Has the WaPo chosen paper over web?

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‚Äôs 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.

54 thoughts on “Has the WaPo chosen paper over web?

  1. Great piece, Mathew. I think you hit it on the head that this is a constant battle and problem at many newspapers. The reality is that the changes are fundamental and are requiring print journalists to stretch themselves, relearn their craft and adapt. It's uncomfortable and so some choose to belittle online journalism. Even as a former undergraduate student and current graduate student, I see this among the younger journalists too.

    I had a reporter I worked with at the college newspaper I worked as editor at. She actually interned at the Washington Post this summer. Last year, she always poked fun at new technologies like Twitter and how they could be used for journalism and swore she never would join it.

    A week ago, she started following me on Twitter. ūüôā

    • Thanks, Vadim.

      I actually find it interesting that, in my experience at least, age has very
      little to do with whether someone can (or even wants to) adapt to the
      different attitudes and approaches required on the Web. I've met older
      folks who grasp it immediately, and younger reporters and editors who seem
      just as traditional and inflexible as some of their counterparts who are
      decades older.

      • I know exactly what you're talking about. The city editor at my paper is younger than I am, just a few years out of journalism school, and he's a die-hard print-centrist who doesn't even have Internet access at his house.

      • I second that comment Matt.

        I've met young folks who have a narrow point of view here and I've met older folks that make ME look like a centrist.

        That said: The general subject of your post is concerning. What happens at WaPo isn't just happening at WaPo.

        Fact is newspapers can't layoff too many more print folks. As you note: Print brings in the revenue. At some point it's like chopping off the head to save the body.

        The trouble is that – things are in motion and eventually the online world will be the head. How to make that transition….. I don't know.

        • I think that's the main problem, Dave — even some of those who agree that
          we need to get from a print-dominant past to a Web-dominant future can't
          quite figure out how to make the transition from here to there. And in any
          case, making that kind of transition is never going to be seamless — there
          are going to be fits and starts, and a lot of messiness along the way, which
          is some of what we're seeing now.

          My biggest fear about getting print-centric types to take over Web-centric
          jobs is that it encourages a mindset that the Web is just like the paper
          except it's on the Internet — in other words, that you can just do pretty
          much whatever works in print, and then duplicate that online. Real progress
          will never be made until journalists come to the realization that doing
          their jobs properly online requires a different set of skills, and in fact a
          completely different way of thinking about the work.

          • I agree Matt

            “My biggest fear about getting print-centric types to take over Web-centric
            jobs is that it encourages a mindset that the Web is just like the paper
            except it's on the Internet — in other words, that you can just do pretty
            much whatever works in print, and then duplicate that online.”

            That is a very real problem. In truth this is why I don't think the transition is going to happen within newspaper companies.

            If I'm feeling pessimistic: The transition will happen. It's happening already. It just isn't going to include newspaper companies.

            The problem with it: Is then there is a battle over “journalism” and its higher calling. Who is doing it and who is squandering it, etc. A lot of positioning, name calling etc – all in an effort to say “we are doing the REAL journalism” (and that argument is made on both sides increasingly, not just the printies).

            Still: I don't see the transition happening within newsrooms. I see it happening on the edges and smart newsrooms will find a way to bring that back into the fold.

          • Dave, I share your pessimism, with a pinch of hope. Hope may not be exactly the right word – I don't specifically hope newspapers will come good online, but I do hold out hope for what they could become, given their resources.

            Of all MSM, newspapers have the largest volume of original news content that lends itself to online wizardry. Not only the largest daily volume of content, but historical archives and data that could be incredibly powerful in the right hands.

            My pessimism is yours; I can't believe the opportunity newspapers are squandering. And that opportunity is market leadership in
            I recently changed jobs from one form of traditional media to ano

  2. you nailed it mathew, the dynamics of trading traditional infrastructure (easiest word for all that goes into something) for digital media infrastructure is very complex with many hard decision points: sustain legacy cash flow vs stimulate emerging potentials

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  7. Is then there is a battle over “journalism” and its higher calling? Who is doing it and who is squandering it, etc. In truth this is why I don't think the transition is going to happen within newspaper companies.

  8. Is then there is a battle over “journalism” and its higher calling? Who is doing it and who is squandering it, etc. In truth this is why I don't think the transition is going to happen within newspaper companies.

  9. I often read your blog and always find it very interesting. Thought it was about time i let you know?Keep up the great work

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  10. I hope some sort of concord can be reached between the two camps as a divide like this can only be bad for journalism as a whole.

    I'd be interested to see in the future if and how these two poles of journalism find a way to work together which is best for the industry as a whole. Ultimately, I'd like to see the best of both worlds combine to produce faster and more interesting copy in the future.

    Ally

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