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The Washington Post knew it had a hot story on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For months, ace reporters Dana Priest and Anne V. Hull had been rounding up horrifying anecdotes about the center’s treatment of soldiers and Marines wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. One recovering soldier had a cluster of black mold in his room; another was left to walk, disoriented, around the center’s campus; hundreds were essentially forgotten by the Walter Reed bureaucracy.
The blockbuster investigative series debuted in the Post on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007. But an information-hungry public got a preview the night before. In a video, Priest described life in Walter Reed’s Building 18: “Conditions here are far from ideal: mold and peeling wallpaper, shower rot, mice and cockroaches.”
That kind of multimedia pre-story hype is just why the Post invests so many dollars in washingtonpost.com, the dynamic site that tallies about 9 million unique visitors per month and regularly ranks among the top news sites in the country.
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.
Priest’s editors had passed word along to washingtonpost.com. But weak partnerships yield underwhelming Web presentations, and the Priest-Hull stories had little of the dressing that commonly accompanies the paper’s big investigative projects. “It was fine, but that was all it was,” says Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com.
In their defense, Priest and Hull didn’t publicize the Walter Reed investigation in their own newsroom. The stories were a hush-hush proposition, rendered vaguely on story budgets and kept from folks who were routinely in the loop. Web-site staffers, though, occupied their own rung on the bottom of the ladder. “We kept [the story] from them because we hadn’t worked for them that much, and we were really worried about any kind of leaking,” says Priest, who worked more fully with washingtonpost.com on subsequent parts of the series.
Priest’s candid words flesh out a melodrama to which just about every newspaper across the country is contributing a chapter or two. It’s all about control—the news people and the Web people are grappling over who hires whom, who edits what, who pays for what, and who gets what first.
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.
And why wouldn’t it? The scrum for control of the Washington Post’s future, after all, shuffles back and forth across the Potomac River. Priest, Hull, and hundreds of other Post editorial types work downtown. Their dot-com associates, meanwhile, do their biz in the Arlington offices of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), the online publishing subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. (WPNI also manages Newsweek.com, Slate, BudgetTravel.com, Sprig.com, and TheRoot.com.)
Via subway, the trip spans five stops and a total of 20 minutes . By car, you’re looking at 16 minutes over 3.4 miles in optimal traffic conditions. Whatever the mode, the trek deters all but dedicated Web-paper collaborators. “The way traffic is these days, it takes half a day just to get out there,” says Lucian Perkins, a longtime photographer for the Post.
No wonder, then, that Priest hadn’t worked with her Internet peers too much.
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.
Last week, the Post made a gesture toward unifying the two operations: It created a new unit, Washington Post Media, and named Katharine Weymouth as its CEO. Weymouth, the granddaughter of legendary publisher Katharine Graham, promises to bring new vigor to the relationship between Web and print operations, in part because she has spent long spells in key positions on both sides of the river. The physical separation, however, will remain. “I don’t think the river is the issue,” says Weymouth. “If people decide that it makes more sense to have certain teams sit together, I’m open to that.”
Other papers, meanwhile, have abandoned the Post’s separate-but-unequal model. A year ago, the Los Angeles Times integrated its news and Web functions after an internal report called the paper “Web-stupid.” The New York Times began combining its Web-paper operations in August 2005 and accelerated the process when it moved to a new building last spring. “It’s very much a two-way street,” says Jonathan Landman, the Times’ deputy managing editor and top editorial voice on the Web site.
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.
“Our main message to the staff is, ‘A merger is a nonissue,’” says Downie. “‘The issue is how can we work more closely together toward mutual goals.’”
Yet in another breath, the Post’s top editor acknowledges that perhaps the clearest route to those goals isn’t now an option. “We can’t just walk into each other’s offices all the time,” he says.
In 2004, Post veteran Fred Barbash was working the early shift at the paper’s Continuous News desk, an outpost established to funnel breaking news to the Web site. As he went about his duties, Barbash came across a fine piece of journalism by someone at washingtonpost.com. Fine enough, anyway, that Barbash felt compelled to send a compliment across the river, via e-mail.
