The Washington Post Talent Network’s Success is Procurement’s Golden Opportunity

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When the Washington Post launched its Talent Network in June 2015, the Jeff Bezos-owned company promised to bring order to one of the media industry’s most unruly problems: sourcing and managing freelancers. Nearly two years later, the Post seems to have made good on that promise.

The online system for pitching stories, accepting assignments and invoicing for payments — which Spend Matters earlier classified as a work intermediation platform (WIP) — now serves more than 2,500 writers, editors, photographers and translators, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. What’s more, the Post has significantly expanded its writing stable and reporting capacity far beyond what its full-time staff is capable of.

Such a success story is a boon not only to media companies but to all businesses that extensively rely on a contingent workforce. The success of the Post Talent Network aptly illustrates how WIPs create new opportunities for firms to reduce transactional complexity and pursue new strategic initiatives at a fraction of the usual cost.

Bringing Order to Chaos

Before the Talent Network launched, the Post’s system for managing freelancers was almost non-existent.

A decentralized process based on editors’ personal networks handled the demand for freelancers and the large inbound of pitches from hopeful journalists. Writers could wait several weeks for replies from editors, if they heard back at all. Getting paid was even more onerous.

The Post essentially replaced this organized chaos with a homegrown source-to-pay (S2P) system for freelance talent.

“The level of organization that exists with the Talent Network, I don’t think, has ever existed before,” Post editor Eva Rodriguez told CJR. “Before, you’d get an all-newsroom email saying, ‘Hey does anyone know someone in Baton Rouge?’ Now an editor goes into the network, searches by location or subject area expertise and they know the people they find do work that meets the standards of The Washington Post. It’s been transformative for us.”

But what’s most interesting about the Post’s success with going digital — and here’s where procurement should take note — is the Talent Network’s capability to improve the quality of work being done.

Related research: 9 Things Contingent Workforce Procurement Can Do to Prepare For Online Talent Platforms 

Beyond Transactional Efficiency

The previous system produced only stories, essentially filling a hole in the editorial schedule. A WIP provides a platform that can systematically manage engagements, allowing contributors to build stronger relationships with the paper and helping the Post gain greater visibility into the spend and performance of its contingent workforce.

Capitalizing on freelance labor makes sense with the company’s broader strategic objectives, as well. The Post’s digital strategy relies mostly on volume. For any one news item, writers from traditional journalists to bloggers will flood the internet with reporting and analysis, in an effort to maximize pageviews, engagement and revenue from digital advertising.

This is the opposite approach of the Post’s most obvious competitor, the New York Times. Pointing to digital subscriptions as the path forward, the Grey Lady aims in the next three years to actually reduce the volume of content it produces, instead focusing on the quality and style of its journalism (read: fewer incremental stories, more visual-based work) in order to convince readers that subscribing is worthwhile.

It’s too soon to tell which strategy will win out in the end. What’s interesting for procurement, however, is how the Talent Network ideally complements the Post’s overall business strategy. The ability to grow and maintain a reliable network of freelancers allow the paper to write more with less. And it gives the Post access to stories it may not have gotten otherwise.

When then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump kicked various news outlets out of his rallies last year, the Post used its Talent Network to send in vetted journalists into the events as ordinary people.

“Through that, we were able to have someone at every Trump rally we wanted to be at, even though we were banned by the candidate and couldn’t travel on his press plane,”  Post political editor Steven Ginsberg told CJR. “If we didn’t have the Talent Network, we literally wouldn’t have been there in a lot of cases. And if you’re going to cover a presidential election, you’ve got to be there.”

Procurement Takeaways

In our past coverage of the Talent Network’s development, Spend Matters’ contingent workforce and services procurement guru Andrew Karpie offered a few procurement insights that still ring true today:

  • The Talent Network provides a vivid illustration of what the engagement of independent workforce can be like and is already like: a networked workforce that can be global and perform work through networked technology tools like smartphones.
  • Most digital work arrangement platforms are not multi-category. They instead address specific segments and engage specific worker types. This is not just media workers — there are examples in software development, software testing, data science, medicine, law, national security and even voices.
  • The Talent Network demonstrates how digital transformation in certain industry and occupational segments can take off. There can be rapid acceleration, even tipping points. Large enterprise adoption can start to occur in different segments.
  • Finally, this example suggests how contingent workforce sourcing and engagement really does become procurement of services, as some types of engagements become on-demand and can be fulfilled through a crowd of workers.

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