The role of journalism for business in DC

Peter Abrahams, market president and publisher at the Washington Business Journal, discusses the way the region's economic development is accelerating, how Ama...

Every community needs umpires: someone to call the calls and strikes, and keep an eye on how the region’s doing. Peter Abrahams has been part of the area’s media landscape for many years now, and has unique perspectives on D.C.’s growth and future opportunities. He was recently named Publisher and Market President of Washington Business Journal, and on this EXTRA episode, we spoke with him about how the region is developing.

ABERMAN: What’s the role of the Washington Business Journal in today’s media landscape?

ABRAHAMS: Well, I think we look at our business in a couple different ways. First of all, you know, our responsibility is to report on the facts. I think that, like any good journalistic institution, we want to provide, really, a picture of what’s happening in greater Washington business. From the business side, our goal is to really help businesses grow and expand, and understand the marketplace, to draw that map for them. So they’re really charting the course for what the future looks like, and we provide hopefully, you know, some good guidance on that based on what we cover, how our events are laid out, all the marketing options we have. It’s really a mix. I mean, that’s the way we look at our businesses on both sides of that equation.

ABERMAN: You know, you use the word journalism. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. What does journalism mean for you and the paper, when you describe the term?

ABRAHAMS: It’s a good question, especially with all the bloggers. And, you know, really, how do you determine when something is legitimate, when it’s editorialized? I think for us, you know, when we look at journalism, it’s really the integrity that exists in reporting what’s going on without an agenda. We really just want to lay out what we think are the facts, and what’s happening in greater Washington in business. I mean, hopefully we have the skills, as a team, to do that. We have one of the most incredible reporting and editing teams in all of the country who focuses on business. So I think for us, it’s really just having integrity, reporting as we see it without trying to inject our own opinion.

ABERMAN: My sense is that, for a while, it seemed like the media landscape was really atomizing. You know, you mentioned bloggers, the idea that citizen journalists, whatever that meant. And the landscape is so littered with people expressing opinion, masquerading as journalism, that it appears to me that you’re now seeing a looping back, and a desire on the part of at least some part of the population to go to places that have a brand identification around information integrity. Is that what you’re getting at?

ABRAHAMS: Well, I think we have to build trust. And what has happened in the media landscape is, you know, anybody could report anything. The information, it wasn’t checked. There was no fact checking, at least particularly on the blog side, or on the posting side. It was very difficult for a reader, or for a consumer of media, to understand what’s legitimate, what has background, what is factual. We’ve seen, I think, a return to people looking for trusted sources of information, because the landscape is so littered, because so many people are able to share their opinions unchecked, to wide swaths of audience. We really feel that the community, especially in Washington, D.C., where it’s the most highly educated community in the country, has come back to say, you know what? We understand the difference now between a trusted source of journalism, where it’s been vetted, where they have a process other than someone who, you know, effectively is just spouting off what their opinion is. And I’m not saying that someone who wants to share their opinion shouldn’t have that opportunity, but to be able to filter that, and understand what is legitimate, and what people can trust, and what is just someone sharing their opinion.

The political landscape, I think, has lent itself to that. If you look at, I think the way people are consuming information, the return of the byline, the return of all journalism, from TV to, you know, all that’s on the Internet, and of course, what’s in print, both in magazines and newspapers. For us, ironically, we’ve actually seen an increase in circulation over the past couple of years, net circulation. So, where there is this story that media is dying, and that nobody cares. We’re seeing just the opposite. Our business is growing, and our circulation is growing pretty significantly. It grew double digits last year, net, meaning what we gain versus what we lost. People move, and make other decisions and go fully digital. So, we’re seeing that return to people really wanting that information. So, double digits last year in circulation growth. And I think we’ll see the same this year. Also, when I’m out and about, I talk to people about the specific stories that they have interests in. They are consuming it.

