Why The Washington Post folded The Lily into its gender and identity coverage

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The Washington Post has folded The Lily, its free standalone vertical on gender and identity issues for millennial women. The Post’s coverage of these issues now populates a new hub on the Post’s website, and The Lily’s seven-person team has been reassigned to the publication’s other editorial desks.

The move to fold The Lily is a “natural next step” for the evolution of The Lily and The Post’s coverage of gender and identity,” said The Post’s managing editor Krissah Thompson.

The shift “signals that there is a more cohesive place to come to find all of what we’re doing to cover gender and identity in one place,” said Thompson, who oversees coverage of those topics at the Post. “We wanted to bring The Lily to the core of our newsroom and collaborate more with reporters on other teams that are covering a lot of the same topics. There is a lot of opportunity to work together and to do big projects.”

The Lily, which the Post originally launched on Medium in 2017 and then moved to its publishing platform Arc in 2018, was known for its stories aimed at young women, its visual identity and its comics as well as its newsletter and social media accounts (it now has around 148,000 Instagram followers and 270,000 Facebook followers).

Though The Lily’s stories were already appearing on The Washington Post’s website, on Jan. 5 the Post announced The Lily would no longer exist as a separate publication. The seven-person team at The Lily is now working at the Post’s Features and National desks, as well as curating a new gender and identity landing page that launched on Jan. 25.

By living outside of an older, legacy institution like the Post, The Lily had more flexibility to experiment with storytelling and to speak directly to young women, said Anna Blue, DE&I marketing strategist at consulting firm Story MKTG. Now, the Post can apply what it’s learned to other beats that intersect with these issues, such as politics. 

“The Lily found ways to think about stories through a millennial lens in particular and it will continue to do that, and find holes and angles in the news coverage that is different and distinct — while also being part of a broader conversation and contributing to coverage there… That was difficult to do in a more siloed space,” Thompson said. “We started to feel that having this coverage – that is so core and an important part of the news cycle — off to the side just didn’t feel like the right place to be.”

The Post has tasked Features executive editor Liz Seymour with building that collaboration and expansion of gender coverage across departments. The twice-weekly “Lily Lines” newsletter and The Lily’s social media accounts will remain as they are, run by Features assignment editor Lena Felton (previously The Lily’s deputy editor). The Lily’s staff reporter Anne Branigin and multiplatform editors Janay Kingsberry and Hannah Good are contributing to the newsletter, as well as other stories and projects in Features, and continue to report to Felton. Reporter Caroline Kitchener has moved to the National Politics team to cover abortion access leading up the midterm elections — an issue she followed closely at The Lily. Neema Roshania Patel, editor of The Lily, is now editor for next generation audiences at the Post.

DE&I experts see pros and cons in the Post’s decision to fold The Lily into the broader news publication. On the one hand, it can provide a bigger stage for its gender and identity coverage. On the other hand, it can diffuse the spotlight that The Lily’s separate home and branding gave to that coverage, and readers could interpret that as a loss of focus — not to mention the friction caused by the lack of free access to those stories, due to the Post’s paywall.

“Publications that do not actively make diversity and inclusion a priority could face a decline in both readership and profits,” said Vicki McGowan, the founder and managing partner of diverse media consultancy DECA. “I interpret this move to mean that [The Lily] is evolving to be more inclusive. Rather than limiting themselves to ‘women’s issues,’ perhaps the aim is to include wider gender issues.”

But there may be a degree of skepticism from The Lily’s audience, especially from those that may not have understood the brand’s connection to the Post who will now find themselves redirected from links on social media to The Post’s website, rather than to The Lily’s, Blue said. “When a young, 25-year-old who reads The Lily clicks through and suddenly finds they’re on the Washington Post… Will they feel represented by the Washington, D.C., white, political publication?” she said.

Thompson wants The Lily’s newsletter and social media audience “to be very clear that they are reading a publication of The Washington Post.” Bringing readers to the Post’s website can show them the breadth of its coverage on gender and identity, she said. “If you’re reading Caroline Kitchener in The Lily, you should be reading Monica Hesse’s [gender] column in the Post,” Thompson said.

It’s also a tactic to drive younger readers to the Post’s website and hopefully convert some of them to become paying subscribers. The Lily was bringing in a younger and more diverse audience than The Washington Post does, Thompson said. To “infuse” the Post — which is working to attract more readers in those demographics and grow its subscription business — “with something that feels young, hip, modern and is already proven is smart from a marketing and outreach sense,” Blue said.

The flipside: the paywall means articles are less accessible to some readers, especially those who are younger or lower-income, McGowan said. The Lily’s social media feeds, however, may be able to “fill some of this void.”

Integrating gender and identity stories into the Post also has the risk of driving away older and more conservative readers, Blue said. Those readers might bristle at articles about abortion and transgender rights.

By bringing The Lily into the larger fold, the Post is “putting a stake in the ground about the future of the Post, who they are, the types of readers they want and the type of content they want to push out,” Blue said.

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