Newspapers are embracing the Web with the manic enthusiasm of a convert. The Internet revenue of newspaper Web sites is increasing at 20 percent to 30 percent a year, and publishers are doing everything they can to boost Web traffic. Publishers know they are in a race against time, they are suddenly doing many things that their Internet competitors do, and often better.
The irony is that in their haste both to cut newsroom costs and ramp up Web operations, some newspapers are slashing newsroom staff and running the survivors ragged. At many dailies, today’s reporter is often pressed into Web service: writing frequent updates on breaking stories, wire-service fashion; posting blog items; and conducting interviews with a video camera. If journalism is degraded into mere bloggery, newspapers will lose their competitive advantage, not to mention their journalistic calling.
That is a deeper problem at papers with the deepest cost-cutting and layoffs. At the quality dailies, which are adding Web staff, most reporters, after initial hesitancy, have embraced the new hybrid news model. “This is our salvation,” says Steve Pearlstein, a longtime business reporter at The Washington Post. “Most people around here say, ‘Bring it on.’ ” In my interviews, I expected mixed reviews of the hybrid life, but found nothing but enthusiasm.
And if most reporters are taking happily to the Web, the several editors I interviewed are positively euphoric. Five years ago, editors were haltingly and grudgingly adding a few bloggers and chat features, because the Web was something that had to be lived with. “It wasn’t very long ago that I and a lot of other people in the newsroom were worried about the competition from the Web, and its effect on the journalism,” says Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post. “We were wrong. The Web is not the distraction we feared it would be, and all the feedback improves the journalism.” For example, for several months last year, the Post ran a highly praised series called “Being a Black Man.” The Web allowed a vivid extension of what could be done in print, including narratives, photo galleries, videos, and extensive reader involvement.
“There was an amazing difference between 1999, when I left the Post to join AOL, and 2004, when I came back to the Post,” says James Brady, the Post ’s online editor. “It went from pockets of cooperation to pockets of resistance.” The Post, says Brady, saw the Web as a huge expansion opportunity in part because its print readership was almost entirely local. Today it’s Web readership is 83 percent national and international. Washingtonpost.com now has about eighty-five people on its Web editorial staff, and roughly another forty technical people, plus dozens more techies shared with Newsweek and Slate.
Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor in charge of integrating print and Web at The New York Times, says blogging can often help a print reporter think through a story. “Many of these print and Web activities are mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict,” he says.
Where print and Web are integrated at the Times, the Post still has its separate Internet operation across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. This was set up over a decade ago, partly so that the Post could pay young Webbies nonunion wages in a right-to-work state. However, as New York University’s Jay Rosen observes, allowing a separate Web culture to emerge outside the Post’s print culture turns out to have been shrewd. “Today, most of us would like to see one newsroom,” says the Post’s Pearlstein. “But if we had been in charge of the Web back then, we would have screwed it up.”
By most accounts, the Post leads the nation’s print papers in its use of the Web’s interactive potential with readers. To a far greater extent than the Times, it offers readers live, real-time talkbacks with reporters. “At first,” says Brady, “the reaction was, ‘I already get enough crap. Where am I going to find another hour to read all this stuff?’ ” But reporters soon found that readers who linked to talkback features had at least read the story, and the Web generally produced higher-quality feedback than reader mail.