Barbash’s words of praise bounced around a bit in the dot-com offices, as he was to discover. He later got an e-mail back, but not from the person he complimented. It was from another dot-com staffer. “He said there was no call for the tone of voice,” recalls Barbash.
Barbash picked up the phone and clarified that he actually meant what he wrote.
Just another exemplar of electronic mail’s failure to convey nuance? Perhaps not. “People were easily misunderstood,” says Barbash, noting that staffers had attitude problems on both sides of the divide.
By the time of Barbash’s misadventure in morale-boosting, the two operations had already spent around eight years working on the same mission from separate offices. Washingtonpost.com launched on June 17, 1996, from Arlington, an “enterprise…driven by a sense of excitement at being at the forefront of a new medium with boundless possibilities,” according to the authorized history of washingtonpost.com.
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.
Post big shots generally change the terms of the conversation when asked about labor unions and washingtonpost.com. A common reply: That’s something you’ll have to figure out yourself. Or: I think it’s pretty clear why they’re over there.
As for on-the-record testimony, Feaver furnishes this bit of insight: “I never asked [Don Graham], and he never volunteered anything on the guild question.”
At a staff meeting last week, Graham did acknowledge wide-ranging frustrations with the current Web-print structure. He declined, however, to comment for this story.
Perhaps the big boss isn’t too eager to defend the thinking that’s so often attributed to him. The stated reason for the separation, after all, is crumbling: Washingtonpost.com has solidified its identity as an innovator in this medium and has the accolades to prove it too, including the first-ever national Emmy for Web video journalism, Edward R. Murrow awards, and a Peabody Award for “Being a Black Man,” among others. The site is starting to pay off, too: In 2006, washingtonpost.com ad revenues were 14.5 percent of Post ad revenues.
So just what does the separation accomplish in the late ’00s?
Well, it’s still doing a pretty effective job of keeping people apart. At a meeting for all newsroom staff in mid-October, a Postie pressed Downie on the prospects for a Web-paper merger. The editor repeated the company line that there were no plans either to come together or to remain separate forever.
Then came another question from the floor: Since Web issues often get discussed in these all-staff meetings, why aren’t there any representatives from washingtonpost.com in attendance?
The answer was that the Internet people couldn’t make it that day. They were out of town.
As for dot-com’s inconsistent attendance at these get-togethers, Brady notes, “A lot of times we just don’t know far enough ahead of time when those meetings will be.”
Let the Competition Begin
We can't make City Paper without you
The Going Out Gurus figure among the stars of the Post’s Web site. The team of specialists on fun is based at the dot-com operation, where they churn out a blog and a popular weekly chat titled “Got Plans?” Like their counterparts at many newspapers, the Going Out Gurus have a strong command of their region’s food and entertainment scenes. Unlike their counterparts at many newspapers, they cover so much more than eating, drinking, and culturing. Readers know it, too. In an October chat, for instance, a visitor to washingtonpost.com posed the following question to the Gurus:
“Help ’Rus, I need someone who can steam or press a thick satin wedding dress in the Chantilly/Vienna/Fairfax area. Thanks!”
The answer—Imperial Gown Restoration—came from Janet Bennett, the Gurus’ very own shopping specialist. For that day’s questions on music, food, bars, and where Nightmare Before Christmas would be showing in 3-D, there were six Gurus on the case.
According to dot-com officials, “Got Plans?” regularly ranks among the top 10 most trafficked chats on the site, which pulls off 30 to 40 chats a week. The feature, which is part of washingtonpost.com’s City Guide, pleases the site’s money people, too, because it draws a young crowd of future brides and mobile professionals who have some big purchases in front of them.
Yet the Gurus’ fandom lags in the Weekend section of the Post’s newsroom. That cluster has long complained about the prominent exposure that washingtonpost.com bestows on its in-house entertainment experts. On the other hand, Weekend content, goes the sentiment, gets buried.
An example: Both Weekend and washingtonpost.com cover the Fringe Festival, the sprawling theater celebration that hits the city each summer. “Theirs takes priority,” says a newsroom source.
