WaPo Shutting Most Local Bureaus; No Layoffs Planned

WaPo HQ

With the Washington Post continuing to struggle against declining revenues and circulation numbers, the newspaper has decided to close seven of its nine local bureaus. While the locations will be abandoned when the various office leases expire next year, there are no layoffs planned.

The news, first mentioned in a tweet by national political reporter Amy Gardner, comes a week after WaPo sibling Slate laid off several staffers, including veteran writers Jack Shafer and Timothy Noah.

According to a staff memo attributed to Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, Managing Editor Liz Spayd, and Local Editor Vernon Loeb, operations will cease in three locations in Maryland and four Virginia offices, including one in Loudoun County, where WaPo had an ill-fated hyperlocal experiment a few years ago.

Only the two bureaus in the state capitals of Virginia and Maryland will remain open.

WaPo was sure to emphasize that it wasn’t getting rid of reporters, just office space that its tight budget could no longer support. The paper also said that it wasn’t abandoning local reporting either, noting that it has added loggers covering Virginia’s Fairfax and Maryland’s Montgomery counties, as well as in DC itself. The staff memo added that WaPo has recently rolled out a local religion blog called On Faith Local.

Lastly, TheRootDC, which covers regional news aimed at the African-American community, has been operating under both the main Slate Group site TheRoot and WaPo’s site.

While the paper said that it is not going to be scaling back coverage, it’s hard to imagine that the amount of local news WaPo covers will not be reduced over time.

The problems of supporting local content has proved difficult in the Washington, DC area for the WaPo and others. One prominent example example of that was the dissolution of much of the staff at much hyped Washington DC-area hyperlocal news site TBD, which handed over of most of its operations to Allbritton Communications’ sibling WJLA Channel 7, Bizjournals and Washington City Paper. TBD had viewed local coverage as a weakness of WaPo’s that it could exploit. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Part of the problem seems to be the expectations of how quickly a content company can scale a local business. Although local businesses are finally expect end shifting to the web, it’s going to take a while. In the meantime, things are likely to get much worse for local print outlets.

According to BIA/Kelsey, by 2015 small businesses will devote only 30 percent of their marketing budgets to traditional advertising (down from 52 percent in 2010). The remaining 70 percent going to digital/online media. For the most part, that money will flow to mobile, social, online directories, online display, digital outdoor, performance-based commerce (pay-per-click, deals, couponing) and customer retention business solutions (email, reputation and presence management, websites. In other words, content sites will only be able to attract a fraction of those dollars.

About the best hope local news outlets can hope for is finding national alliances. This past week, Gannett (NYSE: GCI) and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) expanded their nearly year-old local ads sales partnership beyond the publisher’s 81 community newspapers and nine TV stations to include all of Gannett’s 19 local TV affiliates. While that deal isn’t expected to solve all Gannett’s and Yahoo’s respective and various revenue challenges, it should provide an incremental boost. Considering WaPo’s challenges in both covering local and deriving revenues related to that news gathering, finding complementary assistance could help improve its chances.

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