Trust in a time of turmoil: How The Washington Post has remained in rude health during the pandemic

In early January this year The Washington Post reminded the world just how good it is at breaking major stories. By exposing Donald Trump’s unconventional phonecall to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the newspaper delivered the sort of consequential reporting that’s helped it power through the Covid-19 storm battering the industry – setting digital subscription and online advertising records and expanding its newsroom like never before.

“I think the subscription numbers (three million) reflect well on the newsroom and our opinions team,” says Cameron Barr, Managing Editor of The Post. “We’ve been able to provide some important coverage of the Trump administration, the coronavirus pandemic, protests for racial justice in the Unites States and various other developments around the globe, and people are turning to The Post as a primary source of news.”

Cameron Barr, Managing Editor, Washington Post

Barr is well aware millions are putting their trust in The Post at a time when studies show public confidence in news organisations is low. Making sure that trust is justified is of paramount importance to the newspaper.

“There’s work to be done to restore people’s trust in news organisations, and we work at that every day,” Barr points out. “We place a high premium on accuracy, we correct our mistakes and we try and create a bond with our readers that they can indeed trust us. If you lose that trust it’s difficult to get back.”

Screenshot: washingtonpost.com


Going global

In late December last year The Post announced its brand of trusted journalism is being expanded internationally with two new foreign bureaus, in Sydney and Bogota, taking its global footprint to 26 locations.

The Post is also creating 19 jobs to be divided between two hubs in London and Seoul. Each station will be staffed with four breaking-news reporters and two breaking-news editors, a visuals editor, an audience editor and at least one multiplatform editor for “additional scrutiny”.

The new positions are part of a broader expansion at The Post this year that will increase the newsroom’s overall staffing by 44 journalists to 1,010 – the most ever.

“The global expansion is intended to make our site especially robust and dynamic on a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week cycle, without the kind of struggle we experience now in doing that,” says Barr. “As other news organisations have demonstrated – if you are able to move your centre of operations along with the daylight around the globe, you are able to maintain a much more consistent focus on the news, coverage and presentation of your product on the homepage and other venues. So it just makes sense to move to a more 24/7 footing.

“Among the public there is a growing demand for breaking news and it requires a lot of urgency, organisation and preparation in order to do that affectively. We have seen tremendous popularity of our live updates file, which is constantly updated streams of content on important stories like coronavirus and politics.”


Solving the Covid conundrum

As has been the case with all news organisations, the Covid pandemic has presented The Post with unprecedented challenges and has forced a rethink in how stories are covered.

“We’ve learnt many lessons because of the difficulty of doing the work,” explains Barr. “Journalism is first and foremost an act of witness and it’s been more difficult to be a witness to world events in the case of a global pandemic.

“We have seen a tremendous reliance on our work, because people need reliable information during a period when there is a great deal of uncertainty and concern and fear.”

To meet the demand for Covid-related information, The Post has placed more emphasis on doing explainers and various briefings that people can revisit.

“These are durable stories that we continually update – trackers that describe the spread of the pandemic and informational pieces that seek to answer people’s questions.

“If they can’t find the answers they need in the coverage, we’ve created mechanism for them to tell the newspaper what they want to know – answering reader questions in our daily coronavirus newsletter.”

With a large amount of scientific data flooding into The Post, the newspaper has grown its team of science and health journalists and has taken a different approach to analysing scientific documents.

“In the past we’ve had a bias on waiting for the scientific process to run its course, for papers to be peer-reviewed and formally published before we write about them,” says Barr. “But this situation has been so urgent that we have done more with papers that are still in process of getting peer reviews in order to get the information out as quickly as possible, and then staying with it to inform readers when these findings either become more solidified or become overtaken by new information and research.”


The importance of diversity

Further evidence that The Post has its finger firmly on America’s pulse arrived in June last year when, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and BLM protests, the paper announced the creation of more than a dozen roles designed to “enhance coverage of the growing national discourse on race in this historic moment and beyond”.

The appointments included reporters who, through the prism of race, ethnicity and identity, could analyse and report on a variety of subjects including health, national security and policing. The Post has also added a senior leader in the newsroom and a Managing Editor for Diversity and Inclusion.

“I’m a big believer that a news organisation needs to distinguish itself through its coverage,” says Barr. “I was among those who argued that our best response to the protests for racial justice was to expand our ability to cover these issues in a way that distinguishes us and elevates the national discourse as much as we can.

“That’s why most of that investment was in reporters who could bring additional coverage to our pixels and pages so people could turn to The Post as the best venue for understanding these strains and difficulties in our society.”

Barr points out that discussions about race are happening from top to bottom at The Post. “Just last night I attended implicit bias training organised by our human resources department,” he says. “So we have a company-wide focus on this. It is essential to the quality of our journalism that we have staff that, as much as possible, reflect society so we can understand the dynamics at play and report on them affectively.”


Moving on from Trump

Shortly after Joe Biden was sworn in as the new US president on 20 January, The Post revealed that, according to analysis it had carried out, his predecessor Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims during his time in office.

Screenshot: washingtonpost.com

It’s a statement that showed just how closely the newspaper scrutinised the US president over the last four years – something that won’t stop now that there’s a new resident at the White House.

“We will provide vigorous and revelatory coverage of this administration just as we did the previous administration,” promises Barr. “We’ve never had more people focused on covering the federal government and covering national politics than we have at present. So we feel confident in our ability to cover this administration with a great deal of rigour, which is as it should be.”

Having won 69 Pulitzer Prizes in its 144-year history, The Post has no problem attracting the most talented investigative reporters working today – it’s well-earned reputation for uncovering the truth spurring on everyone at the paper.

“The Post’s reputation is certainly a motivating factor,” says Barr. “People come to newspaper because of that. We want to be a news organisation that holds powerful people and organisations to account, investigates wrongdoing and illuminates the facts of a situation, even when that runs counter to what others are saying. That’s the way we motivate ourselves and motivate our journalists. It’s what we stand for, it’s our brand and we intend to maintain that.”

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