In the words of another source: “They want to champion themselves and…they made it difficult to find Weekend. They did it at the expense of one of the most-read, self-sufficient, and profitable sections of the paper.”
The ugly job of complaining to dot-commers about Weekend’s Web visibility long fell to the section’s former editor, Joyce Jones. According to various Posties, Jones had a tense relationship with her washingtonpost.com counterparts, with the spats often centering on how hard it was to find Weekend content on washingtonpost.com. (Jones did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) In the eyes of her fellow Weekenders, Jones was sticking up for them, fighting the good fight.
From dot-com’s perspective, Weekend blew its chance to chart its future on the Web. In the early ’00s, reps from the Web site approached Weekend in hopes of crafting a partnership for lighting up the Internet. Howard Parnell, the Arlington operative who spearheaded the effort, says that the discussions followed a certain pattern. “I think that where the lively discussions took place was where they said, ‘Why not just call this Weekend on the Web,’” remembers Parnell.
Like any self-respecting Webbie, Parnell said no—the Web required a different product, not just some repurposed print content.
With that, the two sides essentially retreated to their respective bunkers and did their own thing. “We sort of agreed to disagree in order to make progress with what we were doing online,” says Parnell, who now works for the Web site of WNYC. According to Brady: “Some sections [of the Post] engaged with the Web, some didn’t.”
Years later, Weekend, like the rest of the paper, decided that the Internet was for real, a great platform for its cumulative work on Washington leisure. By that time, though, it had formidable competition from the City Guide and its Going Out Gurus.
Here’s where Posties learn the painful lesson that Brady and his people can arrange content on the Web site however they see fit. If the Web site’s managers decide that the Gurus have something good cooking, they’ll give them a nice foothold on the home page. They’ll try to accommodate Weekend, but they’re not going to do it at the expense of their own content providers. “Now that Weekend is working with us, I don’t want to just throw the Gurus under the bus,” says Brady.
True, the Gurus versus Weekend won’t go down as one of the Washington Post’s great battles. At the same time, it’s more than just another round of flannel-assed newsroom bitching. The little set-to shows just what happens when the dot-com people start acting like a news organization.
Many people in the Post newsroom would prefer that their peers at washingtonpost.com restrict themselves to technical stuff. Post the brilliant news stories that come from 15th and L, put together slide shows, edit the videos, and go home. But it doesn’t work that way.
Of the 100 employees on the editorial side of washingtonpost.com, 10 provide content of one sort or another, a count that jumps to 20 if you add in contract writers and bloggers. Once their bylines go up on the Web, they become the competition.
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.”
Duplication of functions has a way of offending journalists who are feeling the pain of budget cuts. Why is dot-com paying for nightlife coverage and political coverage when the main newsroom does the same things—and is losing staff via early retirement offers and attrition? Such considerations merely stoke the outrage when Posties see techies typing into their turf. The annoyance extends beyond just the Weekend pod.
• Style: After Posties Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts launched their version of the Reliable Source in September 2005, the Web bosses approached them with a blog idea. They wanted wall-to-wall coverage of pop culture and celebrities on the site, the better to extend washingtonpost.com’s national reach. The columnists did some prototypes before bagging the whole notion. A national celebrity blog, they said, didn’t mix with the Reliable Source’s usual grist of items on local luminaries.
The Web operation took the undeterred route, launching Celebritology, a gossipy blog written by Liz Kelly.
Enter rancor. 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.
Brady returns the scoffing, noting that not even a Web force as formidable as washingtonpost.com can promote a blog into respectability. “The great thing about the Web is that it’s a meritocracy,” he says. “You can put something on the home page all day long and promote it, but if it doesn’t connect with people, you’re just not going to build an audience for it.”
• National Desk: Late last year, the Post hired washingtonpost.com congressional blogger Paul Kane to a full-time job downtown. At the same time that the move filled an important void in the paper’s political coverage, it left one at the Web operation, where Kane’s frequent online postings had built a following.
The captains of the print operation then proposed to dot-com’s Brady that they manage the congressional blog.
Brady said no thanks—we’ll deal with that.
