End the culture wars in journalism (wishful thinking)

Cuts at the Washington Post, primarily on the web and multimedia side according to the Politico, have brought into public a discussion that usually happens in newsrooms and mostly after hours amongst journalists. It has also exposed the depth of the division between digital and print journalists that has existed to varying degrees for most of my career.

Matthew Ingram, blogger and communities editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, discusses some of the specific issues at the Washington Post, but he is right in pointing out that the web-versus-print culture clash is anything but isolated to the Post:

(This kind of us-vs-them animosity) may have been amplified at the Post by the company’s physical and corporate structure (and there has been speculation that Web staff were let go because otherwise they would have had to be unionized), but you can bet this same battle is going on at virtually every major newspaper in North America. Why? Because they are caught between two worlds.

This isn’t isolated to North America. I’ve seen it across Europe, Australia and the parts of Asia I’ve visited.

To see this animosity in its full froth, just check out the comments on the report on the cuts at Washington indy, The City Paper. A commenter only identified as Sideshow Mel says:

For many years, The Post’s website was doing nothing more than posting the print articles, and hosting some online chats. But the web operation has this huge, spacious office to place things on the Internet, while the much-despised MSM reporters and editors were crammed together into an old, crappy space while actually doing the business of obtaining information and writing it. “the most productive and innovative employees,” don’t make me piss my pants. …

Jim Brady, former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, does not truck with such comments, writing:

It’s the attitude of Stone Age commenters like these that still pervades far too many print newsrooms. Instead of attempting to adapt to what is clearly a digital future, they complain about the world collapsing around them, yet demean anyone who tries to do anything differently.

As he points out, Travis Fox, who won the first national Emmy for video journalism on the web, and fellow award-winning video journalist Pierre Kattar are reportedly two of those cut. On Twitter, Jim and Ken Sands, the executive editor for innovation at Congressional Quarterly, had a exchange that is another indication of how digital editors feel about this conflict.

jimbradysp: The most frustrating thing is that Web staffers go to work at newspapers b/c they want to help them find the way to the future…

jimbradysp: And, yet, once there, they find themselves ridiculed and demeaned by those they’re trying to help. Too much insecurity, I guess.

kensands: @jimbradysp Yes, insecurity. Find fault with anything new (blogs, twitter, etc.) instead of looking for ways it might improve journalism.

Derek Willis, a database journalist and developer formerly at the Washington Post and now with the New York Times, adds details to the internal battle that broke out when he wanted to make the switch from the paper to the website. I met Derek in the spring of 2007 as he was trying to make the transition. I wasn’t aware of the challenges he was facing in making it (Derek’s emphasis, not mine):

In a very real way, my transition was held up – I (jokingly at first, and then angrily) referred to it as a filibuster or a senatorial hold – by a few people at the paper. These people, most of whom no longer occupy the positions they held then, are not stupid. They are among the smartest folks I’ve ever worked with, and I have a high regard for their journalistic abilities. But the thinking that caused the editor of the paper to become involved in whether a mid-level staffer moved to the website was, in essence, this: this is a bad idea, because it will hurt the paper. My ego might like to think that this was really true, but I think the reality is that these people could not compare the value of my work for the website to the paper because they did not understand what it is I wanted to do.

Read Derek’s post, especially if you believe yourself to be on the print side of this divide. Derek wishes that he had done more to bridge the divide between the paper and the website.

The dangers of this continued conflict

I’m highlighting this discussion because I know it’s not isolated to the Washington Post. A couple of years ago, I thought this discussion was dying out. Digital revenues were growing by double digits at many news organisations, although in real terms revenue from print still made up the bulk of the revenues. Despite a firmly entrenched belief amongst print journalists, the digital side of many news organisations were generating profits by the early part of this decade, although again, they were small relative to the profits from the print business. Sadly the Great Recession has re-opened the discussion and amplified professional divisions as job security has ended for print and digital journalists.

In 2005, I went to the Web+10 Conference at the Poynter Institute with my manager at the time, Steve Herrmann of the BBC News website. It was an honour to spend time with digital pioneers from the US and elsewhere. In 2005, these pioneers were already asking this question: How do we create digital businesses to support quality journalism? It’s worth reading Howard Finberg’s summary of the conference:

During the next 10 years, will the economic underpinnings of the current media business collapse? What business models will support quality journalism? Is the idealism and democratic value of journalism under duress?

This was early 2005 before the industry in the US entered its current crisis. Some of the best digital minds in the industry saw the coming collapse of the business model. We weren’t dancing on grave of print. We have the same goal as print advocates and most of us, being so close to the digital business, saw 2009 coming years ago. (Few of us probably foresaw the ferocity of this recession, although Dan Gillmor blogged often about the housing bubble and bemoaned the lack of coverage of it.)

We have to end this culture war and remember that we share a common goal. Suw and I see this in a lot of industries, not just journalism. People see digital strategies as mostly about technology, but often, the biggest obstacles are cultural and territorial. Change challenges existing empires (and emperors) in organisations. Organisations without a sense of shared vision will tear themselves apart as managers compete against each other for scarce resources rather than the real competition outside of their organisation. This is not to argue for change for the sake of change. But the world has changed and we have to adapt if we hope to have thriving journalism businesses in the future that support quality reporting.

What’s at stake? I agree with Steve Buttry when he says that the ‘web-first’ wars are in many ways fighting the last war. I thought we had put this web war behind us in journalism but if we continue to fight it, we will only increase the number of casualties.

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