So, they’re not just buying it. They’re actually reading it, and using it to make determinations on what the future looks like. We don’t expect someone to take our paper, and make sure that that is the only information they’re using. They have to consume all sorts of information. What we hope is, it gives them guidance, and stops them to question what’s going on. We provide a new perspective. We’re illustrating new companies, new innovation in the area. So, I think because of that, we’ve seen the return of people saying, you know what, I care now. I actually really need this for my business. The last point I’ll make is that, we are clearly at the end of a very long run for a very strong economy. And I think, as we enter into a little bit of uncertainty, we have political uncertainty. We have economic uncertainty. You know, there’s conflicts across the globe. People are needing that information now more than ever. It’s harder to do your job now. So, if they don’t have that information from all sorts of different sources, both internally and externally, they can’t be as effective. And I think that’s also lending itself to why people are kind of reengaging in traditional media.

ABERMAN: And my sense is that what we have right now is, there’s a real danger that we’ll all drown in subjectivity. And if you’re in business, the reality is, business is pretty straightforward. You either make money or you don’t. If you’re a social venture, you reach donors, or you don’t. If you help the community, or you don’t, it’s very binary. And yet, politics these days is, it appears binary. It’s hyper partisan. But the reality is that, a lot of people now are trying to make information not binary at all, but really messy. How do you, as a business journalist, as a business newspaper, navigate this idea of of information having merit, in a political environment where a fair number of people are using disinformation now as a political strategy?

ABRAHAMS: I mean, we don’t really play in that area. Although it does, I think, impact the way we look at what we’re reporting. For us, our editor in chief, Vandana Sinha, that is essentially her job. It’s to make sure that she’s working with our reporters to provide information, not opinion. And we certainly do have opinions sections in the paper, and we love those. But I think on the reporting side, we make sure that we’re trying to report fairly, balanced, and evenly, all the information that we’re covering. And I think that we feel very strongly about that responsibility. I think, if you look at a lot of the other media ventures, especially, you know, there are a few TV networks that have gone to opposite corners to try and make their point. And it’s all editorialized. I think we look to make sure that we don’t fall into that trap, and we try and have multiple sources both on the record and on background. We really look to try and make sure that we’re getting all of the information, and not doing anything other than reporting the facts.

ABERMAN: So, let’s talk about facts. Let’s start with this. You’re part of a media company that has newspapers all over the country. As you go around the country, what are you hearing from people? What do people think when they think of D.C. and the region right now?

ABRAHAMS: I think I’ll back up. So previously, at the Washington Business Journal, I spent two years traveling around the country, and actually particularly Europe. I was spending a lot of time overseas. And I would tell you that the perception, just in the area externally, is not very positive. I think people look at D.C. as really just a traffic accident. And what they see of D.C. is what is on TV. It’s the political discourse. The reality is, there’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with politics. And I think part of our job, and we do a lot of sharing of stories across our network. We’re in 43 markets, 40 in print. So, we try and share those stories that have impact, especially as the economy becomes national and international, where companies may have an office here, but they may be in three of our other markets. Trying to communicate that message through. But I think the opinion of D.C. in general isn’t great.

Although I would tell you that, in spending a lot of time with the economic development organizations within Greater Washington, they are starting to communicate that message from a business standpoint. From innovation, from investment, from the kind of businesses that are here. If you look back 10 years ago to today, the federal government, I mean, we’ve been looked at as a federal town, right? A government town. The reality is, while federal spending has remained constant, its impact on local GDP has decreased by 10 percent. So, private industry is moving in. I think we see that with Amazon HQ2, which was a huge win for the region. Not just for Crystal City. But then you see companies like Nestlé, and previous to that, Audi and Volkswagen made the commitment. Hilton made the commitment come here. So I think you’re seeing a lot of these major corporations making a decision to be here for several reasons. I think partly, they want the proximity to the federal government, lobbying all the things that they’re trying to put forward. But I think you’re also seeing that there is a bonafide qualified, highly educated workforce here that they’re really trying to grasp. We have several of the top educational institutions, from Marymount, as you know, to G.W., Georgetown, University of Maryland. We’re blessed with some of the best universities in the area.