A polite offer and an equally polite refusal: This is how power struggles are articulated at the contemporary Washington Post. Here, the paper’s ranking editors were served another reminder that they controlled only part of the franchise. “They weren’t happy,” says a Post newsroom source.
Brady has a milder take on the matter. “It was a nice offer. I’m glad that they volunteered to do it, but I think for our purposes, we wanted to keep somebody who was still Web-focused,” he says.
The Kane thing recalls the mythic flap over Dan Froomkin’s Web column, a staple of washingtonpost.com whose origins lie with Graham. According to Feaver, it was Graham who argued that the site needed a regular feature “on the White House for the junkies,” in Feaver’s words.
From that discussion sprung Froomkin’s “White House Briefing,” an online-only column that launched in January 2004. The column’s editorial approach, notes Feaver via e-mail, was “newsy but not opinionated.” When Brady took over in 2005, though, he decided to “just let it rip,” writes Feaver.
Months of letting it rip touched off a backlash in the newsroom. By December 2005, John Harris, then the paper’s national political editor, was telling the Post ombudsman that Froomkin’s column would never pass muster in the newsroom. “It dilutes our only asset—our credibility,” said Harris, who argued that the column’s opinions tainted the paper’s objective political coverage.
The tepid solution was to move Froomkin’s work under the site’s Opinion banner and change its name from “White House Briefing” to “White House Watch.”
L’affaire Froomkin combusted in a newsroom enamored of the boundaries between itself and the dot-com operation. It’s one of the pettiest chapters in the paper’s digital adventure. Take the example of hotshot political reporter Chris Cillizza. He’s a classic new-world journalist, active on his blog, “The Fix,” as well as on regular old news stories. 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.
Because of Downie’s generosity—or perhaps in spite of it—the politics staffs at the two institutions work closely together on day-to-day coverage. Cillizza works from 15th and L on big primary nights to write the paper’s critical “lead-all.” Both crews work on “The Trail,” a well-received diary of tidbits on national politics that appears both online and in the print product. “That’s a sail that has very little drag on it,” says Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett of the political cooperation. “It’s working, and I think that the proof is in the journalism that’s being produced which, from my point of view, is an extraordinary model going forward.”
Questions of Taste
The Food section of the Post won’t endorse just any old recipe. Whether the concoction is 12-Hour Tomatoes or Sausages with Cider Glaze, you can bet that a volunteer has rounded up the toasted, ground cumin seeds (for the tomatoes) or the Jonagold apples (sausages) and fired up a sample batch. In December, for example, Food published recipes for more than 20 varieties of holiday cookies, each with its own testing disclosure.
This is the way it works: The tester buys the ingredients, hauls them home, and cooks. Expenses get billed back to the Post, an institution that has never shied from investing in journalism, be it investigative, spot news, fluff, online, or service. Eight full-time staffers plus a little army of freelancers produce coverage of the local dining and food scene—a robust national news desk in many papers around the country.
The generous newsroom budget funds not only comprehensive coverage but also an institutional seriousness of mission, of which tested recipes are just one small component. Dot-com managers learned this lesson in talks leading up to the March 2007 launch of washingtonpost.com’s “Recipe Finder.”
The Post’s Webbies were excited about building a virtual community of foodies through a recipe database. Let people throw recipes up there, the thinking went, and subject them to popular review. Unleash the power of the Internet to act as a giant self-cleaning oven, dissing the bad recipes for Sausages with Cider Glaze and elevating the good ones.
Newsroom folk weren’t biting. There was just no appetite for mixing Washington Post-approved recipes with ideas thrown up on the site by any schmo with an Internet connection. “Yeah, great—just poison the readers,” sniffed one longtime Post staffer when apprised of dot-com’s ideas.
Bonnie Benwick, assistant editor at the paper’s Food section, says the disparate visions for Recipe Finder weren’t “anything that people stalked out of a meeting about.” Interactivity, acknowledges Benwick, is “a lot of what draws people into the Web, but it became to me a matter of recipe quality.”
The dead-tree squad won this particular battle. Recipes in the Finder carry the same “Tested by” tags that appear in the paper, a huge point of pride among newsroom food types.
