It’s no small understatement to say these are challenging times for journalists. So who better to help define the value proposition of a legacy media business than a Wharton MBA? While newspapers remain in decline, the Washington Post is actually gaining a bit of steam: It’s hired dozens of journalists, increased new subscribers, and even turned a profit last year. For Sarah Feinberg, 33, finance manager for the Post, the challenge is to maintain this revenue while the company’s digital footprint expands. Which means that in addition to working on matters like budgets, pricing analyses, and business optimization models, Feinberg’s tasked with translating the needs of the growing IT department—including 300 in-house engineers—to find new ways to monetize what’s happening online.
“The Post has been around for more than 100 years, so you’d think of it as ‘established,’ but it’s actually a constantly changing environment,” she says, adding that the historic company even feels like a startup at times—perhaps because at its helm are such visionaries as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “There’s a desire to learn and try new things even at the highest levels of the company.” Take, for example, an internal publishing platform the Post built and is now selling to industry players like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. But while those big contracts are exciting, Feinberg’s just as committed to figuring out how small, local papers throughout the U.S. can move away from “legacy ways” and toward a new digital delivery method without having to compromise content. Why? Because she’s passionate about the First Amendment and, particularly, the press.
Feinberg’s background makes her uniquely qualified for a challenge that requires nerves of steel, business savvy, and a crusader’s spirit. She acquired her expertise in analytics and operations while serving for half a decade in the Marine Corps, including a deployment as a logistics officer in western Iraq. She later consulted for several more years for the Department of Defense with Booz Allen. Feinberg may have since transitioned to the private sector, but she still finds herself fighting for the public welfare. “The press is the last defense against corruption in a free society,” she says. “I can’t imagine a better place to land—supporting journalists who are holding leaders accountable.” In other words, by planning a sustainable and long-term financial strategy, this former Marine captain is allowing investigative reporters the time, the resources, and, most importantly, the reassurance they need to do their job. “Our journalists work weeks, months, sometimes even a year on a story,” she says. “That’s what gets us our subscribers—those exclusive stories.”
Feinberg’s passion for protecting a free press is fueled in part by the future she wants for her three boys—a six year-old and twin toddlers—as well as by her volunteer work for Veterans for American Ideals. She also links her success in media to a non-technical skill she honed at Wharton: humility. “All of my peers had backgrounds in finance, which forced me to ask the right questions and really get into the material,” she says. “Being able to ask questions and listen to what people are saying is really important.”—Amy Downey