Washington Post Sale Raises Question About Slate

Online-only pubs weren't part of the deal

One of the many head-scratching aspects of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ surprise purchase of The Washington Post is not only what he bought, but what he didn’t.

The $250 million cash deal covers the Post newspaper and its website and other publishing business, including a group of suburban D.C. papers; Comprint printing, which publishes several military publications; and a production plant.

Not part of the sale are such media properties as the online publications Slate and The Root and Foreign Policy magazine, which are national but niche in nature. Also left out were WaPo Labs, an online development operation, and SocialCode, a social advertising agency. Those two ventures have created some innovative products, including WaPo Lab's content personalization product Trove and its social reader as well as SocialCode's analytics tools for Facebook. But they are small in scale.

“It’s somewhat surprising that these properties were left out of the sale, especially given that the buyer is a digital native,” said Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor turned consultant.

Post publisher Katharine Weymouth said in an interview that those properties were left out because Bezos was only interested in the Washington, D.C.—based media properties. But it's not clear what their future will look like for the remaining pared-down company, which will also include Kaplan, Post–Newsweek Stations and Cable ONE.

The Post Co. is known for running its properties separately, in keeping with the principles of Post investor Warren Buffett, of whom chairman Donald Graham is a longtime disciple. So in Slate’s case, it shared little in the way of resources with the Post newspaper even though there are some obvious editorial and ad sales synergies.

Matt Turck, who became Slate’s first dedicated publisher in 2012, claims the Post sale will have no impact on the site. While there have always been questions about the viability of a high-quality, online-only journalistic enterprise, Slate has been on a growth streak. Ad sales grew 26 percent in 2012, and Turck said it’s on track to beat that this year as native advertising becomes a bigger part of its business.

Slate's monthly audience also recently surged to 10 million, a milestone that can make the site more competitive with big news properties. “We’re thriving without them,” Turck said of the Post and other publications being sold. “We need to be very nimble, and so this should have no effect on Slate whatsoever.”

There are a few things that could happen. One is that selling the financial albatross that was the Post will free up mindshare and financial resources to nurture Slate and the other media properties left behind. “The Washington Post’s problems are big,” Mutter said. “It’s been a fire drill for a long time.”

On the other hand, if the Grahams want to get out of the media business entirely, the best scenario might be for them to be sold to a buyer who actually wants them. The question is, right now, does anybody want the marginally profitable Slate and its media brethren?