Dear WaPo: Innovating too quickly is not the problem

In a column about the launch of some recent digital projects from the Washington Post, (s wpo) 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 (s nws) 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 (s mni) 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‘ (s nyt) 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 (s aol) 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