On Innovation

Friday, Patrick Pexton, Washington Post Ombudsman, wrote an attention-grabbing article titled “Is The Post Innovating too fast?” It received swift and almost universal condemnation. It deserved to be criticized, but I also think the response overlooks some of the column’s good points.

First, let me say I have a number of friends who work at the Post. Many are among the “innovators” who go unnamed in Pexton’s piece. They do great work and should be commended for rescuing a culture that once thrived at the Post under Jim Brady and then was allowed to languish after his departure.

But, stipulating that the headline was reductionist and incendiary (and, as journalists, we all know the author almost certainly did not write the headline), the response the piece provoked seemed out of proportion to the questions raised.

Among the points Pexton makes, the most persuasive to me was when he wrote that “Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand.” Given that a news organization’s currency is its credibility, this seems reasonable to raise and question.

The article implies that two such “innovations,” namely the “She the People” blog and the @mentionmachine feature, fall into that category. That’s a subjective judgment and would be worth exploring in greater depth. Indeed, Pexton’s article would have served readers well if it had engaged in a meaningful critique of these new features, instead of a broad complaint about “the speed of innovation.”

However, Pexton doesn’t explore this issue beyond making the inference. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a drive-by shooting. Even if Pexton is correct, though, such features aren’t a function of innovation moving too quickly, but of the quality of ideas or execution. It’s not how fast something is done, it’s how well.

Which leads us to the question of quality control. Pexton says a reader wrote to point out that given “recent spelling mistakes, grammatical mishaps and factual errors,…Why do all the new gewgaws, bells, whistles and features when The Post can’t even get the basics right.”
It’s fair to challenge the Post on maintaining standards. And, there might be a valid argument that the Post is cutting copy editing staff to do other things. But, that argument isn’t made in Pexton’s piece, nor is any data offered to support such a claim.

A less compelling point comes when Pexton says, “I know from talking to folks in the newsroom that all the change may be exhausting the staff, too. Many of these innovations require considerable staff time, as well as more time from editors and reporters to monitor them.” This is probably true. At the same time, so what? Post editors and reporters make considerably more than their peers at other organizations. And it’s not as if their jobs are that demanding.

I remember interviewing a shrimper outside of New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. After explaining to me how the hurricane just destroyed his livelihood (a life where it took everything he could just to make ends meet), he looked at me and asked, “So, this is what you do, huh?”

That’s how I feel about the complaint that innovation “may be exhausting the staff.” I’m pretty sure there are many journalists who would be happy to take their places.

Pexton sums up his article by saying, “I want The Post to continue to innovate. It’s important for the publication’s survival. Many of these changes are working.” Then he adds, “there’s a time to press on the accelerator, and a time to ease off. Substance, clarity and direction will be more important in the long run than buzz. Take a breather lap, Post.”

It’s this ending that, I think, has people most annoyed. First, it’s a straw man argument. He might as well say, “We can’t innovate *and* do good work. We can do one or the other.” That’s demonstrably false, as shown in recent years by the Las Vegas Sun, the New York Times and elsewhere.

Second, it’s a basic misunderstanding of what “innovation” is. It’s about taking advantage of the dynamic platform and changing technologies and responding to a industry that is undergoing massive and rapid change. It’s not about some new blog or some goofy widget.

Craig Silverman, writing on Poynter’s site, quotes the Post’s managing editor for digital, Raju Narisetti, saying, “We have to continue to build loyalty and engagement on the Web, on mobile devices and in social media, the only places where readership will grow. Because of that, our newsroom — both in its thinking and structure — needs to be in a relatively permanent ‘beta’ mode as we learn, adapt and lead. This isn’t change for change sake.”

That’s exactly right. Unfortunately, neither Poynter nor Narisetti addresses Pexton’s questions about the quality of ideas or how to maintain journalistic standards.

Ultimately, for me, that’s the frustrating thing about both Pexton’s piece and the response it has engendered. Discussing whether news organizations should or shouldn’t innovate is silly and pointless. Of course they should. Every industry must. The conversation needs to be about making smart choices and maintaining standards, and how to do that in a challenging business and technological environment. To his credit, Pexton raised those questions. To his detriment, he fails to fully explore them.

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One thought on “On Innovation

  1. I have emailed Pexton asking him to implore the powers-that-be to give WaPo readers a way to turn off @mentionmachine. The URL where the Post explains how the toolbar works is no longer accepting comments.

    I tried using a Firefox add-on to block the toolbar, but that didn’t do the trick. (The “hide this” button does not succeed in hiding the entire toolbar, just the head shots and #s.

    The problem is with “innovations” that add no value, and in fact likely slow down the loading of pages on the Post’s already slow web site. One obvious result will be that Post news stories will not reach their intended audience as quickly as they could. Another is that people might stop surfing the site.

    If the Post spent less money on dumb “innovations” and more on news gathering, it would — presumably — have more content for readers, which, after all, is what readers really want — not figures on the number of Twitter mentions Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have. That kind of information is, frankly, meaningless.

    But since the Post paid for @mm to be developed, I assume it won’t pull the plug on it, or even give people a way of blocking it. That’s too bad.

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