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August 12, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:12am

Washington Post buffs up international breaking news ‘hubs’ amid hotting competition

By Bron Maher

A year on from launching its international breaking news “hubs” The Washington Post is doubling down.

By the end of the year, it hopes to have grown its breaking news teams in London and Seoul by 40% overall.

Amid increasing competition for upmarket, English-speaking global audiences, the Post has said the investment will allow it to “deepen and expand the coverage across a seven-day week”.

And the past year’s experiences have, London hub editor Sara Sorcher (pictured) said, already translated into international audience growth.

The Washington Post’s international hub system

The Post’s hubs are separate from its bureaus: as Sorcher explained the London bureau is responsible for covering the UK and the region whereas the hubs cover breaking stories anywhere in the world in what she called a “relay” system.

The goal of the hubs, she said, was “to drive 24/7 coverage and ensure that readers anywhere in the world can find a full and timely news report at any hour”.

Sorcher said: “We’ve essentially formed what we call a ‘global news relay’ by passing the baton, so to speak, for running coverage from Washington DC to Seoul to London and back again to DC in their morning to kickstart their day…

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“Essentially, we serve as an extension of the Washington newsroom and feel we are making decisions on breaking news coverage during those overnight hours.”

Sorcher noted that the Washington Post’s Tiktok team had made a video with staff at the London and Seoul hubs “showing the literal global relay they undertake every day to bring 24 hour news coverage”:

@washingtonpost

Say hi to our colleagues in Seoul and London! ?

♬ suono originale – ALEX STORK DJ

When Press Gazette first spoke to Sorcher in April last year, the hub system had not actually launched yet. So how has it panned out in practice since going live in August 2021?

“Since we launched we’ve been able to respond quickly and more competitively to breaking news all around the world. And we’re driving breaking news coverage in the US overnight and in the Asian and European days, respectively.

“So for instance, we’ve run live coverage for major US events that happened in the evening Eastern time. As some examples: mass shootings, tornadoes, the deadly AstroWorld festival crowd crush.

“And then we’ve also been point for huge international events that are unfolding on our respective time zones. So whether that was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, which was right as we were getting into gear; the global response to the coronavirus; and of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which we’ve been covering live for five and a half months.”

Despite the timing, Sorcher said the move to create the hubs had not come because of Covid-19 and was “just part of the broader goal to be a 24/7 global newsroom”.

International page views for Washington Post content produced by the London and Seoul hubs, Sorcher said, were up 132% in the first half of 2022 compared to the last half of 2021.

She added that the team had seen “periods this year where readers in South Africa and the Philippines have ranked among the top five largest audiences of our live coverage.”

Sorcher also revealed that this year “more than 20% of the Post’s audience came from abroad and the global audience grew 15% from the fourth quarter of 2021 versus the first quarter of 2022”. 

[Read more: Why The Washington Post is starting a permanent bureau in Ukraine]

🚨 SCOOP: Exclusive interview with Emmanuel the Emu

Are there any stories Sorcher was particularly pleased to have gotten ahead of using the relay system?

“Ukraine has been probably the best and clearest example of that,” she said. “More than 30% of readers from our Ukraine live page were based abroad.

“Seoul has been covering the attacks in Ukraine overnight and our shift in London is Ukraine’s nine to five, which allowed our teams in the hubs to cover daily developments and partner with correspondents before handing off to Washington for the US response.”

The relay, she said, had “positioned us to be extremely fast and competitive on any story that unfolds on our shift. As just one example, quick action from the hubs in coordination with our homepage team made us the first US outlet to push a news alert on Boris Johnson‘s resignation, and outpaced most UK outlets too.”

It’s not all geopolitics though. “We’re always aiming for stories that have global appeal in innovative formats,” Sorcher went on.

“These can be unexpected stories, like how a Zelensky impersonator escaped Ukraine with help from a fake Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.

“Or they can be just fun – we had the first joint interview with Emmanuel the Emu, who was going viral on Tiktok, and the hobby-farmer-slash-content-creator who owns him before the US late night talk shows booked her, and our coverage on the emu story was picked up across US and international outlets including [in] Germany and Spain.”

Sorcher said the exchange between time zones had been “pretty seamless almost from the start”.

“DC is handing off breaking news coverage duties at 8pm Eastern, which is around 9am local in Korea,” she said. “We’re online at 2am [EST] which is 7am local; and I do think that for events as major as the war in Ukraine, the live files and our collaboration reflects just this huge effort to work together across all time zones.”

Keeping up with the Smiths (and the Sulzbergers)

Last year Sorcher told Press Gazette the London hub’s coverage would target both the Post’s historic US audience and new international readers.

She repeated that in this week’s interview, saying: “Our approach is for global readers.”

But The Washington Post is not the only outlet going for that audience.

Ben Smith, formerly of Buzzfeed and now launching news start-up Semafor with the ex-Bloomberg chief executive Justin B Smith, told his former employer The New York Times that his outlet would target the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience”.

Insider editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson told staff at an all-hands meeting recently that the company had “brought the London and UK team together with our team in the US to form a new global newsroom dedicated to serving smart, curious, ambitious people all over the world who read in English”.

And Sulzberger family-led The New York Times – the Post’s rival since the days of the Pentagon Papers – itself has a London bureau which, its Europe editor told The Drum in February 2020, becomes the outlet’s newsroom when the US city sleeps.

The Post, NYT and Insider are all paywalled, with Semafor reportedly planning to introduce one within two years of launching, and audiences are not likely to pay to access all of them. 

Press Gazette asked if Sorcher felt like she was in a competition for those readers – but she would not be drawn to comment on rivals.

“We are really focused on what we’re doing. I can’t speak to what the competition is doing. But I do know that being almost a startup environment within a big well-established media organisation has allowed us to do some really interesting things, and things that I feel like The Washington Post is very well positioned to do.”

The Post is building on that position, with a plan to hire four more journalists for each of the London and Seoul hubs. They currently employ ten journalists apiece and Sorcher noted that those 20 people collectively speak 15 languages.

Sorcher said the staffing spree did not reflect any particular coverage gap, but rather an ambition to extend their work further.

“We are operational every day of the week. We are working at a sprint no matter what, really. I think the expansion will allow us to bring a wider range of those stories that we feel that readers need to know now and more stories that are interesting and important, told in innovative ways.”

Picture: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post

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