Yet dot-commers apparently don’t view this whole testing thing as a selling point for Recipe Finder. A kickoff announcement on washingtonpost.com stated that the tool “lets users search a growing database of more than 1,000 recipes that have appeared in The Washington Post newspaper and on washingtonpost.com.”
No mention whatsoever that they all pass the vaunted Washington Post test.
Brady appreciates the newsroom’s cooperation in putting together the recipe function. But he’s not worried that a more interactive product would harm dot-com’s precious users. “Sites have been doing this for a long time, and I have yet to read the first story about somebody getting botulism from them,” he says.
Anonymous comments: Why does Sports get to run them, but not Metro? When it comes to readers’ thoughts,
the Post hasn’t quite thought it out.
The Virginia crowd is still pushing its vision on recipes, according to Nancy Kerr, washingtonpost.com’s assistant managing editor of features. A first step, she says, is to provide users a space to comment on the recipes.
Oh no, reader comments!
No issue parts the two institutions like the ability of readers to hop on washingtonpost.com and post nasty, offensive messages. Washingtonpost.com was a pioneer in facilitating comments on all stories, and many newsroom staffers were slow to get over it. Internal newsroom message boards have repeatedly lit up over the hate speech that makes it onto the site. The debate flared up last November, following the racist comments that hit washingtonpost.com in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Redskins safety Sean Taylor. Some Posties have proposed bagging the comments altogether.
Newsroom staffers frame the clash as a question of tastes and standards. As in, those people have none, and we do. The cry from the other side of the river is that the newsroom doesn’t get the Web. So long as the two organizations remain separate, those aspersions will continue crisscrossing the river, carrying more than just a nugget of truth with them.
It’s hard, after all, to expect washingtonpost.com to soak up the journalistic culture of the Washington Post. Newspapers don’t codify their standards and ethical sensibilities in a companywide memo. The process is far too sprawling and random: An editor kills a story over inadequate sourcing, a reporter makes a Jayson Blair joke on the elevator, a discussion breaks out in the cafeteria—can Woodward really reconstruct all those high-level conversations? Dot-com operatives, hunkered down in Virginia, miss out on all of it.
“We definitely spend a lot of time trying to educate the people at the Web about the culture of the newsroom and the people downtown in the ways and customs of the Web,” says Liz Spayd, one of washingtonpost.com’s top editors.
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.
The New York Times accomplishes the same end without stressing the subway system. “It’s a great cross-pollination,” says Landman of the Times’ combined operation. “The producers get much more experience and journalistic depth that these [news] guys provide, and they give some great Web savvy and imagination, and you put that together and you’re off to the races.”
At the Post, Web and news personnel tend to spend a bit more time stuck in the starting gate. The downloading of institutional memory from one place to another occasionally runs into bandwidth problems.
Last July, Post gossip columnist Amy Argetsinger was making some calls on David Vitter, the Louisiana senator whose phone number had shown up in the phone records of the famous “D.C. Madam.” After the story bounced all over the country, a New Orleans madam spoke up with allegations that Vitter had been a client of her brothel.
Argetsinger was all over it, nailing an interview with the Southern madam and pushing it toward publication. But her editor, Steve Reiss, spiked the story on sourcing grounds, arguing that the Post account rested precariously on the word of the New Orleans madam. Says Argetsinger via e-mail: “Reiss was aware that everyone else was writing about her but said that we can’t use that as an excuse—in essence, that the Post had to take the higher moral ground.” Argetsinger rushed to find a replacement item.
The next day, the columnist set out to “revisit” the Vitter issue. She pumped “New Orleans madam” into Google and found that the first story to pop up came from the Post. Turns out that washingtonpost.com had piped into the Web site an AP version of the very same story that a Style editor had just killed.
Argetsinger wasn’t mad; she was encouraged. Now she had an argument for her editors: Hey, if we have the AP story on our site, why can’t we publish our own version? “I guess I was arguing, ‘look, the Post’s already tainted here,’” writes Argetsinger via e-mail. Not tainted enough: When the issue reached the desk of top editor Downie, he sided with Argetsinger’s editor.
