Respect your readers: An open letter to the Ombudsman of the Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Ombudsman recently wrote a post where he expressed several concerns about the digitally-driven newsroom.

It upset me tremendously and I sent him a response via e-mail. This is what I said:

Dear Andrew,

I read with sadness your post about making the web customer king at WaPo.

Not only is it not true that newspapers online have to resort to covering celebrities and other gimmicks to draw visitors to their website, but such an allegation is damaging to all journalists, whether they are working primarily in online or print publications. Such an allegation confirms for readers their worst possible fears about our trade. Such an allegation marginalizes the amazing public service reporting that is done by online-only or online/print hybrid news organizations. Such an allegation suggests that your reporters and your news organization cannot 1) present important reporting in a way that will interest readers and 2) promote important reporting across the Web. Finally, and perhaps most unfortunate, such an allegation betrays a lack of respect for your readership. You assume that because the whole of the Internet is searching for “LeBron,” that your readers are primarily interested in LeBron as well. How much do you actually know about what your readers are looking for? Do you do (scientific) surveys to ask them what they want? Do you ever have events for your readers where they can meet reporters and editors face to face? Do you try to run a transparent newsroom by letting readers in on what stories are being worked on and how and what readers can do to help the reporter(s)? Do your reporters interact with readers in the comments sections of their stories or, more importantly, across social networks? You see, the more respect you give to your readership, the more they will reward you with loyalty to your content. And respect doesn’t mean celeb photo galleries and LeBron stories. Respect means a real back-and-forth, a REAL and substantive concern for your readers’ needs.

As for your concern for posting incomplete stories, I share it. Guess what? Readers share it as well. The very people you are trying to serve by posting “hot-button” stories online are being alienated by your lack of detail and analysis. I’m currently conducting a series of interviews with news consumers and every single one so far has mentioned their frustration with this. People aren’t looking to legacy media organizations like yours to necessarily be the first to report the story. They are looking to you to give the most detailed, well-researched account of it and they are willing to wait a few days for that. YES, they are willing to wait. I’ve heard this from people time and time again. But every time you give them poorly checked snippets, you damage your credibility. Every time you correct an online story later, many people will never see the correction. They won’t remember that you were first. What they’ll remember is that you were wrong.

Finally, I’ll mention a panel discussion I attended not long ago about investigative reporting in the Internet age. The panelists were all important figures at major Chicago-area newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Herald, etc. The representative from the Daily Herald surprised the panel (at least I think it was a surprise to some people there) with the information that meaty, investigative stories i.e. enterprise journalism were their number one draws in online traffic. By far, he said. They blew away most other content. And why? Because the web values uniqueness. I can read a LeBron story anywhere. I can’t read a richly researched and sourced investigative piece just anywhere though. THAT kind of story is what keeps readers loyal to a news brand, not celeb or sports coverage with your masthead slapped on top of it. Please keep that in mind.

Best,

Anna Tarkov

 

UPDATE: I’ve received a response:

Ms. Tarkov, 

Thanks for writing. Your references to “your reporters” and “your organization” suggest you are unaware that I operate independent of The Post; I am not on its staff. Also, I didn’t make an “allegation.” Rather, I simply reflected what is happening at The Post. In numerous other ways, your e-mail is uninformed about The Post’s site, its audience and its business model. 

Best wishes, 

Andy Alexander

Washington Post Ombudsman

 

I have also responded by sending the following:

Mr. Alexander,

You’re right, I wasn’t aware that you operate independently of the Post. However, that fact wouldn’t have changed anything I said. I’m not sure why you think it would. Anytime I used “your” you can simply substitute “The Washington Post’s” and everything would still hold.

I also understand how you don’t feel you were making an allegation. But surely I wasn’t the only one who read what you wrote as a partial condemnation of the way things are being run. You must also realize that you’re not the first to have brought up concerns that a newsroom concerned too much with giving the readers what they want might go off the rails. If you don’t harbor such worries and didn’t mean to potentially raise the alarm, please let me know what the point of your piece was. Surely there are any number of other topics you could have addressed.

 

Finally, you alleged (I’m fairly certain I am using it correctly here) that my message demonstrated a lack of knowledge of the Post’s site, audience and business model. That is entirely possible as media organizations like the Post aren’t given to openly sharing such information. I’m not sure why you would choose not to explain this further though. If I have all these incorrect assumptions as you claim, isn’t it important for you to give me the correct information?

 

I look forward to your reply.

 

Best wishes,

 

Anna Tarkov

 

 

 

 

11 Comments

  1. Ethan Klapper July 11, 2010

    This is an interesting debate to be had. There’s no doubt that SEO practices at The Post have become a lot more prevalent in the past year.

    But exactly when is the line crossed? Should there be a line or is it OK to be ambiguous?

  2. Steve Buttry July 11, 2010

    Thoughtful criticism and questions, Anna. I’ll disagree on the coverage of breaking news, though. I think it’s a false choice between hustling to cover breaking news first (and sometimes getting something wrong) and waiting to write thoughtful, complete coverage. The solution is to be transparent about what you know and what you don’t know and about your verification process.

  3. Anna Tarkov July 11, 2010

    Ethan, that’s a great question. I think the answer should be determined by thinking about a publication’s business goals. Would those goals best be served by increased traffic in the short-term or a long-term strategy of building trust with key audiences? The jury might still be out on this at WaPo and elsewhere. Of course you must know that I favor the latter :)

    Steve, I completely agree. However, the complaints I’ve been hearing from people are that the thoughtful coverage with more background and analysis never comes or if it does, readers have a difficult time finding it online to say nothing of print. There is often no linkage between the two. Obviously this isn’t a huge issue if someone reads the longer report and they never saw the breaking news item. But you can see how it’s a concern when the breaking news item is seen, but not the in-depth story. Perhaps the problem is that newspapers, TV stations, etc. all push breaking news so much online and indeed that IS what many are looking for on certain platforms, namely Twitter. What I’d like to see is an equal effort to push the more substantial reporting. As more and more people consume their news digitally, they might not be aware of its existence if not for the efforts of news orgs to aggressively get it out there.

