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’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.

In defence of newspapers and serendipity

One of the things that Clay Shirky mentioned in the panel with Andrew Keen that I moderated at Ryerson University recently (my post with video here, tweet-stream here and live-blog here) was an idea that he has also written about before on his blog: namely, that one of the principal functions of a newspaper was to aggregate completely unrelated things, primarily because the newspaper company (and its advertisers) had to appeal to the widest possible group of potential readers, and couldn’t possibly know in advance which parts of the paper they were likely to be most interested in. As Clay described it in a recent talk he gave at Harvard:

“The idea that someone who is doing a crossword puzzle may also want news about the coup in Honduras or how the Lakers are doing — it doesn’t make any sense. It’s never made any sense, in terms of what the user wants. It’s what print is capable of as a bundle.”

In my desperate attempt to justify the continued existence of newspapers, I asked Clay whether that aggregation didn’t serve some kind of purpose, but he argued that it did not — that it was simply a holdover from the industrial process by which papers were created and distributed. But is it? I know that we increasingly believe that “if the news is important, it will find me” (I’m actually the number one result in Google for that phrase) and that aggregation of whatever kind we require can be performed by our friends, by service like Techmeme and Tweetmeme, by RSS feed readers, by Twitter, and so on. Heck, I use all of those things and have come to rely on them.

But are they enough? Is there a purpose in aggregating the horoscope and the weather and the news about the coup in Tegucigalpa? I think there is, and I think newspapers do a pretty good job of it.

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Ignore the Web? Good luck with that

David Carr, a writer for the New York Times, is a pretty interesting guy — he kicked a cocaine habit and went on to become a respected journalist at one of the country’s top newspapers, something he just finished writing a book about. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a piece he wrote on Monday perpetuates all kinds of myths about the so-called competition between the Web and the printed newspaper business. For a guy who is supposed to be the Times media columnist, that’s not a great calling card — unless the only media you like to write about is the kind that lines the bird cage or is used to wrap fish and chips.

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How the WSJ failed the Web 2.0 test

Traditional media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have begun to use some of the tools of social media — blogs, Facebook pages, even Twitter accounts. But they seem a lot less eager to adopt some of social media’s core principles, including a commitment to the two-way nature of the medium and all that it represents. This means a lot more than just talking about “the conversation” and how great it is to get links or comments. It’s about taking those comments seriously, responding to them regardless of whether they are positive or negative, and incorporating that approach into the way you do your job. It’s about looking at “journalism,” broadly-speaking, as a process rather than an artifact.

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We may die, but the Web lives on

My friend Ethan Kaplan over at blackrimglasses has a fascinating post about the death of a geek — a man named Mark Hoekstra — and the strange feeling that is created by seeing his blog posts, Flickr photos, Last.fm contributions and other elements of his online life floating around in the ether after his death (just 34 years old, he apparently died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bicycle). As Ethan says:

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