Twenty-one years ago, in 1992, former Washington Post managing editor Robert Kaiser typed out a famously prescient memo describing his conclusions after attending an Apple-organized conference on the future of “multimedia.”
Kaiser urged the Post to be at the forefront of the oncoming digital revolution. And at Washingtonpost.com, where I worked from 1997 to 2003, we made some noble efforts. We pioneered live discussions. We used every then-cutting-edge tactic to immerse readers in the Monica Lewinsky affair and Clinton impeachment—arguably the first great Internet news story. We were, for a while, neck and neck with The New York Times in online reach.
Back at Post headquarters in downtown DC, meanwhile, the big news was the purchase of modern printing presses that for the first time would allow the paper to print color photography—and to create zoned editions for customers in different parts of the circulation area.
One day, I think in late 1998, Kaiser and then-publisher Don Graham stopped by our offices, which were “across the river” in Arlington, VA. I asked them: If your presses could actually zone the paper by ZIP code—or even smaller increments—how different would you want the front pages in distant places to be?
Not very, Graham said. I remember his exact words: “We are the glue that holds the community together.” Some readers might find a more geographically appropriate story or two on their front page than readers elsewhere, he said, but by and large, all would share an essentially similar experience.
When it was his turn, Kaiser said that given the chance, he’d want them to be very different indeed, as a reflection of people’s desire for news that matters to them.
Both views have merit. A great newsroom doesn’t just cover its community; it gives that community a shared knowledge base, reflects and shapes its concerns, holds its leaders accountable, and gives it a sense of identity. It provides a public service.
But different people care about different things, and if a news organization has the opportunity to offer its readers what they are actually looking for—in addition to what, in the editors’ judgment, they need to know—it would be crazy to refuse.
As it happens, the print paper went on to create a grand total of three zoned editions for its extraordinarily wide and diverse circulation area. Back when I used to compare them, they were largely indistinguishable.
Despite the enormous potential to slice and dice online, the website did no better—worse, actually. Today, Washingtonpost.com comes in only two flavors: “US” or “regional.”
And neither the paper nor the website were ever able to achieve what both Kaiser and Graham at various times correctly identified as the single most important fiduciary goal for the company: to somehow protect its wildly lucrative classified-ad franchise.
So here we are, many years and a lot of missed opportunities later. This week, the Grahams finally—and altruistically, in some ways—recognized that they weren’t going to be able to cut their way to success.
And the Post very suddenly has a new owner whose expertise is precisely in serving people’s specific tastes and needs, even while using that information to make a better experience for everyone.
It’s very exciting. I had thought it was too late for newsrooms to stake out their rightful place as nerve centers for the Internet, but I’m not so sure anymore.
Historically, one of the big stumbling blocks to our success online has been what I consider a failure of journalistic nerve. That’s why my latest venture, FearlessMedia.org, is a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting journalism that fights deception, holds the powerful accountable, and holds an honest mirror up to society, rather than insipidly splitting the difference between what’s true and what’s not, treating public policy like a game, and writing without a compelling voice. (Elsewhere, I’ll address what Bezos can do to about those things. In the meantime, this collection of little essays from 2009 offers some suggestions.)
But the even bigger factor kneecapping us online has been our failure to truly embrace the medium. We neither deliver the value of our newsrooms to Internet users, nor bring the value of Internet users into to our newsrooms.
What we should have done, starting the minute Kaiser sent around his memo, was enlist legions of forward-thinking journalists to work alongside legions of eager developers and reinvent online news. Instead, we had too few journalists working with inadequate technological support, for overcautious bosses.
As a result, we were left in the dust by technology companies with visionary leaders and armies of developers, who did amazing things—first with commoditized data and then with user-provided data. After a while, it seemed like our ever-dwindling newsrooms simply had no chance to catch up.
But now, maybe, we have an outside shot.