GM: Setting aside the revenue question, what are the biggest remaining challenges for newspapers in terms of continuing to make the transition editorially to the Web and developing the culture that’s needed to do that?
JB: I think that’s the problem, developing the culture. What the recession has done in the last year is to force people to put their eye back on the print side of the operation, because it is still throwing off a lot more money than the Web. My own fear is that in the last year I’ve seen a lot less innovation journalistically on the Web than we saw the previous couple of years. I felt like we’d turned the corner. The Times had launched their R&D unit, they were doing all this really cool stuff—which they still are. But a lot of other organizations were starting to hire people, more videographers, more database developers, and were putting more emphasis on getting the journalists who were at the newspaper doing stuff for the Web site. I feel like that’s taken a step back with the financial tsunami that’s hit in the last year. It seems like there’s less innovation going on across the board in newsrooms right now. That’s probably the biggest concern, is that the recession set the transition to the Web back.
And my issue with the Post specifically was not that they merged newsrooms, it was that they merged them in a way that gave the Web very little ability to innovate and to push into new areas. The line I keep using is that in any newsroom structure, the Web has to be positioned in a way that it can do things that will make the print side uncomfortable. It’s got to have enough autonomy that it can push into technologies in new areas and make the newsroom go, ‘Do we really want to be on Twitter?’ You’ve got to take some risks, you’ve got to play on some new playgrounds. And when you have to run all those questions through a print structure, often the answer is no, or it takes a really long time to get to an answer.
And I guess that’s the other thing I’m starting to see across the industry right now, is that the Web side collectively at news sites seems to have a lot less freedom than it did two or three years ago, largely because it’s a victim of its own success. Web sites grew, revenue at the Web sites grew, it became increasingly clear that the Web was the future, and I think at that point there was a decision made at a lot of newspaper companies that the newspaper has to run this thing, it’s just gotten too important. And I’m not sure that was good for innovation.
GM: So actually be separated institutionally was beneficial, in terms of fostering innovation?
JB: To me it’s less about separation than it is about autonomy. The Web site, even under one editor who runs the whole newsroom, needs to be given enough freedom to aggressively try some new things, and I think that’s what’s been lost. It’s less of a separation of the newsroom, because I think that comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. But once you bring the Web into the newsroom, it needs to be separate enough within that single structure to innovate.