This week the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote: Is The Post innovating too fast? The column wonders if the Post newsroom is trying too many new things at too great a rate. The kind of people who read PressThink, Poynter.org and Nieman Lab didn’t know what to make of it.
Rob Curley did. He said on Twitter. “I adore the WaPo, but this is foolish and possibly even irresponsible.” Curley is the new media editor at the Las Vegas Sun, and he used to be the Post’s Vice President of Product Development in the interactive division.
“As someone who has led Post’s digital content initiatives over the past three years, I actually wish it were true that we have too much innovation at the Post,” said the Post’s managing editor for digital, Raju Narisetti. But it is not true, he added.
Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram said the Post should be going faster, not easing up.
I felt that Patrick Pexton’s column didn’t really explain what he was getting at, so I asked for an interview. Today I caught up with him by gchat; this is our exchange.
PressThink: You wondered aloud in your recent column whether the Post might be trying too much innovation and exhausting the staff, along with the patience of its readers. You quoted a couple of readers saying things to that effect, but I’m guessing that a series of observations over time led up to that column. So what were those observations?
Pexton: Yes, good guess. I think No. 1 is the lack of progress at The Post in getting the Web site to download faster for readers. This has been, and is, such a technological challenge, that readers probably mistakenly blame the new innovations for that, when in fact it’s the technological infrastructure, and the tremendous addition of ad plug-ins, etc. that make the site slow to load.
But I think that the innovations, many of which I support, should be done more selectively, and maybe slow down a little until they get the Web site problems fixed. The @mention machine was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, and for readers.
PressThink: So your point is that the innovation is coming on top of a “base” that isn’t functioning well, symbolized by the agonizingly slow load times on the site (which I have groaned about myself.) Is that correct?
PressThink: As you know, Managing editor Raju Narisetti replied to your column. He said: “The Post’s future is going to play out at the intersection of technology and content because we have to continue to build loyalty and engagement on the Web, on mobile devices and in social media, the only places where readership will grow. Because of that, our newsroom — both in its thinking and structure — needs to be in a relatively permanent ‘beta’ mode as we learn, adapt and lead. This isn’t change for change sake.” He is essentially saying: get used to it, this is the way it’s going to be and has to be, if the Post is to survive and thrive. It may well be exhausting but there is no alternative.
I know from reading you that you’re not a reflexive defender of the old ways. And I think we can stipulate that no one knows how much innovation is enough. So can we pinpoint where your views and Raju’s diverge?
Pexton: Good question. I am much more a modernist than traditionalist, yes, and I agree with Raju that a lot of innovation needs to happen, and I don’t mind experimentation to see what works and what does not. That’s admirable. I just think there’s a bit too little thought to the kind of innovation that is being done and for what purpose.
I had a conversation with an editor this week, who attended a story planning meeting, and the editor said that three fourths of the discussion was on what kind of videos, photo galleries, and online polls to do and almost no discussion of the story’s written focus and direction. It’s all distracting. Some of it is absolutely necessary, but I think a bit more focus on the reporting first, then come in with the add ons later.
PressThink: So maybe what you’re really saying is not that there’s too much innovation being tried but too weak a narrative for how The Post can innovate at the center of its mission and strengths. After all, if innovation means adds ons–bells and whistles–that threaten to detract from the core strengths, that won’t get it done, either… right?
Pexton: Correct. I think, and I’ve commented on this in other columns, that the journalistic direction is not well laid out here, or at least not sufficiently to put the innovations in a framework.
PressThink: “Do everything” is a weak narrative about what needs to change.
Pexton: Yes. What’s the Post’s narrative? I know what the official strategy is, but that’s more of a business strategy than a journalistic one.
PressThink: This is why I like working for John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, a combine of Journal Register Company and Media News newspapers. He has a simple narrative for this transition period newspapers have to undergo: Digital First. It sounds like a buzzword to some, but it isn’t. It means shifting away from print as the production god, the giver of laws, so that the printed edition becomes an outcome of what you are doing digitally, including interactions with users. Is there any over-arching concept like that at the Post?
Pexton: Well, that’s interesting. But 80 percent of the Post’s revenue still comes from print circulation (home subscriptions, newsstand sales, and print advertising) and the rest from online ads and such. Traffic to the Post’s Web site is steadily climbing–great, we all want to see that–but online revenue isn’t. Some of these innovations are alienating print readers.
In terms of an overarching concept– the Post should be the indispensable guide to Washington is the official strategy. I don’t quibble with that. But how does the journalism fit into that? Too many things in Washington that would be of concern to national, even worldwide readers, of the Post are not covered well. Other things are covered too much.