“Two different companies and two different standards operating under the same rubric”—that’s how Argetsinger sums it up.
The Web leadership acknowledges promoting the story of the New Orleans madam. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years,” says Brady, “and there’s still a lot of things we’re still trying to figure out.”
An Image Problem
The photography department of the Post and the multimedia division of washingtonpost.com never got along well. The competition between operations, the struggle for control, the fights over standards, the sneering—every aspect of the Washington Post’s digital dysfunction pops up in photography-multimedia.
This control drama featured key managers on both sides of the river: Joe Elbert served as the Post’s assistant managing editor for photography since 1988 before stepping down late last year. Tom Kennedy has served as washingtonpost.com’s managing editor for multimedia for 10 years.
For as long as they worked together, they fought. “Tom and I are both strong-willed control freaks that are like two dinosaurs going at it,” says Elbert. Kennedy cops to being strong-willed but denies the control freak and dinosaur charges.
The top dogs at the Post have no qualms about acknowledging the conflict. “There was an enormous amount of tension between the two,” says Downie.
But the explanation steers away from the systemic: “It was a classic personality clash,” says Downie. “Elbert and Kennedy’s personalities clashed—I’m not saying whose fault it was and, believe me, we tried to find out so we could chastise the right person.”
The real story, as always, is a bit more complicated.
Elbert, 60, and Kennedy, 57, are both franchise names in the business of newspaper photography. Their career paths crossed around 30 years ago, when Kennedy was working at the Gainesville Sun and Elbert at the Miami Herald. From there, both moved on and up, with Elbert joining the Post and Kennedy landing big jobs at the Philadelphia Inquirer and National Geographic before moving to washingtonpost.com.
In this riverine rivalry, Elbert had the manpower advantage. As the Post’s top photography editor, he bossed around a staff of approximately 30 photographers and editors, compared to Kennedy’s 16-member dot-com staff (which includes part-timers).
Elbert did his job with flair. Under his watch, the Post hauled in three photography Pulitzers. Prone to colorful newsroom outbursts, he was the type of manager who motivated with candor and brevity. Former Post photographer Juana Arias recalls sending in some work she’d done tracking Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Elbert took a look at the pictures and had a simple message: “Juana, if you don’t get better images, don’t come back,” according to Arias.
Skepticism figured big in Elbert’s shtick, a quality that he applied not only to his colleagues’ work but also to technology trends. “Joe doesn’t just jump on the newest, latest bandwagon. He waits it out to see what sticks and what doesn’t,” says Michael Lutzky, a former Post photographer.
Adapting to the Web, accordingly, went pretty slowly inside Elbert’s shop. Photography sources say he clung to an ideology that favored still photography as the Web matured. Elbert says that dot-com’s embrace of the latest in Web technologies afforded him that luxury. “[Tom] was going to do one medium, and we were going to feed him our stills, so from a really selfish point of view it was fantastic. I really didn’t have to worry about the Web site,” says Elbert.
Elbert’s loyalties to the legacy of the Washington Post were clear to anyone trying to manage images at washingtonpost.com. The two operations exchange photos through a program made by MerlinOne, a Quincy, Mass.-based software outfit. As an image works its way through editing, it passes from one “basket” to another in the Merlin program. The largest basket in the software is the first in the chain of editorial custody. Known as the “staff basket,” it’s the hopper into which Post photographers on assignment toss their photos.
Photo editors in the Post’s newsroom had full access to the staff basket; their counterparts at the dot-com operation had none. They could glimpse the roster of images only when staffers at 15th and L sent the green light. Sometimes that wouldn’t occur till the wee hours of the morning.
Thanks to basket protocol, the supposed guardians of the Post’s future couldn’t even get a look at the present.
One former Post insider calls Elbert’s setup a “technical barrier” stopping washingtonpost.com from choosing photos. Whatever the characterization, the frustrations that it caused aren’t hard to fathom. An Internet news site, after all, is an image-devouring machine. If the look of the site doesn’t change visibly throughout the day, visitors will simply click off and try a competing site.
