Wemple Looks Into Post/Post.com Divide

The Washington City Paper’s Erik Wemple has an excellent piece about the Washington Post/washingtonpost.com divide, including lots of good cat-fighty stories. For those who can’t read all 6,500 words, here’s some nuggets (after the jump…):

  • (On the Post’s Walter Reed story…)

    One problem, though: Priest’s report was on NBC Nightly News, not on the paper’s multimedia pipe. Priest had a contract with NBC and occasionally collaborated with the network on her stories. Several weeks before the Walter Reed package was slated to run in the Post, she approached her NBC producer about the project.

    How much notice did she give washingtonpost.com? “Anne and I basically didn’t tell them anything about the project until two days before it was going to run,” says Priest.

  • At the Post, those tussles pop up in just about every corner of the operation. Call your sources one day and hear about the national desk going toe-to-toe with dot-com over political coverage. The next, it’s Style all pissed off that the section has no eponymous roost on washingtonpost.com’s global navigation bar (it’s called “Arts & Living”). And don’t even ask about the out-of-control comments function or how the dot-com people (under)play stories on the home page.

    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 geographic separation takes its toll on the Post in two ways. It causes frequent communication breakdowns whose remedies invariably involve costly investments in training and outreach, and it creates overlapping functions in which both the print and online operations assign reporters to the same beats. The result is waste, a luxury that no newspaper, including the Post, can afford in this era of slumping print circulation and advertising. …

    Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. brushes off talk about calling in the movers. The two operations, he says, are working together more closely than ever, and there’s plenty of evidence behind the claim. Key newsroom editors have moved across the river to join washingtonpost.com; an estimated 15 percent of the activity in the Post newsroom goes to Web-only presentations; and Web producers are getting earlier and more complete involvement in print projects. The Post’s sports writers, too, have verily launched a downtown subsidiary of washingtonpost.com via extensive participation in blogs, chats, and videos.

  • But why was this gung-ho group working so far from the Post?

    The company line is that Don Graham, then the Post’s publisher, wanted the new online operation to innovate, to explore the vast Internet free from the retrograde tugs of a hidebound newsroom. “[He] believed, wisely, that this was a different medium, and this was an opportunity to create and take advantage of a new medium,” says Douglas Feaver, who ran the editorial side of washingtonpost.com from 1998 through early 2005.

    It’s awfully convenient when a fancy organizational theory camouflages a cutthroat motivation for corporate behavior. And in this case, that would be union-busting. If Graham’s only goal was incubation, he could have placed the web people just around the corner from 15th and L.

    Instead, he chose Virginia, a state with a right-to-work law and its attendant obstacles to union organizing. Remember–the Post is a company that earned its viability in part by crushing a 1975 strike by the pressmen’s union, a grueling affair that involved standard old-school union thuggery and a bunch of Post execs doing menial chores to keep the enterprise running. Management still does battle with the various unions that represent workers in the downtown office, including the newsroom guild.

    Why go through the same thing with the Internet operation? “The guild was the only remotely plausible reason to keep the two apart,” says a Post source.

  • These Arlington-based professionals work in a place that they commonly refer to as a “newsroom,” a point that short-circuits longtime Posties. “They have this thing called the news desk,” says one. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not what our news desk does.”

  • Newsroom staffers have long deplored what they view as Celebritology’s Tiffany-spot status on the site, scoffing at how the blog would often get “stripped across the top” of the Post’s home page, in the words of one staffer.

    “The Web site has clearly decided that Celebritology is where it’s at,” observes Style writer Hank Stuever.

    Other objections go to taste, or how Celebritology rarely does original reporting and links to tabloid-style sources that wouldn’t meet dead-tree standards.

  • Occasionally he teams with a political reporter from the newsroom, and the resulting byline is a tribute to bureaucracy:

      “Romney Homes In on a Message That Will Stick”
      By Michael D. Shear and Chris Cillizza
      Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
      Thursday, January 10, 2008

    Downie has quite an explanation for how this happens. First off, Cillizza is a washingtonpost.com employee, Downie says, and so the byline merely conveys the right information. Plus, leaving the “.com” in his byline accomplishes towering managerial imperatives. “[It’s] also for the sake of psychic reward for the people who work at washingtonpost.com–to show them that it is valued in print in the Washington Post to be a washingtonpost.com person,” says Downie.

  • Reporters and editors at the Post have been making special trips just to understand what their dot-com counterparts are up to. By the end of 2007, Web site management had herded 75 Posties through a special three-day training program for just this purpose. “It totally demystified the Web site for them,” says Brady. “People come away saying, ‘I didn’t understand what you did.'” The news staff at the Post numbers roughly 800, so once Brady drags 725 more bodies through his offices, everyone will be on the same page.