Then you look at what’s happening in Virginia, with Virginia Tech, and UVA, and George Mason, all making huge investments in trying to train our workforce. And I think all of that, over time, is having a really positive impact. So I think that opinion, across the country, that D.C. is a bit of a mess, at least politically, is less important than: how is the infrastructure being developed to support business in greater Washington?

ABERMAN: That’s my sense, too. And also, what the data shows is that we are doing an exceptional job of creating computer scientists and engineers for us, and the country. We’re creating a great, talented workforce that’s going to Silicon Valley, and New York, and other places. Why do you think that is, and what should we be doing about it?

ABRAHAMS: It’s a great question, especially on a Monday. I mean, I think as we get into the workweek, this is exactly what we’re really looking to address. So, I think it’s a couple of things. A lot of major metropolitan areas, not just the greater Washington area, are losing talent. And they’re losing it to places where innovation and housing work together. So it’s not just the fact that the jobs are there, but they can live, work, play in that area. So, I think there are some things we’ve already done to address that. But one of the things that I think you’ll see over time, is that as we begin to really develop the infrastructure, with the Silver Line opening, several other improvements by Metro, are really allowing for all of this residential living to pop up. If you look at what Tysons looks like, what Reston looks like, Ballston, Rosslyn, all along the orange and silver lines.

And it’s not just in Virginia. I’m not meaning to focus on one thing, but that infrastructure, I think is going to afford us to actually attract some really strong workers. I think also, we talked earlier about some of the investments that the universities and colleges are making in this area. I think, as they do that, and increase their program, as Virginia Tech begins to open up their technology center in Crystal City in 2020, I really think you’re going to see people staying and working here. I think Amazon, while it’s 25,000 jobs over 10 years, it could pop up to 38,000. If you look at what the workforce predictions are, by 2030, we’re supposed to gain about 378,000 jobs, somewhere in that neighborhood. So if you look at that, and I think you think about the Amazon impact maybe being 10 percent of that, we’re banking on all of the ancillary companies. You know, if you look out in Loudoun County with all the data centers, that real estate is fairly well-developed. But you should see all the companies that are coming in to serve those data warehouses. I feel like the same thing is going to happen. Amazon traditionally hires people with experience.

So, companies are going to move in, I believe, and from what I’ve heard talking to a lot of people, they’re moving in, knowing that they’re going to acquire that talent. Train them, and maybe a couple of years they’re going to lose them to Amazon. It’s kind of the farm system for some of the technology. If you go back and think about, before AOL launched, there was virtually no technology here that wasn’t connected to the government. Ted Leonsis makes this huge investment, builds a campus out near Dulles. All of a sudden, there’s a spinoff. They’re wealthy people who have a technology background, who have stayed and invested in the greater Washington area. I really do think you’re going to see a return to that. So, I think we’re putting some of the things in place. And then you look at what the economic development authorities, agencies and corporations are doing. I think they’re setting themselves up for success.

ABERMAN: I’ve been working this problem for a while, as you know. And for me, what you’ve identified is: the biggest issue we have is, you mentioned housing, and people wanting to do innovation proximate. What we see in Seattle, and San Francisco, and New York, and other places is: those are very expensive places to live. And so what ends up happening is, the businesses that are most able to attract people are also the ones that pay the most, and have the most upside. And in our economy, those have to be product oriented companies, because they have the 60, 70, 80 percent margins of growth that allow you to pay somebody 250 thousand dollars a year to be a developer.

It seems to me that the other part of the puzzle that we need to address, and I’ve been working on this at the Tandem Product Academy, and Marymount’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, is we need to teach people how to migrate away from service oriented culture to one that’s product oriented. And we have a real gap here in that. With that in mind, I know you’re nodding. You agree. The bigger thing is, you’re now in the trenches, in your role. You have a ringside seat with the economic development folks, with regionalism. I know they’re working this problem every day. What do you see? Are we succeeding at all with regionalism? Is it occurring, the way it seemed like it was going to through the Amazon bid?

