Too Much Innovation at the Washington Post? My Q & A with the Post’s Ombudsman

"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 the online world has changed reporting somewhat, but not fundamentally."

10 Jan 2012 2:02 pm 13 Comments

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, 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?

Pexton: Yes.

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.

Pexton: Sure.

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.


The most important strategic or tactical question any local media boss needs to be asking is “to what end?” This is a much more revealing question than you might think. In the case above, for example, of the ad infrastructure slowing down load times, an honest reply to the question would be: “to serve ads to people who don’t see them in the first place.” This is the kind of honesty we need, because without it, everything we do is simply bolting something else on top of an archaic, mass media model. We’ve GOT to do better, because there are smart people out there able to aggregate — both algorithmically and with human intelligence — items that can be viewed in a millisecond. On my Android phone, for example, I’ve learned to never click on a Wapo article via Google News, because it simply won’t open in a reasonable time. This is the absurdity of not truthfully asking the question “to what end?”

Holden Pattern says:

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.

IOW, it’s WaPo’s clumsy attempts to overmonetize their content while underinvesting in their web infrastructuer that is creating the crappy user experience (leaving aside the actual content).

The idea that video, audio, and graphics constitute “bells and whistles” and the reductionism that follows – that writing is the sole provenance of reporters – never fails to irk me. Writing, moving pictures, graphics, and audio are component parts of reportage. Reporting the details determines the form. What I read through the lines here is that the WaPo is run by a print hegemony that hasn’t integrated multimedia storytelling either in its newsroom or its web infrastructure.

I find it hard to imagine that there’s actually direct tension between the get-the-site-faster job and the build-things-like-Mention-Machine job. It’s not as if there’s a single group of engineers responsible for both and the Post’s told them, “Hey, don’t worry about the site for a while — we want you to go count tweets.” They’re separate decisions and separate skills.

More broadly, I think Pexton’s column was a case of a print-centered person lumping all “digital people” into one big fungible basket. The folks who build interactive graphics, the people who shoot and edit video, the IT guys who keep the site running fast, the social media staff that updates the Twitter feeds — a lot of print people imagine their jobs as being a lot closer together than they actually are. The reality is that there are Post digital staffers who can use Final Cut Pro but not write Python, and Post staffers maintain a smart Twitter feed but not make load any faster.

“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.”

Serious question: Is there actual evidence that the loss of five fewer local reporters would lead to sufficient declines in print circulation (and thus print advertising) to counterbalance the gains from an extra million uniques a month? gets 17.2 million uniques a month, they say:

So an extra million would be roughly a 5.8% increase.

I believe the Post’s newsroom has about 600 staffers:!/koblin/status/124526356880031744

So the loss of five would mean a decrease of 0.8%. But that’s in *staffing* — I’d be very surprised if a 0.8% decline in newsroom staffing led directly to even a 0.8% decline in circulation or print ad revenue.

Something I wanted to include in the interview but forgot to mention can be mentioned here. It’s the Ezra Klein model of innovation at the Washington Post, which I think has been quite successful. Works like this….

The Post needed to renovate ancient categories like “news” and “opinion” and “reporter” vs. “columnist” in order to permit its people more voice, which creates more engagement, and more room for experiment. The Post also needed to draw down its debt to the View from Nowhere, which is getting harder and harder to trust, even though it makes sense for it to remain a non-aligned nation in the system of news states.

But to actually have those fights–that is, to revise its own pressthink and innovate at the level of ideas– would be debilitating, exhausting and probably end in victory for… well, let’s call it the classicist wing in the newsroom. So what to do instead?

Hire Ezra Klein. Call him at the outset whatever you have to call him to avoid an ideological battle within the Post. He’s a columnist, so its okay! No, he’s a blogger (so its okay…) He works fot the Post website, not the paper! Whatever, just get him in there. Klein writes and reports with a point of view, but he also knows what he’s talking about. His beat is: policy wonk.