  4. Ethan Klapper July 11, 2010

    For WaPo, seems they’re favoring the short-term option, given their October traffic goal!

  5. Anna Tarkov July 11, 2010

    And do you happen to know what that traffic goal is? :)

  6. Ethan Klapper July 11, 2010

    Nope :-(. Sorry!

  7. Anonymous July 11, 2010

    Anna, I enjoyed your post, but I’d emphatically side with the Washington Post about fluff news. Whatever it takes to boost earnings to subsidize serious reporting! Don’t confuse the reader survey with ESP, however useful it is. What if some interviewees are just telling us what they think journalists want to hear? In your comments, I do see evidence of at least some flexibility when it come short-term business goals. Great.

    On another traffic-building topic, I think that Steve Buttry at TBD.com, the local startup in the D.C. area, is right on target about the need for news organizations to stay on top of breaking stories–just so they level with readers about solid vs. iffy stuff. Already the Post to some extent is doing what Steve has in mind. It may run some less than complete stories as blog items rather than regular news articles. As I recall, the Post even uses the term “Breaking news blog.” If anything, I’d like to see more of this. We’re in the Web era, after all, and the Post needs to stay competitive. Readers aren’t dummies. They know what’s going on. A genuine Web paper and freshly stocked iPad-style apps for online readers, please, not a quasi-pulped-wood approach.

    Your original post is so, so right, however, on another issue–the traffic-drawing potential of serious journalism, including what you call “richly researched and sourced investigative piece(s)” among other articles. The Post so far has missed out on some valuable opportunities to reinvent its local operation to provide more thorough and thoughtful news and opinion. Same nationally. Meanwhile I’m eager to learn more about what TBD will be doing via its local blog network.

    I have my own ideas. Check out the URL below for “How TBD could use hyperlocal journalism to kick the Washington Post’s butt.” Steve calls my plan ambitious, and it is even though I don’t see everything happening at once. If the far-better-funded Post Company wants to adapt the same strategy, that’s fine by me! I’m just calling the shots as I see ’em.

    For now, with just a fraction of the Post Company’s resources available, TBD seems to understand the Web in much more depth than the L Street does even if both competitors could do better. Even by traditional journalistic standards, the Post’s coverage of Alexandria, VA.–my city–is pathetically lacking online. TBD, if it executes well, could help fill a huge hole. Perhaps the same for the Post with enough open-mindedness about the Web? See the “Kick Butt” piece for specifics. This local vision should jibe in many ways with your plea for substantive journalism, even if the look of it will differ considerably from the dead-tree variety.

    David Rothman

    http://www.solomonscandals.com/?p=6669
    (including some references to Adrian Holovaty’s
    great EveryBlock efforts there in Chicago and other
    cities)

  8. Anonymous July 12, 2010

    Hi Anna, interesting post and an important discussion.

    I agree to an extent. But there’s no reason organizations can’t do both “fluff” + serious. At HuffPost we call it “high brow” and “low brow” content. We provide the best of both, and you decide what you want to read.

    As for Washington Post specifically, putting LeBron on the front page, I’m not sure that’s what WaPo readers want, so I agree with you questioning that.

    But overall, I don’t see a reason they can’t have that content somewhere on the site, even if just for SEO to help their goals. As long as it’s not complete garbage and they handle it professionally.

  9. Anna Tarkov July 12, 2010

    Craig, I agree that there is a place for both fluff and serious stuff. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that HuffPo is a very different sort of animal than WaPo in many ways. So while I think that giving people both types of content on HuffPo and giving them the ability to choose works there, it wouldn’t work for an outlet that is supposed to be leading the conversation in the way that WaPo probably believes they do (or should). It’s like going to the supermarket (HuffPo) vs, say, a healthy/natural food store like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. I expect to find unhealthy food at the supermarket and am not bothered by it. I WOULD however be bothered by it at the TJ’s or Whole Foods. See what I’m saying?

  10. Anonymous July 12, 2010

    You are spot on, Anna. Frankly, people can get superficial breaking news in a million places, but in-depth coverage of important issues is much, much harder to find. My experience as a hyperlocal blogger indicates that people are hungry for stories that provide detail and analysis — articles that promise them the “real story.” And they are willing to”wait” for that, in my experience.

    I built my site not by always being first or by covering everything, but by giving readers stories they weren’t getting anywhere else and providing a forum for lively discussion.

    Unlike the old newspaper model — where you subscribed to the Trib *or* the Sun-Times, I don’t expect my site to be the *only* local news site my readers visit, as long as they visit it every day (and they do).

    I’m frustrated that so many news organizations (especially local ones) apparently see their online role as giving readers exactly what they can get someplace else. How is that a business model?

    The internet is tailor-made for breaking stories and adding multiple updates and, of course, news organizations have a responsibility to provide that information. However, a lot of us got into this business because we want to provide substantive journalism and there definitely is a place for that on the web, too.

    I sometimes feel like the quest to be first with a story is more a throw-back to the old days of street sales and extras than a considered response to the interests of today’s online reader. That reader may well be interested in the story of the moment, but my experience (and the Herald’s) indicates they want much, much more.

  11. Anonymous July 12, 2010

    Yep, I follow completely. Don’t disagree.

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