PressThink: One sees the problem. As a print product, the Post is a local newspaper. As a digital product, it should be national and international. Only a powerful and creative story can bring those things together. “The indispensable guide to Washington…” may not be it. But I want to challenge you about something you just said.
PressThink: I get that the revenue is still coming from print and the print readers are feeling less well-served, and that’s a problem. But no one that I know of has any data saying that the born-on-the-web generation will be print subscribers. And print advertising continues to decline, so… Isn’t the heart of the challenge here to leverage those remaining revenues into a digital future?
Pexton: Yes, I agree. But the pace of that conversion needs to be monitored very closely. Some of the Post’s financial base, for the next decade, maybe two, will be the print subscribers–we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue there, whereas web ads are tens of millions. To keep this a solid regional newspaper, where a lot of revenue still is and will remain, the Post I think has to cover local news better. If a Web innovation adds another million unique visitors per month, but that’s done at the expense of five fewer local reporters, then the net effect on the Post’s revenue, for now, is negative.
PressThink: Melanie Sill, former editor of the Sacramento Bee, also replied to your column at her blog:
“Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels… As someone who spent too much time reassuring readers that newspapers weren’t really changing, I wish now that I’d invested that energy instead in discussing the goals of change and enlisting readers as advisers with a stake in the paper’s future…. I’ve spoken with eight or 10 former top editors in the course of the last few months, some retired and others working in new jobs in media. From each I heard a version of the same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused more on the world outside newsrooms and responded more boldly to the opportunities and challenges of digital shift.”
Her argument interests me. She’s saying that newspaper journalists who came up during the age of print have the wrong metric; what seems dramatic to them isn’t nearly enough. And she’s warning that reader complaints are inherently conservative because no one who has developed the newspaper habit wants her newspaper to change. That’s why she says: instead of heeding their complaints about change, enlist them in the planning for a different product. Is she wrong?
Pexton: I read her post. The Post internally is actually talking about this problem of sections and such right now. They’re finding that the landing pages for sections (Style, Local, Entertainment, business etc) aren’t working very well, except for the home page, and politics. So some thought is going into how to do this online better. Perhaps that might lead to different printed sections later too. That’s good thinking, and smart thinking.
Yes, readers are conservative, I listen to them all day long, but not as conservative as people think. They’re ready for change, most of them, but smart change. But all this thinking about a digital future has to be kept in the context of what is a good news story, what do people want to know. Involving readers in that more is absolutely appropriate.
PressThink: Ombudsman often annoy or grate on the newsrooms they monitor, but my guess–and it’s just that, a guess–is that your column on innovation got a lot of warm responses from the Post staff. Am I wrong?
Pexton: You are absolutely correct. I was a bit surprised how many Post staffers complimented me on it. And some of them are not traditionalists, but modernists.
PressThink: I have been wanting to ask you this for a while: What is a print journalist?
Pexton: I think we should not talk about print or digital journalists. I think we’re all journalists. We should all use the modern technologies to convey our reporting, our analysis, our quick hit news, our deeper thoughts. Writers and editors, in an ideal world, should shift back and forth and be both.
I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it’s more conversational, engaging, and such. And the online world has changed reporting, somewhat, but not fundamentally. A journalists jobs is to report and write on the things that affect people’s lives. I really think we need to integrate better the training of young reporters and editors so there is not a print/digital divide. Web reporters should go off and cover county council meetings just as print reporters should.
PressThink: Ever considered the counter-argument? The users position, in an online world, is fundamentally different, and because of that, the journalist’s job has to change and may even change in some ways that are radically disruptive.
Pexton: How is the user’s position fundamentally different? I don’t see it.
PressThink: Because on the web every page is within reach of every user, and that condition has absolutely no parallel in the age of print.
Pexton: But they’ll come to the sources they trust. Competition is tougher, yes, all the more reason to be solid in your reporting and elegant in your writing.
PressThink: Okay, final question: Have you ever thought that maybe the ombudsman job itself needs innovation? I don’t mean adding a blog or starting a podcast but something more akin to reconstructive surgery?
Pexton: I’m open to suggestions. I do a lot of troubleshooting that I never write about, maybe I should write about some of these internal struggles more. But I think you’re thinking bigger.
PressThink: Well, one of the revolutions we’ve seen is in the reader’s ability to reach the Post. By pushing on that, the reader’s representative, or ombudsman, could wield a lot more data, and out of that data might come new ways of “representing” readers and fighting on their behalf. That’s one direction to go in. But it is not a fully formed thought.
Pexton: Yes, I concur. Then The Post must agree to share with me all of its internal data on traffic, hits, what kinds of stories do well, and what don’t. And so far, with the exception of limited access, I don’t have that.
PressThink: That’s a shame. Patrick, thanks very much.
Pexton: You’re welcome, Jay. Happy to do it.