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.
Especially in an age of mobile devices, our goal must be to offer people information relevant to where they are, who they are, what they are doing, and what they’re interested in. Nobody understands that better that Jeff Bezos—who also, conveniently, has the money to do something about it.
And there is still no single group of people more capable of discovering, remembering and communicating useful information than the denizens of a newsroom, especially when you take into account such factors as trust and context. (See my paean to the value of beat reporters.)
The editorial possibilities are enormous. But for an industry dying for want of a revenue model, the revenue implications are even greater.
Since a goodly chunk of this enormous, targeted torrent of information that people want relates to things they may have to spend money on, if we do this right we can actually return to the role that historically was so lucrative for our industry: connecting buyers and sellers.
When it comes to advertising, we’ve been spending most of our creative energy coming up with new and even more infuriating and unblockable ways to get between the user and what they’re looking for.
But with Bezosian technology—technology that helps us know our users and serve them appropriate content—we could, instead, offer up advertising our users would actually be interested in.
Consider, for instance, that one advantage we have over Craigslist is that Craig only knows what you want when you search for it. If we understand our users sufficiently, we can offer them opportunities to buy things they don’t even know they want, or things they’ve been looking for that are suddenly on sale, or things that people like them are buying.
A Washington Post mobile app that completely adjusts to who you are and where you are could combine editorial information, data, and reviews with advertiser-provided information about where the things you like are available for purchase, and for how much. Let’s encourage issue and financial advertisers to create products that take note of what the readers are interested in, and engage with them by posing and answering relevant questions.
There’s also huge public-service potential from embracing the medium in ways that have been beyond us in the past. It goes back to what Don Graham said about the glue. Ironically enough, in this technological era, it may be that only by successfully serving a fragmented audience can we uphold our mission of bringing people together.
Profiles of people in the neighborhood or engaged in civic acts used to be a staple of local news, and for good reason. Perhaps we can use our new abilities to encourage our readers to get to know each other based on shared interests—or on their diversity of interests.
If we know what people care about, we can help them express themselves and even empower them as citizens. We can help make local organizations and governments more responsive. We can help them make communities stronger.
If we’re able to create news and information sites that connect people with each other in a way that they welcome and that adds value to their and others’ experiences, we’ve accomplished both Graham’s and Kaiser’s goals—and more.
Maybe I’m just a little giddy with the possibilities, after so many years of relentless decline. But now I can at least fantasize about armies of visionary journalists working together with armies of eager developers, toward the goal of reinvention.