture front, Connell says, leadership went straight to Post employees, gauging their views on the company’s current culture, its strengths and weaknesses, and the direction in which it was headed.

“We were surgical about what it is we were changing from and to—a respected local newspaper with a pretty substantial website and national audience to a global digital-media company with growing national and international audiences across multiple digital platforms—without losing the core values that made the Post special for the past 140 years,” he says. There was consensus in those conversations that the company needed to function “more like a nimble, 21st-century start-up and less like a 19th-century print newspaper,” with an organizational culture to support that aim.

Three themes emerged to form the foundation of the revamped culture, or what the Post refers to as its “Catalysts for Change”: shape ideas, redefine speed and take ownership.

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The catalysts were embedded into the Post’s “rejuvenated” intranet and its job postings. The company launched a quarterly town hall meeting with all employees—which previously were focused just on managers—during which it addresses new products and culture issues. At the event, company leaders bestow the Catalyst Award, which recognizes an outstanding employee with a $1,000 prize. Using the catalysts as building blocks, HR developed behavioral-interview guides with targeted questions designed to evaluate how candidates would embrace the catalysts. It also created a two-day certification process for hiring managers.

“If you manage one or 100, and hire once a year or 100 times, you go through this certification process,” Connell says, noting that an HR representative leads the sessions, which focus on rigorous, data-driven questioning.

“And it’s a certification, not training. So if you fail, we revoke your capacity to hire,” Connell adds, noting that, in that case, HR or an adjacent manager would assume interviewing responsibilities. Streamlining the hiring process and giving managers more responsibility for hiring, he notes, have been key in the past few years.

“We’ve hired well and we’ve hired fast, and a lot of that involves teaching managers how to do it. HR’s role is to provide the training, tools and support to empower managers to make high-quality decisions.”

That is the idea behind the Post’s new Leadership Project, a suite of training initiatives, all oriented around the hands-on mantra of “See it, try it, apply it.”

Among the components is the Action Learning management-training series, in which up to eight leaders—representing different departments, tenures, levels and areas of expertise—meet for about 90 minutes three times per quarter to tackle a real-life organizational challenge. An HR representative serves as a learning coach and ensures confidentiality and ground rules are respected, Connell says. Topics have involved goal-setting, delivering feedback, improving morale, coaching, hiring and culture.

“Every leader struggles with those things and they tend to feel alone, but there is always someone else in that boat,” he says. “This is a powerful way to learn where you’re not having to rely on the expertise of an instructor, it’s not off site and it costs no money. They come together around a table, problems get solved and the group learns.”

In that vein, the Post’s new Community program connects managers across the company to socialize, share experiences and build relationships. The quick influx of new hires, Connell says, meant many leaders didn’t know one another.

“We’re really busy and have a mandate on moving fast, so someone could work five doors down from you and you could see their face every day but don’t know the nature of their job or have a familiar relationship, so you would tend not to leverage them.”

Another learning strategy is a series of workshops led by HR. The on-site, hour-long sessions focus on practical leadership skills, such as “coaching through questions”—in which managers help employees get to an answer themselves instead of giving it to them—and steps managers can take to bring culture change out of the abstract.

“We want to give [workshop participants] a practical roadmap to do something,” Conell says. “Culture change can feel nebulous and vague, but it’s not above any leader’s pay grade.”

Career development is at the heart of another workshop, which he says is especially important in light of the number of new hires in recent years. Also in the development area, all employees are invited to take part in the Growth Project, a series of events focused on practical skills building and networking.

On the Move

Amid the culture transformation has been another major shift: the move to a new office. In December 2015, the Post moved its downtown Washington operations from a building it owned and had operated in since 1950 to a leased space three blocks away.

HR played a central role in managing the move, particularly around its messaging.

About six months beforehand, HR began sending out “communication-relocation updates,” offering everything from details on moving boxes to how to sign up for the new space’s fitness center. The department created welcome packets for the new workstations that included a letter from the CEO, a custom water bottle emblazoned with “Washington Post Refreshed” and other tchotchkes.

It also sought to validate the emotional attachment many staffers had to the old building. During a farewell party, all employees received a T-shirt featuring a photo of the building from the 1970s as well as a keychain with their initials made from the brass letters of an old Post linotype machine.

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“It was seismic,” Connell says about the move. “All of the Watergate-era changes at the Post happened in that building, and some people spent their entire careers there. So we tried to deal with the emotional level of change and not just the logistical so that people felt good about it, prepared and not blindsided.”

The move to the modern, open-office concept, Connell says, was the “upgrade of a lifetime,” and was in keeping with the other organizational shifts of recent years, including the 2014 launch of Arc Publishing. The company developed a “first-class engineering shop,” he says, to solve its own digital-publishing problems and provide software as a service for other modern journalism outlets.

“We’re providing software through Arc Publishing that allows our clients to publish journalism of all types, so in that regard, we’re advocates for nurturing quality journalism beyond our own four walls,” Connell says.

The evolving emphasis on digital publishing hasn’t been the only reality of modern journalism the Post has had to grapple with.

Company leaders have had some frank discussions about the impact of today’s highly politicized environment on its work, and its employees.

“We’ve had to think long and hard about ways to strengthen security and screenings in our new building and carefully scrutinizing the mail we receive in ways that weren’t relevant at the time of the sale five years ago,” he says. “There’s a lot to feel good about in terms of the work we’re doing but, in the process, [journalists are] getting vilified. We’re not at war, we’re at work, as our Executive Editor Marty Baron says, and we’ll continue to be at work, but it’s a challenged environment.”

While the Post has remained a major player in national political reporting in recent years, employees themselves have also made headlines of their own. This summer, more than 400 employees issued an open letter to Bezos, as well as released a video, calling for “fair wages; fair benefits for retirement, family leave and health care; and a fair amount of job security.”

The United Newspaper Guild of America represents 60 percent of Post employees, whose contracts renew every two years, Connell says, and the recent campaign was a “function of Guild negotiations.”

“There are always things they’re negotiating back and forth. I can’t speak too much to the nature of that,” he says, “but we are always looking at opportunities to improve the overall total-rewards package and very soon will be announcing enhancements to that package. But it would be premature of me to state that now.”

While the future may hold some changes for employee rewards, the past five years since the sale, Connell says, have marked one of the most significant turning points in the company’s history.

“We have undergone a major, structural, gut-wrenching change at the speed of light and we digested it well,” he says. “Most companies would choke on half the change we’ve undergone in twice the amount of time. Did we handle everything perfectly? No. But we handled it effectively and successfully, and the results speak for themselves.”

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]

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