ABRAHAMS: You know, I think some of that is yet to be determined. But I think if you look, we have different challenges. So, look at some of the areas that are playing really well together. Research Triangle, Chicago, even some of the San Francisco, San Jose development that that’s working together. We have three jurisdictions with three very separate sets of, I think, attractive qualities that are going to bring the workforce. So typically what has happened is, the way site selection used to work is that you would hire a consultant. They would put people on a long list. You would get contacted. You’re on that long list. You would be interviewed, you’d provide information, maybe get to the shortlist and then you’d be selected. That’s the way that companies were coming in. Nowadays, so much of that information is available. I was talking yesterday with David Ianucci from Prince George’s County who said, here’s the reality. There are no more long lists. You don’t find out very often until you make that shortlist.

So, we are working, we’re seeing that a lot of the economic development agencies have to work together, because they’re presenting the region. Someone isn’t necessarily saying, I want that building on that street, in that community. They’re saying, we understand what’s happening in greater Washington. The companies are dictating that they only want to hear one voice. That’s what Amazon did very effectively. I mean, there are people who would argue that Amazon knew exactly where they were going. It was a big data grab. It doesn’t really matter, because the reality is, as a region, we did a great job. If you look at the transportation initiatives that were able to be pushed through as a region, we’re starting to see some of that work together. As there have been several changes in northern Virginia in those economic development authorities, we’ve seen now they have announced that they’ll be banding together and partnering. Now, we have to make sure that D.C. is included in that conversation, and suburban Maryland is included in that conversation. The region really is Baltimore to Richmond. And I think we’ve got to start thinking that way. If you look at the development that’s happening in Columbia, Columbia is almost exactly between Baltimore and D.C., 8 million square feet of development is going on there. It’s beautiful. They’ve invested huge money. Companies are looking to come into that area, that impacts greater Washington as people move into those areas. Look at what’s happening in greater Washington.

The Wharf, which is looked at as, wow, this is amazing. We’ve got companies, we’ve got restaurants and retail. The reality is, the big news there were the office tenants that moved in. I mean, it was a very significant play for a law firm to choose the Wharf, when they could have gone anywhere in the city. So, I think we’re starting to see some of these gateways begin to open up. And I think that will allow the city to expand its area, both for residential and for corporate. Also, you know, unfortunately, the vacancy rates in D.C. are pretty high right now. So, there is an attractive reason to come here. I think the rents, people are being more aggressive on the rents, a little bit more aggressive on the TI, which is allowing companies to move in and get the space that they want.

ABERMAN: It’s interesting to me, as we wind this up, as you describe the growth in the region, the opportunity, a lot of it seems to be real estate led. You know, place making. I’ve heard people argue that places aren’t relevant anymore. You know, the world’s flat. Everything can be done anywhere. What do you think about that argument?

ABRAHAMS: I disagree with that completely. Completely. I think people move where they’re going to enjoy their life. Work is part of that. But there have to be all sorts of amenities. I think if you look at your sports teams, I would argue that, and I can’t say this actually, but we have sports in almost every major category. From professional football, we have the brand new XFL franchise launching February 8th, called the DC Defenders. You know, the Mystics recently won the national championship for the WNBA. We have the D.C. United. We’ve got a women’s professional football league, a professional lacrosse team. That’s just one segment. Look at all the things that we offer, from a cultural and arts standpoint. We have the second most live theater next to New York. So, there are these amenities. And I don’t buy that just because people are working at home, or they’re in a shared office space, that the area doesn’t matter. People want to live where they’re happy. That’s why this area is so great. It’s because it offers so much. So, I just flatly disagree with that. I believe that it doesn’t matter the shape of the world. It just matters what we’re doing within the greater Washington area.

ABERMAN: So, I think it’s fair to say that I shouldn’t expect a VR rollout from you anytime soon.

ABRAHAMS: Definitely not.

ABERMAN: Well, Peter, it was great having you share your perspective today. That was Peter Abrahams, the market president and publisher for The Washington Business Journal. Peter, thanks for joining us today.

ABRAHAMS: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

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