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Thinking about how much innovation is too much and what kind is the right kind

January 12, 2012

Last Friday, Patrick Pexton, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman wrote that maybe — just maybe — the newspaper was innovating too much. Pexton’s point was essentially that the sheer number of new projects the Post is unveiling during any given week could be wearing down readers who know what they expect from the D.C. paper. He goes on to add that the paper’s staff sees itself as being slightly overstretched and that a segment of the paper’s readers see the new products as leading to cracks in the paper’s foundation.

After reading some criticism of Pexton, Jay Rosen decided to chat with the ombudsman and see exactly what he meant, a conversation which led to more than a few interesting answers. In the conversation, Pexton made it clear that he is not anti-innovation, but that he and other readers simply believe that innovation could be done more effectively.

One of the overriding points of Pexton’s discussion with Rosen is that newspapers have tried to change the way they do things, essentially, overnight — a reality forced on them by the fact that they were so slow to adapt to the Internet. Rather than taking a deliberate approach, though, newspapers seem desperate to do something, anything, really, to push traffic numbers up.

All too often, this has meant adding responsibilities to a journalist’s plate without having some idea of how the innovation adds to the daily narrative. In many ways, journalists — and by that, I mean both editors and reporters — are too focused on the specific elements of the coverage, be they slideshows or videos or sometimes even the actual articles themselves, than on the story that is being told.

In his column, Pexton cites a WaPo story meeting that was three-fourths about video, slideshows and other elements and only one-fourth about the actual print stories. Considering newspapers’ print-heavy revenue models and audiences that are increasingly shifting online, that feels like the grandparent trying to fit in by listening to rap music.

Most newspapers’ greatest strength still lies in their print product. And so does 80% of their revenue.

In order to innovate successfully, newspapers need to play to their strengths, which mostly lie in their ability to take the longer view in each morning’s newspaper. Rather than being subject to the “next headline up” culture of TV news, newspapers are tied to a “What do you have at the end of the day?” cycle.

In other words, even though there will always be pressure to have news first, the ability to analyze and contextualize is just as important. And print journalism is poised to do that at a substantially higher level than broadcast journalism because of a different production cycle.

Furthermore, there is no way to monetize breaking news. Not in a world where more and more people find out about their news in 140-snippet Twitter blasts that absolutely nobody profits from directly.*

*If anything, the only company poised to make money off of breaking news is Twitter. What if the microblogging service charged 99 cents a month? I know I’d pay it, and I’d bet about two-thirds of its active users would. According to this story, Twitter has 1.5 million users who follow 512 or more people. Considering that that was written last April, that Twitter has grown since then, and that some segment of users would stop using it if they had to pay anything, let’s say that 1.5 million would pay for the service. That would lead to a quick $18 million for Twitter per annum, and that would only go up as Twitter continued to grow.

Now, breaking news and various features do serve one key purpose for newspapers — primarily to show consumers that print journalists are capable of providing the news that others aren’t. I just don’t see how that provides any kind of incentive to pay for the paper — or even the tablet version of the paper — each morning or to look at a website throughout the day, particularly if I can get the same information passively by using Twitter.

One area newspapers could do better is in their packaging of stories online. In one sense, papers have the power to show how a story came together over the course of a day, with reporters blogging about interviews as they do them, posting any extra information to their stories on the Internet.

This makes further sense as slideshows and video packages are taken into consideration. Basically, any story of any substance should be treated as its own mini package of information, updated throughout the day so that readers are trained to return to a website in order to see the new pictures from a crime scene or hear the audio from an interview with a city councilperson. (In a weird way, I think I’m saying that news should be treated like a cleaner version of Facebook’s Timeline.)

I do believe that the story itself comes first for now — at least as long as revenue continues to come predominantly from the print side — but that building a package of web-only elements around it online is absolutely imperative to the future.

At one point, Pexton tells Rosen that newspapers need to pay close attention to audience trends over the past two decades or so in order to get a feel for when audiences begin to shift predominantly away from print.

The results of knowing when that shift matters are only useful if newspapers have figured out how to teach online consumers that newspapers are where they can find news by that point in time. By that point, newspapers’ key cash flow will likely be from monetizing online content, which, for now, looks like erecting stronger paywalls. And in order to erect a paywall, logically, a newspaper has to give readers something that they can’t find anywhere else.

Pexton and Rosen seem to agree that there needs to be a “journalistic vision” behind any innovation, basically meaning that newspapers need to avoid doing things for the sake of doing them, instead treating the web just as deliberately as they hopefully treat their print product.

In one answer to Rosen, Pexton writes:

Yes, readers are conservative, I listen to them all day long, but not as conservative as people think. They’re ready for change, most of them, but smart change. But all this thinking about a digital future has to be kept in the context of what is a good news story, what do people want to know. Involving readers in that more is absolutely appropriate.*

*Sidenote here: I still think newspapers have done an absolutely miserable job of creating online communities on their websites. The people are all in the same geographical areas and many have the same interests, but the only way they have of interacting is a comment thread. This doesn’t let them build up any kind of relationship — and the web is increasingly becoming defined by the way we are linked together — with each other.

Furthermore, by building up communities around themselves, papers would be increasing the amount of time spent on their websites, which, in turn, allows them to increase advertising rates. Engaged users would further benefit, as, ideally, the traditional wall between journalists and the community would continue to erode with both groups entering into the same conversations. The thing is, paying a subscription fee would give the audience access to the journalists themselves either in a traditional forum or in a scheduled chat that those who aren’t paying lack.

Pexton is optimistic here, implying that readers are ready to pay for a web-friendly version of the news. Rather than continuing to fret about adding web elements to selected stories in ways that amount to spinning their wheels in the same traditional ruts, though, newspapers need to begin thinking in a way that makes the product more relevant to local audiences — both in print and online.

In print, that means filling the paper with Associated Press content that readers can find for free on Yahoo! is a poor strategy, at best. By publishing so much wire content in the daily paper, there is no incentive for a local audience (or the niche that 95% of newspapers are trying to appeal to) to pay for the product.

Online, that means a few blogs and some half-hearted attempts at video are not enough to push audiences to turn to newspapers as their prime source of news again. At the moment, those are only distractions that appeal to niche segments of a newspapers’ general focus audience, meaning they hinder the basic mission of telling each story as well as it can be told.

In order to turn these disparate elements into an effective news mechanism, newspapers must consider first and foremost the way individual stories are presented and, more importantly, updated on their own websites.

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