Then comes the epic health care struggle of 2009-10. Without actually saying so, let Klein carry the ball for the Post’s news coverage of one of the biggest Washington stories ever. Let his voicey mix of reporting, analysis, graphs and charts, long run point of view, inside baseball, personal assessment and Ezra’s hopes and dreams for health care reform work its will on readers, editors and fellow journalists at the Post. (And yes, I know that many other reporters contributed mightily to the Post’s health care coverage, but the point stands.)

Scrambling all categories, the mix nonetheless works. Klein is that “indispensable guide to Washington” that the Post’s strategy calls for at 50,000 feet.

“Voila!” You’ve solved your problem of how to de-invest in the View from Nowhere without provoking a titanic newsroom struggle. Ezra becomes a star, and soon he is hiring helpers and building a mini-franchise that is innovating at the center of Post journalism: politics and policy.

And what makes it all possible? Everyone can say, “he’s a great reporter” and thus believe that in the end that nothing has really changed. That’s how you do it when the print people are still in charge and have been given dominion over digital.

Something that gets lost here and that I think the ombudsperson needs to pay attention to in greater detail is not just how news/analysis/reporting is conveyed in terms of medium, but whether it has integrity and whether it just pushes old buttons or goes into really new breaking territory. There is a serious lack of integrity in the way that the Post deals with many issues–recent examples having to do with women’s rights and health and the equivalency given to the hocus-pocus views of radical ideologues–and real honest “here is what the evidence is” reporting. Another example is the absolutely idiotic She The People section–let’s hire a woman who can’t really analyze or write well and who doesn’t have depth of political perspective and call her the “voice of women.” Seriously? This is not new ground; this is political and reporting pandering of the kind that led the Post to support the Iraq War and other questionable policies. Doesn’t matter whether you innovate digitally or not, or where the stuff is “printed,” if it doesn’t have integrity it still sucks.

I never understand the comparison of print revenue to digital. Completely different economics. No a digital news org will likely never bring the the revenue that the print side brings. It also needs a small percentage of the employees and and even smaller percentage of production cost. Apples and oranges. And for the record, the digital revenue in the companies I’ve worked for has been plenty to support news gathering, ad sales, and technology. Practically all other positions are tied to print.

In regards to what has changed for the users. It’s pretty obvious that they now all own the equivalent of a press. That changes a news organization’s strategy, doesn’t it? No, they don’t all practice journalism, but at any given time, a small percentage of the huge whole does commit an act of journalism, and that is a large enough amount to change the economics of information distribution.

Excellent points, Matt.

Sadly, Ezra Klein hardly out a dent in the front page coverage, which was driven by GOP talking points dutifully served up by Lori Montgomery and others. Pexton has, sadly, shown himself to be a defender of management and the status quo. He’s at least the third ombud for the Post to take this line. In that respect, he seems to make the position unnecessary, unless people like Fed Hyatt feel they need someone to take the heat for the paper’s descent into “the view from nowhere” and its ongoing fear of criticism from anyone forceful in power. Interestingly, this fear was first obvious to me during the Barry years (1970s version). The Post took a very timid aproach to covering DC government and basically got away from the details of it. Later, the enthusiastically supported Barry’s successors. The ineffectual leadership of Vince Gray has allowed them to covery city government with a bit more grit, but the paper is dragged down by its local reporters’ fundamental ignorance of DC and its environs.

I got the impression from reading Pexton’s responses that he is a practiced diffuser of complaints about traditional journalism’s failings. He knew just what to say to placate those of us wanting a new product, a product better-suited to today’s technologies and user expectations.

He said the “right” things, but each response rang hollow. For example, his use of the word “modernist” to refer to himself and others:

“And some of them are not traditionalists, but modernists.”

This allows him to create a space in which he can stand apart from the “traditionalists” that advanced media and paper journalism critics can so easily criticize, without actually joining those that are asking for a new / different / better product. It’s a bad ombudsman’s response — it’s the View From Nowhere for business models.

Very unsatisfying.