The recent cuts at the Washington Post — as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper — have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon. If anything, the economic upheaval and advertising-revenue tsunami that has hit the media industry over the past year or so has amplified it. It’s the clash between print-heads and Web-heads, or “real” journalists (as some choose to call them) and the “web-first” crowd, and the fear expressed by some — including former WaPo online staffer Derek Willis and former online executive editor Jim Brady — is that the printies are gaining the upper hand.
You can see the fault lines of this snaking through the comments on the City Paper piece, where one commenter talks about how the website “was doing nothing more than posting the print articles, and hosting some online chats,” while the “much-despised MSM reporters and editors were crammed together into an old, crappy space while actually doing the business of obtaining information and writing it.” Another talks about how “All this bla bla bla about presentation, aggregation and innovation will be all that’s left once there are no more reporters churning out actual stories.”
Toward the end of the exchange, former WaPo online staffer Robert MacMillan (@bobbymacReuters) says: “I worked there and did reporting just like it’s done at any other news outlet. Saying otherwise reveals gross ignorance and demeans what I and the good people there have been doing for years” (MacMillan reported on the layoffs here). And in his post at True/Slant, former WaPo online executive editor Brady says “It’s the attitude of Stone Age commenters like these that still pervades far too many print newsrooms. Instead of attempting to adapt to what is clearly a digital future, they complain about the world collapsing around them, yet demean anyone who tries to do anything differently. And they wonder why so many people have stopped listening to them.”
This kind of us-vs-them animosity has likely been exacerbated at the Washington Post by the fact that until recently, the online operation was a completely separate entity from the paper, with its own management and executive and building — across the river from the newspaper itself. Many people both inside and outside the Post saw this structure as a positive thing, because it allowed each to focus on their core business. Others, however, saw it as prolonging the inevitable — the time when the two would have to function as one, which is exactly what the Washington Post is trying to engineer right now. And some, like Steve Yelvington, are afraid that this will wind up with the “printies” on top.
It may have been amplified at the Post by the company’s physical and corporate structure (and there has been speculation that Web staff were let go because otherwise they would have had to be unionized), but you can bet this same battle is going on at virtually every major newspaper in North America. Why? Because they are caught between two worlds. The reality is that the print side continues to provide the bulk of the revenue (although it is falling), and it also consumes the majority of resources — which means there are a lot of senior management involved, and to be blunt, many of them have empires to protect. Others have simply been slow to grasp the magnitude of the changes going on around them. And on the other side is the Web, which is growing quickly but is still a far smaller — and less profitable — operation.
How best to join these two things together? The fear about the Washington Post is that creative online and multimedia journalists have been cut loose in favour of newspaper loyalists who may have little or no clue about what working online really involves. Is it possible for print journalists to understand and adapt to the Web? Of course it is. I’d like to think that I and other former print journalists are proof of that. But you can’t just dump all the responsibilities of understanding digital media on someone who has spent their life making the newspaper work. That is a recipe for disaster.