Marty Baron is enjoying the spotlight.
A movie about the veteran newspaper editor's signature professional accomplishment – revealing widespread abuse and systemic indifference in the Catholic Church while leading The Boston Globe in 2002 – hit theatres to critical acclaim this month. Titled Spotlight, after the name of the paper's investigative team, it serves as a testament to investigative journalism's crucial role in uncovering injustice.
At the same time, the paper he now steers as executive editor, The Washington Post, is reaching a record readership. For the first time, the capital city daily topped The New York Times in digital traffic in October, with 66.9 million unique online visitors in the month, establishing it as the U.S. national news leader.
Yet this unprecedented exposure has not come easily, nor does it seem assured to continue. The new initiatives that are drawing in readers are experiments in their infancy. The Post is increasingly giving over control of its content to platforms owned by digital giants such as Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and Snapchat. And each of those companies is also a fierce competitor for the ad dollars the Post needs to evolve.
Faced with solving the conundrum of what he has called the "big move" from print to digital, Mr. Baron appears to want to try everything and be everywhere. He is keen not to repeat what he sees as the sins of complacency newspapers committed in the past: resisting digital classifieds because they might eat into print classified revenue, for instance.
"If we don't do something, then somebody else will do it, and they'll be the ones who are successful," he says in an interview, sipping a diet cola at the Library Bar in Toronto's Royal York Hotel.
Mr. Baron took the helm of a beleaguered Post facing cutbacks at the start of 2013. At the time, it was still owned by Donald E. Graham, of the family that had long been the paper's proprietors – a man who loved the title but was running short of ideas to make it thrive in a digital age.
Enter Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, who bought the Post nine months later for $250-million (U.S.) to the "total surprise" of Mr. Baron. Immediately, the tone at the paper changed – or, in the Silicon Valley language of Mr. Bezos's peers – "we pivoted, in terms of strategy," Mr. Baron said.
"[Mr. Bezos] had some ideas, we had ideas, and we settled on them. And the first year, he financed them, which was great."
The central idea was that the Post would grow quickly, and become national in scope, shedding its old internal slogan, "for and about Washington." And to do that, it had to dance on the cutting edge of digital publishing while continuing to do the ambitious journalism that wins Pulitzer Prizes – reporting on the National Security Agency, hunger in the United States or lapses in the Secret Service.
"It's a tough balancing act," Mr. Baron said.
Attracting digital traffic is one goal among several, he said, but it has been the focus of much of the new investment. Print papers still account for "the vast majority" of the Post's revenue, but that share is declining, and Mr. Baron has no idea how fast it might vanish.
With Mr. Bezos footing the bills, the Post hired about 70 staff in the first year, most of them younger reporters who are well-versed in online storytelling. That allowed the Post to build several digital experiments: Morning Mix, which aggregates and writes stories that fuel an early digest of news; more conversational blogs targeting younger readers; a breaking news team; and Post Everything, a forum for people to submit first-person commentaries.
Then, the Post turned heads by putting all 1,200 stories it publishes each day into Facebook's Instant Articles program, which loads articles with next to no delay onto Facebook, rather than linking to outside news sites. The media have wrung their hands about giving content to another platform for free – particularly as Facebook is known for changing its rules without warning. But Mr. Baron has pushed such doubts aside, consistent with his philosophy that sitting on the sidelines of a potentially huge portal to readers is not an option.
"In for a dime, in for a dollar," he said. "The collective feeling was that we should try this and see where it goes."
But so far, it is not clear that any of these digital ventures will yield the kind of financial returns that could replace print advertising, even when added to the Post's print and digital subscription revenue.
"Look, we have a challenge, there's no question about it," he says. "We have this continuing challenge."