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Summary:

Contrary to the concerns expressed by the Washington Post’s ombudsman, the last thing the Post — or any newspaper — needs to worry about is whether it’s moving too quickly. If anything, the pace of change in media is speeding up rather than slowing down.

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In a column about the launch of some recent digital projects from the Washington Post, the newspaper’s ombudsman expressed concern there might be too much innovation going on at the paper, and all this change might be happening too quickly for some, both inside and outside the paper. But as a number of responses have noted — including one from the Washington Post‘s own managing editor for digital — the last thing the Post (or any newspaper, for that matter) needs to worry about is whether it’s moving too quickly. If anything, the pace of change in media is speeding up rather than slowing down.

The column from ombudsman Patrick Pexton mentioned a number of new projects from the WaPo, including the launch of the paper’s Twitter-tracking “mention machine,” which follows the presidential candidates via social media. But while Pexton said he was glad to see the Post experimenting with such new features, he added that a number of reader emails had expressed some frustration with recent changes to the paper’s website, and criticized the emphasis on new bells and whistles such as the Mention Machine instead of on real journalism. Then the ombudsman added:

They have a point. And I know from talking to folks in the newsroom that all the change may be exhausting the staff, too… Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand.

The WaPo needs to go faster, not slower

It’s a little ironic that Pexton’s column came along just as I was thinking about innovation at the Washington Post as well — but I was thinking the newspaper should be applauded for all the experimentation it’s doing, even if not all of it seems guaranteed to succeed. My train of thought was sparked in part by a Wall Street Journal  piece looking at the friend/mentor relationship that has developed between Washington Post publisher Don Graham and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and how that has led to experiments like the “social reading” app that the newspaper launched recently.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m skeptical about the virtues of handing over content and reader relationships to Facebook for a number of reasons, but there’s no question that the impetus behind the social-reading app — to reach readers where they are, and benefit from social sharing — is a valuable one. And the Washington Post is at least experimenting with things like that, including its Trove recommendation engine (which powers the Facebook app) rather than staking its future on things like paywalls. Perhaps it will even try a “reverse paywall” of the kind envisioned by its managing editor of digital, Raju Narisetti.

Narisetti, not surprisingly, doesn’t think the Post is innovating too quickly at all. “I wish this were true,” he said in a response to Pexton’s column. Others chimed in with similar thoughts, including former Sacramento Bee  editor Melanie Sill (who also wrote a fascinating report recently for the Annenberg Innovation Lab on the need for a philosophy of “open journalism”). As Sill noted, the biggest problems for newspapers don’t stem from innovating too quickly; they are a result of the exact opposite: being too cautious:

The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t just their familiar revenue problems and ever-proliferating competitors, but also the opportunity costs of failing to innovate more boldly — to be transformative, not incremental, in moving forward.

To truly change, you have to change the culture

Josh Stearns of the non-profit advocacy group Free Press noted in his response to Pexton’s column that one of the big issues that keeps many traditional media outlets from moving more quickly is a culture that doesn’t value experimentation or innovation. For every newspaper that launches an internal “lab” like the New York Times‘ beta620 or tries to help incubate media-related startups — the way the Philadelphia Media Group and Digital First Media are both trying to do — there are others who see new projects and the potential for failure as a distraction from the “real” business of a newspaper.

Media theorist Clay Shirky has pointed out this attitude ignores that during times of massive disruption of the kind the media world is experiencing, no one can possibly know what the right solution is, and therefore, experimentation is the only logical response. Experimentation is what turned The Huffington Post from a personal project into a $315-million media powerhouse, and it’s what could turn BuzzFeed from a repository for funny-pet videos into a journalistic enterprise — at least, that’s what the company’s new venture backers seem to believe. Are they right? Who knows.

As for the repercussions for the Washington Post‘s brand if it continues this rampant experimentation, I think Pexton’s concerns are misplaced: Why not imagine what could happen if the Post became known for being the most forward-thinking and innovative mainstream newspaper out there? That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing at all.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig and zert sonstige

  1. Maryam Sabbagh Monday, January 9, 2012

    “… all the change may be exhausting the staff, too… Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks….” it sounds like the solution is to not change everything at once. I agree that the change in media pace is speeding up, lots of people are experimenting with these tools & developing metrics and some are freely giving advice on how it’s working for them, I think it’s more important use their advice and KEEP UP WITH MONITORING WHAT’S WORKING than to be the first to use every single tool and risk ticking everyone off.

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    1. Thanks, Maryam — I agree that measurement and analysis and other things are definitely worth having. It’s no good to just “throw things at the wall” and never try to figure out what’s working. But at the same time, slowing down and not innovating at all isn’t the right response either. Thanks for the comment.

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      1. Maryam Sabbagh Monday, January 9, 2012

        Agree Mathew, everyone needs to keep up as the pace is only going to increase. It looks like they just haven’t found their balance yet and they’re going through growing pains…

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  2. Mathew, what is considered to be the real business of a newspaper?

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    1. I would say it is delivering information to readers, but I could be wrong :-) Different people see its duties differently I think.

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      1. “Missions” aside, I am pretty sure their “business” has been selling advertisements and subscriptions. “Delivering information” has just been the primary tactic. ;-)

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  3. Leandro Oliva Monday, January 9, 2012

    One thing WaPo got right is in creating their “Labs” division, which runs parallel but not “under” the newsroom. There’s greater emphasis on generating new products and a greater distance from the bottom line, and likely a fresher exchange of ideas w/ ties to Silicon Valley.

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    1. That’s a great point, Leandro — thanks for the comment.

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  4. Let’s also take a view of one other issue that even YOU haven’t addressed. The WaPo USED to be an outlet to THE TRUTH. Today, they are outwardly trying their hardest to be FOX. This is VERY QUICKLY becoming a race to the bottom of the truth barrel. There are only a few voices left at WaPo from the days when FACTS ment something. Ms. Weymouth in her quest to be the ‘best and brighest’ has clearly become ‘second to worst’.

    NO level of innovation can correct this headlong dash for the basement.

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