Innovation gone bad

The best of the worst ideas in media experimentation

The brain trust at Tribune Publishing knew that modern-day economics don’t work for regional newspapers. So they had to innovate. Thus was born tronc, the new name for Tribune Publishing. tronc stands for “Tribune online content,” and should be capitalized under no circumstance whatsoever—even when it’s the first word in a sentence.

The lower-case name, the pledge to use artificial intelligence in the production of news, and the online promotional video seemed straight out of The Office, and all made tronc a comfortable punch line. 

But snicker at your own risk. The privations of the past decade and a half have unleashed nothing if not a stream of flimsy would-be innovations. They come in all forms, from new ways of deploying editorial resources to strategies for creating audience to interesting ways to exploit the power and lucre of video. And that’s before we even start talking about native advertising.

So many of the approaches have fizzled (including the expected purchase of tronc by Gannett) that, as a public service, we offer this starter list of Media-Innovation-Don’ts.


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Back in 2011, Politico landed a scoop about the sexual harassment allegations by former colleagues of Republican presidential contender Herman Cain. In deference to privacy considerations, Politico didn’t publish the names of the complainants.

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That left an opening for The Daily, a news site launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. With scant sourcing, The Daily outed a Cain accuser in a quickie profile, sparking one of those perennial journalism ethics debates.

What sticks with me, though, is how hard it was to procure a copy of The Daily’s scoop. This Murdoch innovation launched as an iPad-only subscription affair, though it later branched out to other devices. What’s the opposite of platform agnosticism? Platform determinism? In any case, this platform-challenged site never reached its second birthday. 


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The graybeards at most US newspapers organized rear-guard opposition to the changes wrought by the digital revolution. Linking? Hell no! Aggregation? My work is better! Fearing the old-timers would pound the digital set into submission, The Washington Post situated its print and internet operations on different sides of the Potomac River, so instead of snarking at each other over email from the same building, they snarked at one another over email from a distance of a few miles.

Emissaries from Arlington routinely drove to the Post’s downtown offices to fight in person. For readers, the split accomplished some good things, including an early embrace of blogs and chats and early Web video. Yet no modern media organization could sustain the overhead of two separate HQs. So the company merged them by late 2010. The process took more than a year.


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To its credit, HuffPost Live organized long and detailed discussions of the news. To its discredit, HuffPost Live organized long and detailed discussions of the news with a transparent and ghastly attempt to be hip. There were cool couches and accents flying all over the set. There was a casual prefab vibe. The business model boiled down to: Let’s get Glenn Greenwald again! Those considerations may not explain why HuffPost Live—which launched in 2012—didn’t work, but it most certainly didn’t. By January 2016, then-Huffington Post boss Arianna Huffington bailed on the notion of a digital news site running eight hours of daily public-affairs livestreaming. It turns out that doing cable television isn’t quite as easy as cable television makes it look. 


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TBD.com accomplished an unfortunate symmetry: It spent about as much time in its pre-launch phase soaking up hype about revolutionizing news as it did as a viable journalistic outfit.

Announced in 2009 by Allbritton Communications Co., the startup was headed by General Manager Jim Brady, previously the captain of The Washington Post’s Web operation. Other top editors included Steve Buttry, a digital evangelist whose work at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earned him an editor-of-the-year award from Editor & Publisher; Paul Volpe of The Washington Post; and me. 

We were all white males overseeing a newsroom of two dozen journalists. And we never had a chance. Little more than three months in, Brady was booted. About three months after that, we cut half the staff. From there, it was a slow attrition-paced march toward defunctness. The same media critics who’d raved about our prospects before launch ripped Allbritton’s top executives after the demise.

There are only pennies to be earned in local digital journalism. Where big-money advertisers once thrived, there are now chains that don’t deal with small-fry operations. Those that have stuck around plow much of their advertising into their own social media and Web promotions. If TBD.com was ahead of its time, it was way ahead of its time. 


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Upon launching the news app Circa in 2011, Matt Galligan said, “A lot of what we’re doing is entirely new and I don’t say that lightly.” Not to mention: “We’re trying to make it so that people educate themselves for five minutes as opposed to playing Angry Birds.” The concept was to “atomize” the news by breaking stories into pieces and blasting them out to users of the app. Abandon the article, in other words. Turns out, people like articles.


