Dear Patrick Pexton, innovation is not a synonym for new

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 8 January 2012

The Washington Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton has claimed that the paper is “innovating too fast.”

I should imagine it will be news to many observers of our industry that news organisations are innovating at all, let alone too fast.

“I want The Post to continue to innovate” he says, ignoring the fact that many of the things he lists in his post are simply “new”, rather than innovative. And many of the problems he raises have nothing to do with technology.

If, as Pexton says “Staffers point out that The Post has 108 blogs; the New York Times has only 62 but with a much larger staff to fill them”, that isn’t a symptom of too much innovation. That is a symptom of poorly focused or marshalled editorial resources.

If, as Pexton says, one reader writes that the Post has recently had a spate of “spelling mistakes, grammatical mishaps and factual errors”, that isn’t a symptom of too much innovation. That is a symptom of a sloppy production process.

If “gewgaws, bells, whistles and features” are making it difficult for people to use your website, that isn’t a symptom of innovation. That is a symptom of not thinking enough about the user experience of your digital products.

Pexton lists She the People as an example of “innovation”. Publishing the writing of women may have been innovative for an 18th century newspaper, but really, in 2012, a collection of female bylines is “innovating too fast”? Really?

Thank goodness there is a lipstick smudge on the logo, otherwise I might even have been tempted for a second to think that the section didn’t patronise the target audience as Jessica Valenti eloquently explains here.

I’m in favour of systems that mean a news organisation has an editor or ombudsman to be the “voice of the reader” in the building - but Pexton’s column must be so demoralising if you work in digital at the Post. Especially as with things like the social reader the company has been doing much more interesting things in the digital space than creating a ghetto for female op-ed pieces.

The Post’s managing editor of online Raju Narisetti has responded to Craig Silverman at Poynter. His reply is worth reading in full, but this paragraph stood out:

“The Post’s future is going to play out at the intersection of technology and content because 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 is the only message about innovation that the industry needs to be hearing right now if it wants to retain and attract digital talent.

Last year, when a survey of editors in the UK expressed the opinion that digital training didn’t particularly matter for those coming into the newsroom, Alison Gow blogged passionately about the impact on existing digital staff:

“As a digital journalist, you have more skills than most of your colleagues: your toolbox includes soundslides, video, running multiple social media accounts, creating unique online content, and the ability to rewrite (or just write) webheads that are SEO-ed, add photographs, embed multimedia, move the the sports pages football splash out of the Tennis story list where it’s inexplicably ended up, the list goes on. If an editor doesn't think that’s at least as important as what’s being done elsewhere in the newsroom, what sort of message does it send out?”

The really sad thing for me is the wider message Pexton’s column sends out about our entire industry.

It seems that for every group of people desperately working hard on creative digital products within news organisations to try and get them out of the hole that the diminishing returns of print advertising have got us into, there are high profile people making public statements which make us all look like dinosaurs.

1 Comment

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has a great take on this: Dear WaPo: Innovating too quickly is not the problem

Keep up to date on my new blog