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:
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.
UPDATE: I’ve received a response:
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.
Washington Post Ombudsman
I have also responded by sending the following:
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.