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.
It’s very hard to innovate when you’ve given the keys to the castle to people who just haven’t spent any time thinking about how journalism’s different on the Web. I always say that if The Washington Post went and bought a TV station tomorrow, it would never suggest that the newspaper management team should run the TV station, right? It would just assume that’s a different thing. I think the Web suffers a little bit because enough of it’s similar that there’s a perception that people who run print sides can easily run the Web side. And it’s a very different medium, a very different relationship with readers. The technology allows you to target readers much more directly than you can with a general-interest publication; storytelling is different via multimedia. It’s not as different as TV, but it’s not as similar as people think.
GM: Last question. Can you talk about one or two things you’ve seen newspapers put out on the Web in the last year or so that have really impressed you?
JB: The body of work the Times has done this year has been pretty impressive. Some of the work they’ve done building the Represent tool, the Debate Tracker tool, the Document Reader, which makes it very easy to take source documents and put them up on the Web. These are all things that are not necessarily single stories, but they’re underpinnings of a whole new way of being able to communicate information with readers.
The LA Times has had a good year in terms of building traffic, and they’ve done some really strong stuff around entertainment. You know who actually does some really interesting stuff on the Web, though they’re not a newspaper, is the Center for Public Integrity. They’ve done a couple really good special reports on tobacco and on the financial crisis, very heavy on investigative, database-driven stuff. And ProPublica’s ChangeTracker thing—somewhere down the road, that tool is going to help break something big.
So I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on. It’s just that two years ago I saw a wave washing up, it looked like this was the wave that’s going to finally be the game-changer, and it seems like it’s receded back a little bit.