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Politico had great success with the 2011 launch of Politico Pro, a premium subscription offering for Washington lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants interested in policy topics such as tech, transportation, healthcare, and others. There wasn’t great risk in jumping into deep and paywalled policy reporting, considering that outlets like National Journal and Congressional Quarterly had been doing it for years. The question was whether the model could jump the Beltway. 

Starting in February 2014, the gang at Capital Media Pro, a New York-based arm of Politico, put its morning newsletter—along with some news coverage—behind a paywall. A bit more than two years later, it reversed course, moving the premium stuff onto the free Web. The change, said Politico Media editor Tom McGeveran in a Variety interview, was “good for business in that it will expand our relationship with Politico readers and bring in new ones.” Which is to say that not enough New York and Washington media elites wanted to pay thousands of dollars for one outlet’s media coverage.


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News organizations have long agonized over how to present themselves on the Web. Should they emphasize social media engagement? Exclusively original reporting? A bunch of email newsletters? 

Or just bag the whole thing? That’s what The Current Newspapers did. A cluster of free weeklies that cover the well-to-do and gentrifying sections of Washington, DC, the Current papers simply don’t have a website, outside of some PDFs of their print product (and presence on issuu.com).

Why so Luddite? A Web presence, Current Publisher Davis Kennedy said in 2008, “is a major investment. How much revenue comes in from that versus the cost?” Perhaps Kennedy should have checked that out for himself: About a year ago, he appealed to his readership for voluntary payments to defray the costs of printing and delivering the Current products. “The support we receive from voluntary subscriptions and from our advertisers, new and old, is essential if we are to continue to give you the community news you need and deserve.” 


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The Daily Download was a site that covered “media and social media” under the stewardship of Lauren Ashburn, who had worked at USA Today and local television news. Launched in January 2012, the site became known for its videos of Ashburn and then-CNN host and Daily Beast Washington bureau chief Howard Kurtz. The MO called for lots of chatting, some giggling, and very little insight. When Kurtz wasn’t exchanging thoughts with Ashburn on the Daily Download, he was doing it on his own CNN program, where she was a frequent guest. That Kurtz was stretched too thin became clear when he mangled a key fact about gay NBA player Jason Collins in a Daily Beast story and in a Daily Download video. Questions about his roles in these organizations hounded the onetime Washington Post reporter, who would soon leave all three: He moved from CNN’s media show to a new one at Fox News, where Ashburn joined him for a time; he was fired from the Daily Beast; and the Daily Download closed. As it turned out, the Daily Download subsisted on $600,000 of grants and equipment—a phenomenal business model.


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Fox News generates $1.5 billion in annual profits. FoxNews.com has the look and feel of a website belonging to a company that generates $1.5 billion in annual losses. It’s a jumble of text, poorly positioned photos, and links that might have been impressive in 1997. And it’s a legacy of Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief who lost his post this summer over a sexual harassment scandal. 

Whereas other television executives would at least pay lip service to the importance of the internet, Ailes joked that his people weren’t inclined to “tell people to turn off their television set and go to their computer to get more information.” Cockiness of that sort stemmed from a decade and a half at the top of the cable TV ratings, thanks to a viewership that skews old, conservative, and loyal. Median prime-time viewer age for Fox News is 68, which prompts some analysts to think the network is dying.

“Fox News’s present-day strength is its future weakness: Its success is concentrated among men well into their retirement,” writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. “There is no polite way to say this, so one might as well be explicit: People don’t live forever. If the future of your business relies on a dramatic and sudden extension of average human life spans, your 10-year outlook is murky.” Oh, but if the United States has been efficient at one thing, it’s replacing its population of older white conservative men with a fresh population of older white conservative men. The real trouble for Fox News isn’t that its audience is old; it’s that future generations—and their conservative subsets—will be less and less wedded to television. On this front, Ailes’s departure represents an opportunity for FoxNews.com. 

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Erik Wemple is a media reporter and critic at The Washington Post, where he writes the Erik Wemple blog. Prior to joining the Post, he worked for the Washington-area local-news site TBD.com, and before that served for eight years as the editor of Washington City Paper.