The arrangement caused its share of snafus over the years, most commonly when it was time to cover high-profile events, like a State of the Union address. The Post photography department, of course, always sends shooters to such occasions. But washingtonpost.com couldn’t access their work quickly enough to put together a timely presentation on the site. And so the Web site managers cobbled together a workaround whereby they’d use wire photos to keep the site fresh until they could finally pull down some Post images. “The hard thing about it at times was that the Post photography was strong and rich, and certainly better than what we’d been working with at the time. But they couldn’t alter their rhythms to accommodate us,” says Kennedy.
Those rhythms, says Elbert, accommodated institutional priorities. Before the images could be released, they needed to be culled and edited. Sometimes photos had to clear legal and ethical reviews, for instance. “It really was kind of a hold queue,” says Elbert. “Some of our photographers turn in eight or 10 pictures and only two or three of them are any good. It’s kind of a protection for the photographer. But it turned into we were hiding the good stuff.”
If sending photos across the river was a tension-laden activity, so was trekking over to the dot-com operation. Several current and former photographers say that the very act of visiting washingtonpost.com’s headquarters was almost an authority-defying step. That is, Elbert wanted them producing for the newspaper and that taking time out from work to go across the river was either frowned upon or worse. “It was not fun,” says Post shooter Lucian Perkins.
One dot-com source says that meeting with Post photographers often required a diplomatic touch. The Web site on several occasions arranged rendezvous with photographers on the sly, complete with an explicit agreement that Elbert would not be notified, according to this source. “Whatever game people needed to play to feel secure,” says the source. Brady says, “Photo staffers were rarely here, even though a lot of other people from the newspaper were starting to make their way over.”
Elbert insists he never laid down any rules regarding trips to Virginia. The “genesis” of the problem, he says, “was that a couple people always wanted to go over there and it was more fun to go over there than to take assignments.”
Given those quirks, the two sides struggled to reach the operational intimacy necessary to produce mind-blowing multimedia presentations. “Basically you have a whole photography department that has almost no connection to the Web site,” says a Post editor.
In an April 2006 online chat, Elbert wrote, “we’re really two separate operations and we haven’t sorted out what to do down the road, stay tuned…”
Some business school would do well to examine Post photography versus dot-com multimedia as a case study in runaway “soft costs.” Brady, the top dot-com editorial manager, spent about a year trying to bridge the differences. Spayd also sunk untold hours into the project. Here’s Downie on the subject: “It was a serious problem, and we tried to deal with it in many different ways.…It drove us crazy, and it drove the senior editors at washingtonpost.com crazy.”
A bus ride accomplished something that high-level attention couldn’t. Last year, virtually the entire photography department of the Post piled in for a trip over to dot-com. By all accounts, the ensuing discussion broke little ground, but at least both sides gave lip service to the imperative of working together. “I came back shaking my head and said, ‘We could solve all these problems if we were in the same location. What do you say we all work together?’” recalls Dayna Smith, who formerly worked on the Post’s picture desk.
Months later came a breakthrough, at least in the eyes of dot-com: Longtime photography ace Michel duCille attended the congressional hearings that featured testimony from Gen. David H. Petraeus and beamed photos to washingtonpost.com. “That was tremendously helpful,” says Kennedy. “It was the first time we were really able to work a situation like that in real time.”
DuCille, however, isn’t assigning watershed status to the moment. “To me that wasn’t any kind of big breakthrough,” he says. Look here: The two sides can’t even agree on compliments.
DuCille is now running the photography department, following Elbert’s departure from that position in November.
Barriers have fallen, too. Washingtonpost.com, for starters, can now track the staff basket. “I got so sick of it,” says Elbert, referring to the pressure from Virginia. “I said, ‘Just open it up, just open it up, I don’t care if I get sued.’”
Day-to-day communication has improved in the Kennedy-duCille world—proof that if you give the Post about a decade, it can begin solving its Web site problems.
As for Elbert, he says that a lot of good intentions got lost in the space between the two operations. “If you can look eyeball to eyeball, things don’t get out of control like they have,” he says. “You’re able to read people.” He has returned to his roots as a photographer, and he’s learning to shoot video.