The Washington City Paper this week published an extensive profile of the online strategy used by The Washington Post. Called, “One Mission, Two Newsrooms,” the piece details how the Post has built an entirely separate newsroom for the online staff across the river in Arlington, Va. While the online team has flourished, and developed a number of innovations, the profile notes that this arrangement has led to tension between the old newsroom in the city and the dot-com operation.
The story kicks off with an extended anecdote about how Dana Priest and Anne Hull kept their big investigative series on Walter Reed Hospitals secret from the Web staff, in large part because they didn’t know their counterparts and therefore, didn’t trust them:
“Priest’s candid words flesh out a melodrama to which just about every newspaper across the country is contributing a chapter or two. It’s all about control—the news people and the Web people are grappling over who hires whom, who edits what, who pays for what, and who gets what first.”
“The entertaining part of the drama lies in the pronouns. Whether the griper works as a newsie or a techie, the finger-pointing always targets “those people,” “those folks,” and other, less polite, designations. When the topic is washingtonpost.com, “we” generally takes a breather.”
“The scrum for control of the Washington Post’s future, after all, shuffles back and forth across the Potomac River. Priest, Hull, and hundreds of other Post editorial types work downtown. Their dot-com associates, meanwhile, do their biz in the Arlington offices of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), the online publishing subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. (WPNI also manages Newsweek.com, Slate, BudgetTravel.com, Sprig.com, and TheRoot.com.) Via subway, the trip spans five stops and a total of 20 minutes . By car, you’re looking at 16 minutes over 3.4 miles in optimal traffic conditions. Whatever the mode, the trek deters all but dedicated Web-paper collaborators. “The way traffic is these days, it takes half a day just to get out there,” says Lucian Perkins, a longtime photographer for the Post.”
The Post’s approach raises a lot of interesting points for debate. A number of bloggers kicked off this year by calling for radical change in the culture of newsrooms. That may seem self evident from folks sitting on the outside, but it’s incredibly difficult for folks working inside those newsrooms. The cultural inertia is intense. So despite some drawbacks, there seems to me to be a certain logic to the Post’s approach. Rather than hoping the revolution will come from within, maybe the best way to go is to start a separate operation from the ground up that’s free of the cultural baggage. And then let these folks storm your castle from the outside.
Of course, this is not the approach that’s in vogue at most major newspapers. The City Paper’s story notes that a couple of other major newspapers tried and then dropped this approach:
“Other papers, meanwhile, have abandoned the Post’s separate-but-unequal model. A year ago, the Los Angeles Times integrated its news and Web functions after an internal report called the paper “Web-stupid.” The New York Times began combining its Web-paper operations in August 2005 and accelerated the process when it moved to a new building last spring. “It’s very much a two-way street,” says Jonathan Landman, the Times’ deputy managing editor and top editorial voice on the Web site.”
My personal bias has been to put the online operations at the heart of the newsroom, to establish a mindset and workflow that puts the online operation first and forces everyone to get involved. But maybe the Post has it right: Keep them separate. Let the online group be free to flourish and innovate.
What do you think? Keep them separate? Integrate?